Who Will Write Our History? Germans or Jews?

Nearly three years ago, as part of my continuing research for a young adult novel Skipping Stones, set in Jerusalem during the Eichmann trial in 1961 but with flashbacks to a Polish shtetl at the time of the Nazi invasion, I traveled to Poland, birthplace of my father and all four grandparents. I had heard so many stories about life in the shtetl and I wanted to see what, if anything, was left of Jewish life in the region. In Krakow, I visited the Galicia Jewish Museum and the Jewish Community Centre where I spoke to many young Jews about their efforts to re-grow a Jewish community. Inspired by what I saw, I published a piece about the journey, In the Shadow of Auschwitz, in Guernica Magazine.

When I returned to New York City, I enrolled in a mini-course on Yiddish Culture in Wartime, 1939–1945 at YIVO. It was taught by historian Dr. Samuel D. Kassow and, in the vocabulary of young people today, the course was AWESOME. There were eight of us in the class, sitting around a conference table meant for fifteen, all hovering over primary materials that Kassow had personally assembled.

Several things were apparent from the start. Kassow, the author of the 2007 prize-winning book, Who Will Write Our History? knew everything there was to know about the subject. There was no question we could come up with that even came close to stumping him.

Kassow had spent years researching and writing about writers and scholars, the Oyneg Shabes group, in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by Emanuel Ringelblum, who in an effort to preserve their history and culture, sealed thousands of pages of documents in containers and boxes and buried them beneath buildings before the Ghetto was destroyed and its residents murdered. Ten metal boxes were dug up in 1946 and two metal canisters (milk containers which were fortunately airtight) were dug up in 1950. Despite the efforts of an Israeli search team, a third cache of materials has never been found. This year, however, the Jewish Historical Institute (the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw) will be publishing the archive in book form, all 36 volumes.

Since they were discovered, the Oyneg Shabes materials have provided a rich treasure trove for historians, especially Kassow who was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Stuttgart, Germany and who is currently a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, a consulting editor for the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, and who served as chief academic consultant for the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw which is located on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, facing the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When I visited the museum in 2017, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the exhibits, particularly the roof and ceiling of a 17th-century, wooden Gwozdziec synagogue.

Kassow told the class that he had just returned from Eastern Europe where he had been involved in filming a documentary based on his book. Seven years in-the-making, the 90-minute film Who Will Write Our History, directed by Roberta Grossman with Executive Producer Nancy Spielberg, opened at The Quad Cinema in New York City on January 17th, following a showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival in December and its world preview at San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival. On January 27th, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of Victims of the Holocaust, it will be shown at 100 theaters and special venues with anchor screenings at Los Angeles’s Museum of Tolerance, Auschwitz-Birkenau’s Memorial and Museum and Paris’ UNESCO headquarters

Tracing the history of the Warsaw Ghetto from September 27, 1939 when Warsaw fell to the Nazis, the film opens with footage of Jews crowding into the Ghetto. Ultimately, it was home to over 450,000 Jews, squeezed into tiny rooms, using up whatever money they had and selling off their remaining treasures: their gold jewelry, a tablecloth worth 300 zlotys for 50 and, in a tearful scene, a wedding dress. The basic historical outlines of the story are all there: the slipping back and forth out of the Ghetto to buy food, the bartering, the beatings, the soup kitchens, the Yiddish schools, the Jewish Police, the deportations, the wheeling of bodies in carts, and the burials of skeletons in pits.

The story of the Warsaw Ghetto, from creation to destruction, hovers in the background of this film but, in the foreground, the focus is on historian Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes team, a group of 60 writers, artists, historians, economists, etc., only three of whom survived the Ghetto’s destruction.

Ringelblum used the Yiddish term Oyneg Shabes, “the joy of the Sabbath” as the code name for the project and it was no accident that the group met secretively on Saturdays, where they reviewed materials and made new assignments.

Although Ringelblum was an intellectual, he understood that the only way to capture what was happening to Polish Jews was not through the words of the rabbis and the philosophers but rather to report on the lives of ordinary people. His editorial directive to his Oyneg Shabes staff: Write down everything you see.

As a docudrama, the film deftly avoids the pitfalls of a talking-heads documentary by relying on the painful and poetic words of the Oyneg Shabes archive writers which are re-enacted by gifted actors. We watch Ringelblum, his wife Judyta and their son Uri struggle to outsmart the Nazis as we listen to the actual words from Ringelblum’s diary, the voiceover by actor Adrien Brody.

We listen to their words and we simultaneously watch brutal black-and-white footage of dead Jews on the street, zooming in on their starving, emaciated bodies, and on Jews scratching away at their lice-infested skin, all shot as propaganda material by the Germans. Balancing this visual horror, we see and hear how Warsaw Ghetto residents — there were over 450,000 in the beginning and some 50,000, many of whom were deported to Treblinka at the end — despite their foraging for rotten potatoes and growling hunger, clung to their culture — to charcoal drawings of Ghetto residents by local artisans and to a violinist playing a Mendelssohn concerto on a dark, deserted street. In the words of one archive writer: “The stomach is empty but the ears are full.”

By including images of actual objects found in the boxes and canisters — programs, posters, and portraits — the filmmaker enlarges the scope of the documentary. This is not just another film on the horrors of the Holocaust, although it certainly reveals these horrors. Rather, it is one that also speaks to the resilience and creativity of the human spirit and to Ringelblum’s determination. Although Ringelblum originally envisioned the Oyneg Shabes archive as one that would capture Jewish life in Poland, when it became evident to him that the Nazis intended the extinction of Polish Jews, he shifted the focus of the archive to how to capture Nazi atrocities so that the perpetrators could eventually be punished.

As a powerful narrative thread, actress Joan Allen speaks the words of Rachel Auerbach throughout the film. Auerbach, a journalist, literary critic, and film critic, was recruited by Ringelblum to run a soup kitchen, as she was planning to leave before the Ghetto was sealed, with the words: “Not everyone is allowed to run.” Auerbach walks the streets of the deserted ghetto seeing what at first she thinks are flakes of snow but realizing that they are feathers from the abandoned bed quilts of the deported. Able to slip back and forth out of the Ghetto because she did not look Jewish and because she spoke perfect Polish, she survived the Ghetto’s extinction, ultimately immigrating to Israel. There, she helped the prosecution in the Eichmann trial in 1961 find survivor’s testimonies to use to make their case.

These are testimonies that I know well having drawn upon them for my new novel, Skipping Stones, set in Jerusalem during the trial. Below is an excerpt from the novel where Susan, an American Jewish girl of 17 sent to Israel by her father to see if she can find out what happened to her Uncle Yakov (a man who disappeared when the Nazis arrived in the shtetl), meets Chaya, a survivor.

Excerpt from Skipping Stones

By Roslyn Bernstein

For a few seconds, Susan’s heart raced. This woman actually remembered Rozvadow. She’d been close to Yakov. Perhaps, their arms had touched as they passed each other on the cobblestone street. Perhaps, he had sold her the hair band with three rose buds in a row, the one Susan had seen in the photo of Chaya and her sister.

“I just remembered something,” Chaya said, interrupting Susan’s reveries. “One time, there was a fellow helping out in the store. It was getting dark and he told me to go straight home. The Germans were already in town then and he seemed worried about me shopping alone.” She remembered telling him that she was a very fast runner and that no one bad could ever catch her.

Chaya sighed. She hadn’t been caught and transported to a camp but she had suffered, hidden away, eating leftovers, and praying that no one would discover her hiding place. Her face was drawn and she closed her eyes for a moment, unable to talk.

“Do you remember his eyes?” Susan asked her. “What color were his eyes?”

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But I do remember him giving me one coin too many when I paid. I tried to return it to him but he refused. He said that it was a little present for me, money that I could spend the next time I came in. His face was sad. He didn’t think that there would not be a next time. It was as if we were saying goodbye forever. “Walk straight home,” he told me as I was leaving. “Don’t talk to any strangers. Don’t talk to any Germans.” He walked me to the door and watched me make my way down the street.

Movie still from documentary, Who Will Write Our History?
Emanuel Ringelblum
Rachel Auerbach
Director Roberta Grossman and book author Dr. Samuel Kassow

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, Roslyn Bernstein’s books include Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.