A scene from Who Will Write Our History, about the secret Warsaw Ghetto archives that were hidden from the Nazis. The film screens Nov. 1 at the Rothstein Theatre. (photo by Anna Wloch / Katahdin Productions)
One of the better known documents of the Oyneg Shabes Archive is written by David Graber, who was 19 at the time. In his will, he wrote: “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world, we buried in the ground…. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world…. May history attest for us.” While Graber did not survive Holocaust, his words did. As did the words and tens of thousands of pages of material collected by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and the 60 Oyneg Shabes members in Warsaw from 1940 to 1943.
The documentary Who Will Write Our History, written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman, highlights the story of the archive and some of the Oyneg Shabes members, only three of whom survived. It will be screened by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre on Nov. 1, 7 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre and Grossman, along with executive producer Nancy Spielberg, will be in attendance.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Samuel D. Kassow.
“When I read Sam’s book, I was just absolutely shocked that I didn’t know the story because I’ve done a lot of work and been very engaged in learning about this period of time my entire life and, to me, it seemed like a travesty that it was so little known outside of academic circles and it seemed that it really should be known,” Grossman told the Independent. “To my mind, it is the most important unknown story of the Holocaust.”
Being a filmmaker, Grossman said, “I felt that the best way to help Ringelblum and the other members of the Oyneg Shabes achieve what they wanted, which was to tell the story of the war from the Jewish point of view and to be remembered as individuals,” was through film, that the “medium is the best way to tell stories that will reach a lot of people and not just scholarly circles.”
Grossman optioned Kassow’s book in 2012.
From that time to the finished film, she said, “The goal and the vision for the film stayed the same, it just took a long time to figure out how to achieve that because you need to set the story of the Oyneg Shabes Archive in the historical context. You need to know what’s going on between the wars [and] during the war; you need to know the story of the Warsaw Ghetto; you need to know the story of the Oyneg Shabes and how they operated; and then you need to know the individual story arcs of the people that we chose to highlight…. It’s a lot to pack in, so the challenge was in figuring out the pieces of that puzzle.”
Of the three caches of material hidden by the Oyneg Shabes, two have been found, in 1946 and 1950. They contained more than 35,000 pages of material, including letters, artwork, photographs, circulars, posters and so many other documents, which are housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. In 2008, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre mounted the exhibit Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, which presented parts of that extensive collection to Vancouver. But the exhibit must have been a relative rarity because Spielberg also hadn’t heard of Ringelblum – who was among those murdered by the Nazis (in 1944) – and the archive.
“We worked together on Above and Beyond,” Spielberg told the Independent about how she came to work with Grossman on the documentary. “I came to Vancouver with that film and showed it in the [2014 Jewish] film festival there…. She had just bought the rights to Who Will Write Our History? and she left the project to come on board to direct Above and Beyond. We were spending time together, we were in the car, we were driving to locations, [and] I’m listening to her on the phone talking about this other project, and then she started telling me the story, and I knew nothing about this.”
Grossman eventually asked Spielberg if she’d be interested in joining the project and, having worked with Grossman before, Spielberg said, “We’re a wonderful balance and I loved this story. And we did [the film] with the idea that someone could come out of their immediate misery and sit down and do something with eyes to the future when it looks like there’s no tomorrow for you.”
“We know about people who, against all odds, rose up to the best of their ability militarily against the Nazis,” said Grossman, “but we haven’t spent a lot of time necessarily paying attention to and giving honours to people who resisted in other ways and, to me, this is an incredible example of spiritual resistance. They saw themselves as being literally engaged in a battle of humanity versus barbarism and I think that, especially now, the idea of or the question, who writes our history, and what is true and what is false, and what is propaganda and what is truth, and who controls the narrative is as important today as it’s ever been.
“In an era,” she continued, “where truth is not particularly valued in some of the most powerful corners of our world and a lot of lies and hateful propaganda is being propagated, especially vilifying the other, whether they be immigrants or Muslims or whoever ‘the other’ of the moment is, we know from history, if we pay attention, that’s an extremely dangerous – very powerful and, therefore, dangerous – way to operate. It’s important for people who are victimized or marginalized to tell their own story.”
The upcoming screening here of Who Will Write Our History is part of a tour of the film. Both Grossman and Spielberg have been attending various screenings, sometimes together, sometimes not.
“I think that the most common reaction is twofold,” said Spielberg. “One is of gratitude that the story was told. That may come in many ways, first of all, from people who are hungry for more knowledge and didn’t know anything about this … and also, of course, from survivors and their children; keeping these stories alive and honouring these people so that their lives would not have been in vain.
“And the other response is ‘I didn’t know that, how come I didn’t know that?’… Then you know you’ve unearthed a gem, that you were able to teach somebody another aspect of the Holocaust, just when we thought we’ve heard it all. Getting this out to the general populace will be really, really important, Jewish and non-Jewish.”
“I feel very proud to have fulfilled in some small way the wishes of the members of the Oyneg Shabes to tell the story from the Jewish point of view and to be remembered as individuals,” said Grossman. “I get the feeling, when I watch the film with audiences, that there is a way in which people sitting in the audience feel as if they’re honouring those people just by watching the film, and that’s really exciting.”
Tickets to the Vancouver screening of Who Will Write Our History are $72 and can be purchased via vjff.org.