'Who Will Write Our History?': Film Review
Roberta Grossman offers the human story behind an invaluable collection of first-person Holocaust accounts.
A story of remarkable foresight and dedication amid unthinkable horrors, Who Will Write Our History? tells of the small band of Warsaw Ghetto Jews determined to preserve evidence of how they lived and what was being done to them by the Nazis. Made with polish and passion by Roberta Grossman (Seeing Allred), it has a strong enough emphasis on the best aspects of humanity that it is much easier to watch than 2010's A Film Unfinished. But like Yael Hersonski's lauded doc, it uses historical artifacts to excellent, devastating effect.
Emanuel Ringelblum was a historian who specialized in Jewish life when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Immediately understanding the historic nature of what was happening around him, he began keeping a diary full of evocative observations. More importantly, Ringelblum assembled a group of talented people — artists, economists, historians — and insisted that they do the same. Working with an academic's rigor but an intensity reflecting his circumstances, he maintained an archive of these first-hand accounts, designed to reflect how those in what would become the Ghetto lived and suffered.
Ringelblum could see how German propaganda was manufacturing an image of Polish Jews as filthy, lice-infested spreaders of disease (we see some of this ugly footage, which is the subject of A Film Unfinished). He insisted on preserving the truth, with an emphasis on the lives of everyday people. Alongside diaries, his archive contained ephemera that many historians wouldn't have considered worth noticing — posters for concerts held in the Ghetto; children's drawings; art, poetry and jokes.
Grossman envisions all this in handsome reenactments, but the words telling the story (in voiceovers by Joan Allen, Adrien Brody and others) come from the diaries and from the memoirs of Rachel Auerbach, a Warsaw journalist recruited by Ringelblum to help with the archive. The project was highly secretive, operating under the code name Oyneg Shabes; its operations were cloaked by those of a group providing food and aid to the increasing number of impoverished Jews in the city.
In between interviews with academics (including Samuel Kassow, whose book gives the film its name), Grossman moves with agility among various kinds of source material. We get objective accounts of brutality witnessed on the streets; probing reflections on what extreme hunger does to the psyche; celebrations of people's ability, even in such a time, to produce and appreciate art and music. Voices and tones vary as the chronological action grows darker, and darker still. Grim landmarks pass, like the day in 1942 when an escapee from the Chelmo extermination camp brings archivists their first news of organized mass murder; and Ringelblum begins thinking of his collection not just as a way of combating propaganda, but as a collection of evidence for the prosecution.
In its increasingly dramatic (and sometimes wrenching) final third, we follow as Ringelblum and others go into hiding and try to guarantee that the documents they've gathered will survive the war even if they don't. This film's existence makes it obvious they succeeded, but how that happened is still a gripping tale.
Production companies: Katahdin Productions, Match&Spark
Director-screenwriter-producer: Roberta Grossman
Executive producers: Nancy Spielberg, Ronald S. Lauder, Al Berg, Ori Eisen, Mirit Eisen, Anna Rozalska, Philippa Kowarsky
Director of photography: Dyanna Taylor
Editors: Chris Callister, Ondine Rarey
Composer: Todd Boekelheide
In English, Yiddish and Polish