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Review of Who Will Write Our History, the Winnipeg Jewish Film Festival

by Penny Jone Square

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

—Franz Kafka, 1904, letter to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak in Letters to Friends, Family and Editors

Who Will Write Our History was for me what Kafka believed “a book must be”: “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Directed by Roberta Grossman and based on the book of the same title by Samuel D. Kassow, this exceptionally powerful and deeply moving documentary about an important but little-known story of the Warsaw Ghetto affected me “like a disaster,” wound[ing] and stab[bing],” even though I have been reading about this horrific history since I was a child. 

In her documentary, Grossman seamlessly interweaves rare film footage with dramatizations to tell the story of the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who established the clandestine organization, code-named Oyneg Shabes (Joy of Sabbath), to record the Jewish experience in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1940.

Ringelblum and his group of over sixty community leaders, scholars, artists, journalists, and historians believed that by documenting all aspects of Jewish life, they might preserve this history for posterity, a history of both cataclysm and resistance. The documents, which included diary entries, art work, and everyday artefacts, were collected and compiled in an archive that was concealed, buried in milk cans and tin boxes in a cellar (the hiding place known to only one member—one of only three who would survive).

These documents would be the eye-witness accounts that would write the true history, defying and denying the lies of Nazi propaganda. Indeed, as noted later in the documentary, these written words hidden in the rubble of the destroyed city might provide a more authentic account than even that of survivors who are hurt and broken.

We are immersed in the lives of the characters in the documentary, especially Ringelblum and Rachel Auerbach (who was involved in Oyneg Shabes from the start and who was one of three who survived) through the dramatizations. The story is told through Ringelblum’s and Auerbach’s narration and through hearing some of the diarists reading from their entries. It was heart wrenching to hear them speaking, knowing the outcome that was unknown to them. The film footage, which weaves throughout the dramatizations, is similarly affecting, with some of the most harrowing and disturbing images I have ever seen.

Oyneg Shabes persevered in their work of documenting Jewish life—its dedication to survival and its terror—from 1940 until the spring of 1943 while “the wave of evil rolled over the city.” Wanting “only to be remembered,” the members of Oyneg Shabes believed their writing would be their witness. As one noted, writing was the only recourse they had to claim a sense of ownership of self, and so everyone was instructed to write whether it was a diary, song, poem, joke, or a story—whether of refugees, of children, of the role of women, or of hunger. Together, the archival compilation would be “one great act of accusation against German policy, a collection of evidence of German crimes.” 

In their desire to live and to die with honour, Jews “clutched the flag of culture.” There was a network of underground schools, theatres, and libraries in the ghetto. Literary evenings were held. At one, a man spoke of how this experience “will be our test” and may “prove a triumph of the human over the inhuman, of the will to live over the will to our destruction.” 

When word reached the ghetto of the mass killing of Jews to the east and west of Warsaw, the agenda of the archive changed to documentation of the genocide as a means of awakening the world to the horror and to help prosecute the killers after the war. Oyneg Shabes did in fact succeed in getting word to London on June 26, 1942: “Our cry was heard.” “If only England keeps its word, we might be saved.”

Tragically, all but three of Oyneg Shabes perished, along with 3 million Polish Jews. Ringelblum and his family were killed in March 1944. However, 60,000 pages of documentation were found buried in the rubble under the collapsed city. Two of the buried caches were discovered in 1946 and 1950; a third remains hidden.

By telling this unbearably sad story, Grossman advances the triumph of the Oyneg Shabes Archive and of the Jews, hopefully breaking the frozen sea within us all forever.   

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