Communique: New Film "Who Will Write Our History" Drawn From Warsaw Ghetto Archives

Oct 29, 2018

Wilmington Jewish Film Festival holds a special event this Sunday, November 4 - the North Carolina premiere of the film Who Will Write Our History, exploring WWII archival writings from the Warsaw Ghetto. The film was produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Roberta Grossman, and the film is winning awards as well.

Roberta speaks with us via telephone from Los Angeles; listen above and find our extended conversation and a synopsis of the film below. Roberta will be at Thalian Hall this Sunday and answers audience questions following the 7:00 screening. 

Roberta Grossman
Credit Who Will Write Our History

Tickets are available online and at the Thalian Hall Box Office. 

Synopsis

In November 1940, days after the Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a secret band of journalists, scholars and community leaders decided to fight back. Led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and known by the code name Oyneg Shabes, this clandestine group vowed to defeat Nazi lies and propaganda not with guns or fists but with pen and paper. They detailed life in the Ghetto from the Jewish perspective. They commissioned diaries, essays, jokes, poems and songs. They documented Nazi atrocities with eyewitness accounts. They sent reports of mass murder to London via the Polish underground. Then, as trains deported them to the gas chambers of Treblinka and the Ghetto burned to the ground, they buried 60,000 pages of documentation in the hopes that the archive would survive the war, even if they did not.

Now, for the first time, the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes archive is told as a feature documentary. Written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman and executive produced by Nancy Spielberg, Who Will Write Our History mixes the writings of the archive with new interviews, rarely seen footage and stunning dramatizations to transport us inside the Ghetto and the lives of these courageous resistance fighters. Featuring the voices of three-time Academy Award nominee Joan Allen and Academy Award winner Adrian Brody, the film honors the Oyneg Shabes members’ determination in creating the most important cache of eyewitness accounts to survive the war. It follows their moments of hope, as well as their despair, desperation and anger, sometimes at their fellow Jews as much as their Nazi captors. It captures their humor, longing, hunger and their determination to retain their humanity in the face of unspeakable hardships. And ultimately, through their voices, actions and real-time experiences, Who Will Write Our History vanquishes those who distort and dehumanize the “Other” in favor of those who stand up, fight back and, as one Oyneg Shabes member writes, “scream the truth to the world.”

Gina:     I understand that this is a documentary...

Roberta:      After a fashion.

Gina:     After a fashion. It does use real footage.

Roberta:      Oh yes, and interviews with scholars.

Gina:     I want to start with the book because this movie is based directly on the book, Who Will Write Our History: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto. Can you tell me about that book?

Roberta:      Sure. I was actually working on another film when I read a review of this book and that review said that Sam Kassow's book, Who Will Write Our History, was a masterwork of history and an act of historical rescue. So, the story it told was about Emanuel Ringelblum, himself a historian who created a secret archive with 60 other people in the Warsaw ghetto, who risked their lives so that the truth would survive the war even if they didn't. And I thought I knew a lot about this subject, the subject of the Holocaust, but I had never heard this incredible story. And so I immediately got Sam's book and read it from cover to cover and about 10 pages in, I contacted the publisher to see if I could obtain the rights to make a film about it.  

Gina:     You said ten pages in.

Roberta:      Right.

Gina:     So you,were immediately blown away by this book, I take it.

Roberta:      I was immediately blown away by the book and the story that it tells and the story that it tells us about a group of spiritual resisters who had really not been known, outside of scholarly circles. So they did this incredible, incredible thing of saving, writing, collecting, commissioning all these eyewitness testimonies. In fact, the largest, eye witness cache of testimonies to survive the war and they did it so that their story could be told from the Jewish point of view and not from the point of view of the Nazis who obviously didn't think too highly of the Jews. So it was the final act of resistance, which was to try to control the narrative and make sure that the truth would be known after the war in case the unthinkable happened and the Nazis won the war. And to me, that seemed like a very important story in my mind. It's the most important unknown story of the Holocaust. And I'm very, very thrilled that audiences now are having the opportunity to learn about it because the two goals, two primary goals of the archive, the people who created it were to, as I mentioned, were to tell the story from the Jewish point of view and also to be remembered as individuals. And I'm finding that when people sit and watch the movie that inadvertently without even realizing it when they walked in a movie theater, that they're honoring both of these goals. They're learning the history of the Warsaw ghetto from the Jewish point of view. And they're learning about and remembering them Emanuel Ringelblum and his colleagues who created this incredible archive.

Gina:     Can you just tell me a little bit about him?

Roberta:      Yes. Right. Emanuel Ringelblum was a historian, between the two wars in Warsaw. And he was a tireless guy who taught at a Jewish high school, because Jewish PhD historians didn't have any place in a rising antisemitic atmosphere and the universities. So he taught at a girls’ school during the day. At night, he wrote his own historical works. He also taught night classes for workers for his political party. He was a very active party member and in the ghetto, where many people just folded as I know I probably would have folded very quickly, he not only ran the Jewish self-help in the ghetto, which was a huge operation for Jews helping one another, the orphanages, soup kitchens, medical facilities. So he ran that organization in the ghetto. He also created a cultural organization to promote Yiddish culture in the ghetto. And he ran the secret clandestine archive of 60 people who are under the noses of the Germans, recording their crimes, recording the Jewish experience. And not just from the top down, but really everyone--the woman on the street, the children in the orphanages, people who worked for the Jewish government under the Nazis, journalists, writers, artists, really everyone. And he was very egalitarian. His archive tried to tell the story of as many people as possible, to tell the story of as many people as possible and that each individual in the war was a world unto himself. So his goal was really to try to, in a way save, in terms of stories and narratives, as many people as he could in the archive.

Gina:     And how was this archive discovered?

Roberta:      There were only three people of the 60 people who survived the war. There were only three people of the 60 members of the Oyneg Shabes who survived the war. One of them was a woman named Rachel Auerbach and she was very stubborn. And the Warsaw ghetto, and really all of Warsaw was in rubble. The Germans had bombed Warsaw repeatedly until it was really just a heap of rubble, the ghetto in particular. and so it was very difficult, as Sam Kassow says, to find a street, let alone to find a building and the seller in that building within which the archive was hidden. But she was very persistent and another person who survived of the three was a man named Hersch Vasser and he was one of Emanuel Ringelblum's two executive secretaries. And he was the only person who survived who knew where the archive is buried. So between the two of them, they were able to convince those with resources to dig for the archive. Rachel Auerbach kept on saying, "This is our national treasure. We can't leave it underground." And then Vasser was able to work with engineers and others and to find a way to pinpoint where that street and that building was and to dig there. Two of three caches were discovered after the war. One intentionally in 1946 under the direction of Auerbach and Vasser. And also the second in 1950. Polish construction workers were building new housing on the side of the former ghetto. And they accidentally hit and found a two milk cans which contain much better preserve documents than the first 10 boxes that were found. And there was a third cache that was never found and it's believed to have been buried under what is now the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.

Gina:     Do you think that will ever be grabbed from under there?

Roberta:      So in terms of the third cache, which would be so fantastic to have because it covers the period of time between the great deportation in the summer of 1942 and 300,000 Jews who were in the Warsaw ghetto were deported to their deaths in Treblinka and the uprising. There was only 50, 60,000 Jews left in the ghetto. And the uprising happened in April '43, an armed uprising against the Germans, or the Nazis rather. And the third cache covered that period. So it would be really incredible to see documents from that period about how the uprising was organized, how people hid and bunkers, the kind of elaborate bunkers, but they built, whether or not that cache will ever be found, I'd like to leave hope open. But I think it's somewhat unlikely.

Gina:     When did Samuel Kassow publish this book?

Roberta:      I'd have to look at when the book was published. I think it's 2007.

Gina:     So it was a while-why did we have to wait so long to hear about it?

Roberta:      Well, two of the scholars in the film, Sam Kassow and the other one, David Roskies, they have very interesting theories about why the archives essentially remained buried even after it was unearthed after the war. One of them is just a simple, or not so simple, complicated geopolitical factor in Warsaw where the archive remained, at the Jewish historical institute in Warsaw, was behind the Iron Curtain. So it wasn't until the wall came down that, you know, western scholars really could gain access to the archive. So that really brought us up until the late eighties. And also because the archive, as both Sam and David Roskies say, is too honest. It wasn't what people right after the war wanted to hear. They wanted to hear about heroic Warsaw ghetto fighters. They didn't want to hear about people whose resistance took the shape of writing and burying those writings.

And also the archive is too honest. It's completely unfiltered. So it's not good Jews and bad German. Sometimes there's a good German, sometimes there's a bad Jew. There are others, lot of, lot of, lot of complaining against the Judenrat, which was the Jewish government and appointed by the Germans to run the ghetto. Basically the, like the governor or mayor rather of the city and the people who worked under him. And there's an enormous amount of really furious writing about the Jewish police  who participated under the Nazis in the deportation. And there was tremendous amount of hatred towards them. There's Jewish prostitutes, there are Jews who tell the Gestapo where family jewels are hidden, behind a certain painting. And then there's also, of course, incredible stories of courage and community spirit and people giving their last piece of bread to a child. And people who continued to have literary evenings and to run schools for children and to have orchestras playing. So, it's everything. It's not whitewashed in any way. 

Gina:     That is so powerful. That to me is the most powerful way to have it because if it feels authentic. And because that's real humanity.

Roberta:      Right.

Gina:     That's impressive. But I can understand how that's also complicated, especially say right after the war.

Roberta:      Yeah, right after the war, the Jewish people were trying to understand and cope with and mourn this catastrophic event in which 6 million out of, I think there were 14 million Jews in the world before the war, had been murdered. You know, of course it was a rift in civilization that was not the tragedy only of the Jewish people, but as the tragedy of human beings and of civilization. But the Jewish people in particular were, you know, grappling with this enormous event and they didn't necessarily want to hear about people who haven't behaved as they wish they had.

Gina:     And I know that this group is called the Spiritual Resistors, the people who kept this archive. What does that mean?

Roberta:      Well, I think that if you can imagine living basically in hell and still taking the time to go home at night and when you're cold and hungry and write about what you saw and heard that day, so that the truth would be known after the war--German Nazis could be brought to justice after the war, specific individuals and groups--and that should the unthinkable happened and everyone be killed, their voices would still be remembered. Basically, the Nazis would not have succeeded in wiping Jewish memory, Jewish thought, Jewish writing, Jewish poetry, songs, would not have succeeded in wiping those off the face of the earth as had been their goal. So it would be a bitter victory, but be a victory nonetheless. If we didn't have a the Ringelblum archive and these, you know, dozens, hundreds of eyewitness accounts, we would really know very little about what happened in the Warsaw ghetto. And it was a ghetto that was in existence for three and a half years. It wasn't a place where people stop for a minute before they went somewhere to die. It was a living community. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe, shoved in a very small space and figuring out how to live and how to continue being human with one another. And if we had only Nazi documents to rely on, we wouldn't know anything. Imagine, you know, Anne Frank's diary is so famous and rightly so. It's one diary. There's hundreds of diaries in the Ringelblum archive, from the Oyneg Shabes archive.

Gina:     What is the book like?

Roberta:      The book has a lot of excerpts from the archive, but it all for his little scholarly information. There's a lot to it. It's a scholarly book. It's, you know, very thick scholarly book with footnotes and annotations and bibliography and sources. It's very, very thorough. It basically reconstructs the world of post-Jewry starting before World War I, primarily between the wars. And then during the period of the war, it's at the aftermath of finding the archive, so it's a tremendously detailed deep-dive into the history. And so it's not necessarily accessible to people who are not scholars and perhaps don't have the patience to read such a complete work even though it's written very well and in a very compelling way, it still is a scholarly work. And so that was the goal of the film, was to take the book, which is basically like the size of old yellow pages from the five boroughs of New York, and turn it into a film which basically has to be compressed into about the length of a Haiku. Because there's so much information in a film is conveyed visually, you really just can't shove a lot of information into a film in order to have the story be compelling. So that was the work of making the film, was translating the story, finding from my point of view with the essence of the story was, and conveying it in an emotional way that's also historically accurate.

Gina:     Can you tell me some of pieces from the book, some of the ideas from the book or the literal stories that you were like, "okay, definitely this, this, and this." Were there some things that...

Roberta:      Well the book highlights some of the individuals, the archives, but I also ended up highlighting in the film, for example, Emanuel Ringelblum himself. Emanuel Ringelblum kept a daily diary, so that's quoted in the book and quoted heavily in the film as well. A man named Abraham Lewin who was a friend of Ringelblum from before the war, taught with him at the girls' school. He kept a daily diary that was very emotional and honest. Even he continued writing the day that his wife was deported. And then there was Rachel Auerbach who I mentioned to you before, who was one of the three people who survived the war, I ended up having Rachel be the narrator essentially, the point of view of which the story is told because she knew just part of that world, she knew Ringelblum before the war, she worked with the Oyneg Shabes during the war and she survived. And then she spent the rest of her life writing about Oyneg Shabes, Emanuel Ringelblum and the Jewish intellectuals of Warsaw. The story is told from her point of view, of course she's highlighted in Sam's book as well.

Gina:     Tell me about the historical footage that has been praised. I know the San Francisco Chronicle says, "amazing historical footage."

Roberta:      Well, we did a very thorough search. I mean it took seven years to make the film and we found footage in Russia, in Germany and Israel in United States. Footage and photographs, we really went literally to the ends of the earth to find the best images that we could fall into the Warsaw ghetto. The primary images that are in the film were taken by the Nazi propaganda unit. They were constantly Nazi cameraman and photographers in the ghetto, and, but those images are, they were taken with particular intent, which was to show that Jews in a terrible light. But some of that footage we're able to use and repurpose. And as a Jewish filmmaker, I feel like I have every right to repurpose that footage because it's of the people, authentic footage, it's just shot through a Nazi lens. But we, you know, very carefully selected what we would use from that footage in order to help tell the story.

Gina:     I understand you are going to be here in Wilmington, the Wilmington premiere of it, and you will be there for questions and answers following the screening.

Roberta:      Right. I look forward to sharing the film, the history and the story it tells with audiences in Wilmington and having an interesting conversation after the film is shown.

Gina:     Thank you so much.

Roberta:      Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time.

Gina:     Thank you for making this film and thank you for coming here. It's got to feel good to do good work like this, to do important work.

Roberta:      I am very, very happy that I played a small part in bringing the story to a larger audience.

Gina:     It's like the baton was passed to you.

Roberta:      It did feel like a mission, I'll tell you that.