Voices of the Warsaw Ghetto unearthed

With International Holocaust Remembrance Day coming up on January 27, new film ‘Who Will Write Our History?’ tells the story of the ‘Oyneg Shabes’ heroes

A street scene in Poland. (photo credit: ANNA WLOCH)
A street scene in Poland.
(photo credit: ANNA WLOCH)
It was all hidden under a building in the middle of the Warsaw Ghetto – the remarkable archive of life in the ghetto compiled by the “Oyneg Shabes,” a fiercely dedicated group of some 60 individuals organized in 1940 by the indefatigable intellectual leader, Emanuel Ringelblum.
The archive was eventually and quite remarkably retrieved in September of 1946, long after the Germans had destroyed the ghetto and deported and murdered virtually all of its inhabitants.
But even after its discovery, the archive remained relatively unknown to the rest of the world, until the appearance of Who Will Write Our History?, the masterful history of the enterprise written by Samuel D. Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Kassow’s exhaustive volume was first published by Vintage Books in 2009.
And now Kassow’s important work is being given additional light as a documentary film by director Roberta Grossman through Katahdin Productions. Among Grossman’s other well-known documentary achievements is Above and Beyond, the epic story of the founding of the Israel Air Force. Nancy Spielberg is the executive producer of Who Will Write Our History? Grossman speaks of the great importance of telling the story of the “incredible heroes” of the Oyneg Shabes.
“The goal of the film is to ‘popularize’ in the best sense of the word,” she says, “to make accessible the story to a wide audience...
“The thing that fuels me is that I truly believe that it is the most important unknown story of the Holocaust, and it’s outrageous to me that Ringelblum is not a household name at least among Jewish people, if not beyond. So that’s my motivation.”
Grossman recalls her own singular dedication to the subject: “I’ve been reading and studying about the Holocaust since I was in junior high... so I was very, very surprised that I had never heard of this story, I had never heard of the archives, I had never heard of Ringelblum, I had never heard of the Oyneg Shabes.”
Grossman puts the Oyneg Shabes story to film with an overriding respect for its history, characterizing the film as a “weave of the writing of members of the Oyneg Shabes and scholar interviews.”
In one of the dramatic excerpts from the film, “Delivery to Archive Hiding Place,” we see one of the members of the Oyneg Shabes, Hersh Wasser, picking up archival materials from Emanuel Ringelblum. Then, risking discovery and arrest by the Nazis, Wasser delivers everything to a drop-off point in what appears to be an abandoned ghetto building.
We are informed by the narrator that, among the artifacts collected about ghetto life, there were “German pronouncements, official and underground newspapers...
white Jewish ribbons with the blue Star of David, jokes, and the songs of beggars....” In addition, there were “diaries, reports about refugees, illness, smuggling... the situation of the Jewish child, the role of women... and about hunger.”
To her great credit, Grossman introduces the audience to the ghetto with a very subtle hand, through the people who lived through the tragedy inside its walls. In one particularly heartbreaking excerpt, “Three Sisters,” we are drawn into a ghetto soup kitchen, which became the subject of an essay by the Oyneg Shabes writer Rachel Auerbach.
We are in a room full of people who have come to partake of the meager soup. There we are introduced to the plight of three refugee sisters, but our acquaintance with them is very short-lived. While one of them at a time shows up for soup for herself and her sisters, tragically at the end only one of them, the third sister, is strong enough to come to the soup kitchen.
Grossman’s film also introduces us to a number of other personages besides Ringelblum, Wasser and Auerbach – these are the writer Abraham Lewin and Rabbi Shimon Huberband.
Each of the key figures in the film, Grossman notes, was “very close to Ringelblum.”
“They were very prolific writers,” she says.
“In the case of Lewin, he wrote all the way through the Great Deportation, even when his wife was deported, and his writing is extremely beautiful....”
Grossman notes that after the war, Wasser played a key role in locating where the archive was buried. Along with his wife Bluma and Auerbach, Wasser was one of the only three survivors of the Oyneg Shabes.
In selecting Rabbi Huberman, Grossman recognized his great human warmth and understanding as he sought to embrace both religious and non-religious Jews.
Others whose writing is heard in the film include an anonymous refugee from Poznan and a 14-year-old refugee girl in the ghetto.
The production schedule for the film included one day of recreations shot in the US and one day in Israel. Eighteen days were shot in Poland. The majority of the actors in the documentary are Polish, given that so many recreations were shot in Poland.
“The lead actors had to learn some of their parts in Yiddish,” says Grossman. “They were wonderful actors, very committed to the project.”
The production designer for the film is the Israeli Frank Gampel, and the actor who plays Rabbi Huberband is also an Israeli, Gera Sandler.
The enterprise partnered with Match and Spark, a Polish production company.
Grossman chose Auerbach to be the film’s narrator for a number of important reasons, including the fact that “she was part of the intellectual world of Yiddishist Jewish intellectuals in Warsaw before the war.”
“She knew Ringelblum,” Grossman says, “she was very engaged in the world of Jewish intellectual life. She was a writer. She was about to flee and was asked by Ringelblum to stay and run a soup kitchen in the ghetto....”
After the war, Auerbach eventually settled in Israel.
“Auerbach continued writing about the archives, about Ringelblum, about Jewish intellectuals for the rest of her life,” the director observes. “So there was this body of work to pull from in terms of before, during and after... that made her an ideal narrator...
she’s the guide in the film.
“She knew what they had gone through to collect everything that was there, she knew that... the voice of her murdered people was buried underground... and she also knew that... you couldn’t write a history of the Warsaw Ghetto without the archives, really of the Holocaust in Poland, because they had information from all over Poland, not just Warsaw.”
Joan Allen, nominated in the past for several Oscars, does Auerbach’s voice in the film. Allen’s voice is also heard in Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, which Grossman directed as well.
The documentary also features Adrien Brody, winner of an Academy Award for best actor in The Pianist, as the voice of Emanuel Ringelblum.
A private premier screening of the film for cast, crew, scholars and organizations is planned between April 18-22 in Warsaw to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
In addition to Prof. Kassow, the primary scholar on the film project, Grossman relied on a number of other scholars in the fields of Polish-Jewish history and the Holocaust.
These include: David Roskies, Sol and Evelyn Henkind chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and Professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary; Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, program director, Core Exhibition for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw; Havi Dreifuss, historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University; Jan Grabowski, Polish historian of the Holocaust and professor at the University of Ottawa; Jacek Leociek, head, Holocaust Literature Studies Department, Institute of Literary Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences; Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University; Yehuda Bauer, professor emeritus, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Antony Polonsky, Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University; Henry Sapoznik, founding director, Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Michael Berenbaum, deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust (1979- 80); Karolina Szymaniak, assistant professor, Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw; Tamar Ketko, head, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Teaching Department, Kibbutzim College of Education, Tel Aviv; and Lisa Moses Leff, whose book The Archive Thief received the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
For readers seeking more detailed information about Who Will Write Our History? the film’s website is whowillwriteourhistory.com, and the Facebook page is www.facebook.com/whowillwriteourhistory.