It’s taken 70-plus years, but what’s arguably the most important Holocaust story never told is being unveiled in a docudrama this weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Who Will Write Our History is the story of the men and women who created the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a trove of once-hidden documents, essays, and reportage that chronicled in real time what life and death looked like in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto. The star, if you can call him that, is Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian and community organizer, who led the secret project with the sensitivity of a sacred mission.
The film had an under-the-radar world premiere this spring in Warsaw at Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, during the 75th anniversary of the ghetto’s uprising. A 2007 book, also called Who Will Write Our History? by historian Samuel D. Kassow, on which the film is based, was critically acclaimed, but it wasn’t a popular bestseller. Then, by chance, film director Roberta Grossman read a review in The New Republic, and decided she had to turn it into a movie.
With collaborators, Ringelblum fanned out through the ghetto, recruiting some 60 writers, scholars, teachers, community activists, rabbis, poor artisans, wealthy businessmen, and even children to the project. When their survival looked doomed, they hid the archive in two large aluminum milk cans and up to 20 tin boxes.
Ringelblum used the Yiddish term Oyneg Shabes, literally, “the joy of the Sabbath,” as the code name because his staff’s custom was to meet on Saturdays. Instead of toasting the day of rest with schnapps and herring—they were lucky to have scraps of bread—they would clandestinely discuss plans, formulate questions for major projects, review material, make assignments, and keep track of expenditures and money raised for their endeavor.
Among them was Rachel Auerbach, a journalist, who has a prominent role in the film. Ringelblum had asked her to help set up a soup kitchen and write what she observed. She originally turned him down because like so many from the Jewish intelligentsia, she was planning to flee war-torn Warsaw. But she stayed after Ringelblum told her, “Not everyone is allowed to run.”
Although the archive was uncovered in the rubble of Warsaw after the war, the challenge of bringing the stories to the world has been daunting. One of the three caches was never found. Water seepage destroyed a lot of papers that were written in ink. Of the thousands of photographs stored in the archive, only 70 survived. Because the documents, essays, poems, and journalism were written in either Yiddish, Polish or German, many in hard-to-decipher handwriting, translation came at a snail’s pace. Funding was another hurdle.
Nevertheless, this year also comes completion of the long-awaited publication of the archive in book form, all 36 volumes. Because the Jewish Historical Institute, also known as the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw directs the project, the first edition is in Polish only. An English edition is in the works, several years behind.
Grossman said the docudrama, which used Polish actors and includes as one of the executive producers Steven Spielberg’s sister, Nancy Spielberg, will be released to Jewish film festivals, more than 100 worldwide, though dates have not been announced yet. As screenings are firmed up, the film’s Facebook page will announce release dates. A limited theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, and other possible cities is also planned. The film also has been delivered to NDR and ARTE, the German and French television networks respectively, Grossman said, where it is scheduled for broadcast next January during Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Leonard Felson has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Reader’s Digest, The Jerusalem Report, and other publications.