Who Will Write Our History? joins a group of documentaries about the Holocaust, with the focus of this particular film on the efforts by a small group of writers in Warsaw to document their ordeal after the Nazis seized Poland in 1939, beginning WW II. The Warsaw Ghetto was created a year later and nearly 500,000 Jews forced into the small area, with little food and terrible conditions of water shortages, no medications and disease. Social welfare organizations were created by the community but they had few resources and many people simply died on the streets from starvation and disease. It soon became clear that the Nazis were intent on killing all of the Jews. A small group of writers and intellectuals, headed by Emanuel Ringelblum, a Warsaw historian, decided it was important to document their ordeal. They feared that the only record of the Warsaw Jews that would survive would largely be Nazis propaganda footage of frightened, dirty people, starving and dying in the Ghetto.
The group, known as the Oyneg Shabes (Yiddish for joyous Sabbath), eventually numbered about 60, and began to keep diaries, record the stories of the Jews deported from their villages to the Warsaw Ghetto, collect photographs, drawings, poems, and in general, attempt to document their everyday life and death and the tragedy of the extermination of Polish Jews. They collected tens of thousands of documents and decided to preserve as much as possible and hide it in three caches, which would hopefully be discovered after the war, even if none of the group survived. No one person knew where more than one cache was buried, to avoid the locations being revealed under torture. Ultimately, two of the three caches were discovered after the war, with an intriguing theory about the third. Of the original Oyneg group of 60, only 3 survived, and only 10% of the more than three million Polish Jews survived the Holocaust.
Roberta Grossman wrote, produced and directed this extraordinary film. Grossman has a solid track record of historic based documentaries, including Seeing Allred (2018, about Gloria Allred), Above and Beyond (2014), Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2014) and The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (2008). In Who Will Write Our History? she blends rarely (if ever) seen archival footage of the Warsaw Ghetto with reenactments. The archival footage is so powerful that it overwhelms the re-enactments, the latter done well, although the actors look too well fed and groomed. There is also commentary by historians which is illuminating and riveting. Grossman’s film is a masterpiece, sad and powerful, painful to watch in parts, yet important in its information about what was previously a footnote in Holocaust studies. It is important to see Grossman’s work because it shows that not all resistance was with guns. Some of it was with the pen, and that is what endures here. Watching Who Will Write Our History? is also a form of Kaddish to commemorate those who resisted against all odds. Very few have graves. Most of the re-enactment filming was done on location in Poland and every word spoken is taken from the historical record of diaries and letters. The dialogue is in Yiddish with some Polish and German, all subtitled. I highly recommend this film, even if you have to watch it on the small screen.
Grossman’s film has screened at a number of Jewish film festivals, but just opened last Friday at the Vogue (Sacramento St at Presidio), The Rialto Elmwood (Berkeley) and the Rialto in Sebastopol. Running time: 95 minutes. The Vogue is only running Who Will Write Our History? through Thursday but it is available on DVD from Netflix (ugh!). Ciao, Ian