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Milk Can Memories

A new documentary about the brave archivists who kept a secret history of the Warsaw Ghetto shows how we can preserve the memory of the Holocaust after the last generation of survivors

Rokhl Kafrissen
January 18, 2019

There’s a powerful irony at the center of Who Will Write Our History, the remarkable new documentary on the Warsaw Ghetto’s Oyneg Shabes underground archive. The archive consisted of three milk cans (two of which have been found to date) containing tens of thousands of pages, written and assembled at risk of death for the Oyneg Shabes members, who documented life under Nazi occupation. At the end of the war, Rokhl Oyerbakh was one of three surviving Oyneg Shabes members. Her task was to recover the archive from under the ruins of Warsaw.

At the end of the movie, we hear Oyerbakh’s words in voice-over: “The memories of those who survived are often as hurt and broken as their lives. That is why the most believable witness will be the written word from those years which is now in the ruins under the Warsaw Ghetto.”

And yet, it was first person, postwar testimony which grew into one of the most important vectors of Holocaust education and memory work, not contemporaneous archival documents. The documents in the two recovered Oyneg Shabes milk cans spent decades undergoing the slow process of preservation, cataloging, and translation at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute. First person, postwar testimony, on the other hand, was immediate, dramatic, easily available in the United States and Israel, and only required an audience willing to listen. Indeed, it was Oyerbakh herself who established the importance of first person witness testimony in her work at Yad Vashem and, especially, in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel.

Today, as even the youngest generation of survivors reaches old age, anxiety about the disappearance of firsthand testimony has risen, and we’re seeing more public concern about a looming demographic reality: “The youngest survivors are in their mid-70s, with most in their 80s and 90s. In a future no longer beyond the horizon, no one will remain to testify firsthand to Nazi Germany’s systematic effort to exterminate the Jews in the territory it controlled.”

Some have turned to technology to fight the clock. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center recently unveiled their New Dimensions in Testimony oral history project, featuring holograms of 15 Holocaust survivors. Each of the 15 participants has gone through a rigorous filming and testimony process, making it possible for museumgoers and students to ‘interact’ with the simulated survivors.

Survivors are worried that they will be forgotten and their individual stories blurred together. Leaders and educators are worried that with the passing of the survivor generation, a powerful weapon against forgetting and Holocaust denial will be lost.

But if ignorance of the Holocaust is rising in general, along with bolder attempts at normalizing Holocaust denial, we cannot lay the burden of education on the shoulders of survivors. General ignorance about the Holocaust is a problem of education and the thinness of historical consciousness in the United States. And the rise of neofascism is a problem that demands a political analysis and solution.

There’s no question that first person survivor testimony will continue to have an important place in contemporary Holocaust education for Jews and non-Jews. But the release of Who Will Write Our History has the potential to effect a sea change in the way we think about Holocaust education. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it the most important Holocaust movie in decades. Who Will Write Our History is the first Holocaust documentary that centers victim stories along with the written and visual materials they created to document their lives. It presents a multifaceted picture of spiritual and cultural resistance within the Ghetto. It sympathetically portrays the everyday dilemmas inherent in survival. Most importantly, it figures the events of World War II as a continuation of Jewish history, not an interruption.

By a continuation of Jewish history, of course, I don’t mean to say that the Holocaust is just another in a series of increasing calamities visited upon European Jewry. Rather, Who Will Write Our History is the first documentary to present Holocaust history from the point of view of Jewish historians who witnessed it. Emanuel Ringelblum was a historian long before the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto were erected around him and he continued his historical work until the moment he was murdered in 1944. That continuity is essential to the film, in which the vitality of prewar Jewish life is just as important to the story as the suffering endured during it. As a historian, Ringelblum understood that a Nazi victory would consign Jewish history to be written by its own murderers. Circumstances aligned just enough to allow him to set in motion an audacious plan, one that would ensure that the Jews would write their own history, even after death.

Ringelblum was relatively privileged at the start of the war. When the Warsaw Ghetto was created he was already living within the designated ghetto area and did not have to move. The Ghetto had to absorb not just all of Jewish Warsaw, but displaced Jews from surrounding areas, creating dangerous overcrowding and homelessness, and the misery and disease that comes with it. In the first year of the Ghetto, 80,000 Jews died of typhus and starvation. Ringelblum had a home, he had experience and connections as an organizer from his years working with the Joint Distribution Committee, and he had his training as a new kind of historian, inspired by the mass collection activities of YIVO, and focused on the lives of ordinary people and the material culture they produced.

Who Will Write Our History is based on the outstanding 2007 book of the same name by historian Sam Kassow. In the last couple of years, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw has made great progress in making the Ringelblum archive material widely available. Almost 36 volumes are now available in Polish and two volumes have appeared in English, with more to come.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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