By Michele Justic
The last time 5TJT interviewed Nancy Spielberg, Who Will Write Our History had not yet made its grand premiere on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to audiences across the globe. The groundbreaking documentary written, produced, and directed by Roberta Grossman and executive produced by Nancy Spielberg details life in the Warsaw Ghetto as immortalized by the Oyneg Shabbos group in the Ringelblum archive.
The film gained overwhelming critical acclaim and the attention of thousands of viewers. It brought attention to the fact that many that Jews enjoyed rich lives in pre-WWII Germany and Poland, including artistic, cultural, and political activities. The documentary dramatically portrays how that lifestyle came crashing down through harsh, racist laws that condoned discrimination and violence. The aristocratic doctors starved along with the lowest shoemakers in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
The film was screened simultaneously at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and in 360 venues in over 55 countries. Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman held a roundtable discussion with the book’s author, Professor Samuel Kassow. Spielberg marveled over the challenge of raising money to support all these efforts, including Live Facebook feeds covering the events in 12 languages. The movie was screened in many shuls, schools, and other organizations within the Jewish community throughout the year.
Little did Spielberg or I think life would imitate art which imitated life from a half-century ago. Spielberg admits the movie “took on a life of its own as we figure out what truth is these days.” They had prioritized getting the film on screen over profits and they succeeded. That truth becomes more necessary each day as survivors pass on, denial rises, and hate crimes abound.
Regarding the ubiquitous reports of the rise in blatant antisemitism, Spielberg wonders, “When do we sound the alarms? What if we are at that cusp before they were believers?” Some have tried to reassure her we will never get there. though she still finds it “hard to fathom that our lovely lives could be reduced to that.”
Spielberg admits, “It scares me when I hear intelligent people say things they don’t even realize are antisemitic. Israel has become a political partisan issue and there is a divisiveness now. The hate is causing deeper divides.”
Spielberg’s useful advice is that “we can’t be complacent.” And that is where we come to Spielberg’s education mission. She is producing a film about Roman Vishniac, a photographer sent by the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to film Jews in Eastern Europe to gain sympathy for them by showing their humanity. They did not realize these would be the only memories left of this community. She is still raising funds, but she believes the film will be complete in a year.
The team behind Who Will Write Our History is working on an educational version with study guides and teacher supplements. This is a film that can be shown annually at Yom HaShoah events, as part of school curricula, etc. The film is available on Amazon Prime. Discovery Channel will screen Who Will Write Our History on January 26 in commemoration of the liberation by Soviet troops of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nancy hopes to reach a new demographic of those who were never educated about the Holocaust. To arrange a public viewing for a community group, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spielberg wants to create more unity between the African American community and the Jewish community. She is working on a follow-up to her film directed by Dani Menkin, On The Map. In the first movie, Tal Brody, a Jewish basketball player from New Jersey, and Aulcie Perry, an African American man who was cut from the Knicks, went on to lead the Maccabi team to the European Championship. Their new film Aulcie follows Perry in his rise to stardom in Israel where he was embraced in spite of his ethnicity, to his unfortunate fall to drugs and then his brave recovery. This film is premiering in film festivals. To arrange for screenings, email email@example.com.
Though she delves into depressing subjects, the best way to describe Spielberg is positive, energetic, and motivated to do good, which is why I began our conversation by discussing the main influence on her life: her mother, Leah Adler. Leah would have celebrated her birthday on January 12. She opened Milky Way in 1977, the first kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, as a way to serve the community. Though her children achieved their own success, everyone knew Leah as her own person, engaging, outgoing, charming, and welcoming.
After Leah’s passing three years ago, Nancy and her brother Steven decided to honor their mother’s legacy while maintaining the tradition of the restaurant — adding more upscale food like barramundi while keeping blintzes on the menu. Steven Spielberg created a movie about her life which is shown at the restaurant, and the décor features her style choices of denim and daisies. Nancy adds that Leah would be “kvelling from above.” I think Leah would be kvelling even more over Nancy’s contributions to Jewish culture and history.
Though she gets many projects offered to her, Spielberg chooses predominantly Jewish topics with “feel-good-about-Israel elements.” She is considering a project about the Sephardic community, which often got the raw end of the deal from their countries of origin, from the countries they emigrated to, and even from the Jewish community.
Spielberg jokes that next she should do a comedy for a change: “Something with a happy ending.” We would love to see that.