When lives are brutally at stake on a daily basis, few people think beyond the basic needs of staying alive, but the remarkable individuals revealed in “Who Will Write Our History” thought posterity was just as important as survival.
Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto was such a place in the early 1940s, a nightmarish space where 450,000 Jews, preyed on by disease and starvation, barely existed in an area encircled and controlled by German troops.
One man, historian Emanuel Ringelblum, had something exceptional on his mind. Noticing that the Germans were photographing and filming the captive Jews for their own demeaning purposes, Ringelblum was determined to counter those biased images.
“He felt that unless we collect our own documents, history will remember us from German sources,” says Samuel Kossow, an expert in the period.
How Ringelblum went about creating an archive 60,000 pages strong, a collection that’s been called “one great act of accusation against the Germans,” is revealed in this moving and significant film.
Written and directed by veteran documentarian Roberta Grossman, “Who Will Write Our History” is an unusual hybrid of documentary sources and meticulous historical re-creation.
In addition to expected elements such as archival footage and interviews with American and Polish historians including Kassow, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jan Grabowski, “History” works with skill and tact to make those re-creations as convincing and realistic as possible.
For starters, the words spoken are taken directly from first-person writings. The film’s protagonists are played by actors who can switch between Yiddish and Polish in a single conversation, as was the habit at the time, while voiceovers for letters and diary excerpts are handled by top American actors Joan Allen and Adrien Brody.
Allen’s character is narrator Rachel Auerbach, one of the few members of Ringelblum’s team to survive the war. The film begins with a scene of Auerbach (Jowita Budnick in the re-creations) returning to Warsaw to survey the damage.
In Auerbach’s memory, pre-war Warsaw was a vibrant, creative place for Jews, a city with six Yiddish daily newspapers, two Yiddish theaters and a 400-member Jewish writers union.
When the Germans invaded, most of those who could fled, but Ringelblum, who felt “we can’t all run away,” stayed to help organize refugee relief and convinced Auerbach to stay as well.
It was Ringelblum who conceived of the archive, given the intentionally misleading code name Oyneg Shabes, the joys of the Sabbath.
Ringelblum personally recruited the 60-some economists, historians, journalists and artists who made up the team, each of whom was given notebooks and small stipends.
The idea was to document “our disaster and our resistance,” to both collect artifacts such as German proclamations and ghetto produce labels as well as to write down everything seen and heard.
Serious events that might otherwise never have been known, such as the role the Jewish ghetto police played in rounding up Jews for extermination, were recorded, as were more mordant observations.
“Our streets look like Hollywood these days,” Auerbach wrote in her diary. “Everywhere you go, you see a star,” a reference to the yellow stars Jews could not appear in public without.
Given that being discovered participating in this project would mean death, “History” also details the great lengths Ringelblum went to insure secrecy, including keeping the location of the documents secret so that the participants couldn’t reveal it even under torture.
When it became clear that the ghetto was going to be liquidated and its residents sent to concentration camps, Ringelblum had the enormous cache of documents buried in three locations.
Two of the three burial sites were discovered after the war, a somewhat miraculous occurrence in and of itself, given that Warsaw was so heavily bombed that the locations of streets, not to mention individual buildings, were difficult to determine.
“Who Will Write Our History” is carefully made, with the production design team working with scholars for six months prior to filming to ensure accuracy.
Though its form is complex, including archival scenes that include concentration camp-type footage, the film’s emotional through line is clear and direct. And the piercing questions one of its participants asks still resonates today: “Does the world know about our suffering? And if it knows, why is it silent?”
‘Who Will Write Our History’
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hill, Town Center 5, Encino