By Michele Justic
first published January 2019
In honor of Yom Hashoah, the Peninsula Public Library will participate in the 2019 Global Screening Event of “Who Will Write Our History,” based on hidden Warsaw Ghetto witnesses. Tickets required. Limited seating available at 7 p.m. May 2. For tickets, call 239-3262 ext 216 or sign up here.
Nicknamed the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Warsaw Ghetto, a time capsule created by the Oyneg Shabes group of journalists, community leaders and scholars has recently become the subject of an award winning feature film, “Who Will Write Our History.”
Though appreciated by history enthusiasts, the subject may still have been largely unknown had not Roberta Grossman dared to take on the mission of writing, producing and directing a documentary about this project.
Grossman is described as “an award-winning filmmaker with a passion for history and social justice … who has written, directed, and produced more than 40 hours of film and television.” The film’s website explains, “What sets her films apart are high production values, beautiful cinematic craftsmanship and inspiring protagonists. Grossman’s films tell stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the name of justice.”
Samuel Kassow’s 2007 book, Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto about Oyneg Shabes’ efforts to keep historical evidence of the grueling and debilitating life of the Warsaw Ghetto, inspired the 2018 film. Today the discovered part of the collection, which contains about 6,000 documents is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Oyneg Shabes leaders Emanuel Ringelblum, Rabbi Shimon Huberband, and Abraham Lewin were killed during the war but Rachel Auerbach survived to write about the experience.
As she prepared for a global screening event on January 27 for International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, Grossman graciously agreed to an in-depth interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times.
Q: How did you come across this story?
A: I was working on another film at the time and I read a review of Samuel Kassow’s book and I was fascinated. I was to some degree outraged as I had spent my whole like reading about the Holocaust and thought I was well educated but had not found out about this. I felt I had to do this. It’s been a very long, decade long, journey to get where we are today. In the middle of it I directed “Above and Beyond” and “Seeing Allred.” But this was always on my mind. It’s a big effort. Because so much material is in the archive and the story is so complex and powerful. It’s very challenging to whittle away at a manageable shape.
Q: The all star team for this film includes Nancy Spielberg as executive producer; Dyanna Taylor, director of photography; Chris Callister, editor; Pavlina Zipkova, line producer; Frank Gampel, production designer; Marek Warszewski, production designer – Poland; Anna Różalska, Match & Spark talent management and production executive producer; Tarik Hachoud, Match & Spark, co-producer; and July Hodara, co-producer, collaborating with film consultants Dr. Samuel Kassow, Yehuda Bauer, Michael Berenbaum, Havi Dreifuss, Jan Grabowski, Tamar Ketko, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Lisa Moses Leff, Jacek Leociak, Deborah Lipstadt, Antony Polonsky, David Roskies, Henry Sapoznik and Karolina Szymaniak. How did you gather such a group of expert historians and cast members?
A: I had Samuel Kassow’s book. He’s so highly respected. When I reached out to his colleagues, the fact he entrusted me was the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval. They care so deeply about Ringelblum. They were my co-conspirators to get this story out.
Q: You say, “’Who Will Write Our History’ tells the story of a place that no longer exists (the Warsaw Ghetto), about people who are long dead.” This must pose a particular challenge creating a documentary. How do you overcome those challenges?
A: This was their objective. We won’t have the survivors around for much longer. It’s going back to the source. We are fortunate to have eyewitness accounts. I wanted the film to have the historical gravitas of a documentary but the emotional pull of a dramatic feature. We had films created by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. For Oyneg Shabbos, we did full blown dramatizations which we hoped would stand up to the power of writing.
Q: Do you have family members who were in the Holocaust?
Q: Joan Allen, Adrien Brody, Charlie Hofheimer, and Hersh Wasser do voiceovers and Jowita Budnik, Piotr Glowacki, And Karolina Gruszka perform dramatizations in the film. I have noticed a marked change in documentaries that now include more dramatizations. Do you feel that might potentially weaken the historical accuracy of the film? How do you balance it with the obvious effect it has in captivating the audience and leading to an enhanced learning experience?
A: It depends upon the lengths a filmmaker is willing to go. In this case, production designers spent six months with great scholars in Poland who vetted every pen, chair, and book. A scholarly panel read the scripts and cuts and pointed out when something was inaccurate. Nothing was made up; the scenes came directly from the Oyneg Shabes diaries. In a strange way, the dramatizations are truer than the archival footage of propaganda.
It depends upon the rigor a filmmaker is willing to take to make it historically accurate. I like to think I use the full production toolbox. It’s up to the audience if I’ve done it the right way. Sometimes I inserted actors into archival stills but there is no intention to fool anybody.
Q: You have created films about some remarkable personalities — American air force pilots who helped create the Israeli air force in the War of Independence, Hannah Senesh, and now the chroniclers in the Warsaw Ghetto. Do you become attached to these stories? How long do you carry them with you after the movie?
A: That’s a good question. I carry them forever in my soul. They are a part of my family.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
A: I think at the end when the Oyneg Shabes participants realize few people would survive, they wanted to speak to future generations. This is not from point of view of the murderers. They wanted to be remembered as individuals. Audience members are honoring those members. Hearing a story directly from their writing and getting to know them as individuals.
Q: This reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s quote, “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
A: Yes, that quote has influenced me in making this film.
Q: We’d like to thank you for your invaluable work of bringing this story out into the open and keeping history alive and true.