By Dr. Alex Sternberg
Everyone who has studied even a little about the Holocaust has heard of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. About 40,000 desperate Jews decided to revolt. We know that this heroic uprising lasted 33 days, three weeks longer than the resistance of the entire Polish army to the German invaders.
But what really happened in the ghetto on a day-to-day basis? What was life like under the domination of the murderous German Nazis? “Who will write our History?” a documentary film debuting Friday, reveals for the first time the monumental effort undertaken by historian Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum and his fellow collaborators to preserve the history of the people of the Warsaw Ghetto for future generations.
In 1940 the Germans occupied Poland and immediately sealed over 450,000 Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. Kept behind a tall wall and surrounded by Germans patrolling with dogs and machine guns, the Jews were cut off from civilization. Stripped of most of their possessions including food and clothing, Jews were reduced to living a destitute existence. Because their own children were starving at home, they turned a blind eye when they passed starving children dying in the street. Previously well to do, pampered Jews, now barefoot, were begging for food in the street. Reminiscent of the destruction of Israel by the descriptions of Jeremiah, the Polish Jews of Warsaw were reduced to humiliation and abject poverty.
As the Germans delighted in filming the destitute conditions of Jews, Ringelblum sprang into action. He gathered together over 60 writers, journalists, and economists — a cross section of Warsaw’s Jews. They all shared a deep commitment to resist Nazi lies and propaganda by documenting the daily conditions of the ghetto. Ringelblum and his group began to write daily entries of that history, but from the Jewish perspective. Not trusting even their fellow Jews, they operated in secrecy under the code name “Oyneg Shabbes” in honor of their Shabbos afternoon status meetings. They knew death awaited them if they were caught.
The Oyneg Shabbes team was encouraged to write diaries, essays, poems, jokes and songs depicting life under Nazi rule. Some Interviewed eye witnesses and documented their tales of Nazi atrocities, including mass murder. As the months ticked by, with fewer and fewer Jews remaining alive in the ghetto, the Oyneg Shabbes group realized that documentation was no longer enough. They developed contacts with the Polish underground and smuggled their reports of Nazi atrocities out, under the walls of the ghetto. They were determined to get their story into the hands of the Allies. It was due to their heroic efforts that the Allies first learned of the reality of the Final Solution.
One of the more powerful elements of “Who will write our History?” shows original footage shot by the Nazis juxtaposed with the words of Oyneg Shabbes writers. Director Roberta Grossman uses newsreels, voice-overs and re-enactments to communicate this hopeful and tragic story.
By 1943 only about 50,000 Jews were left and liquidation of the ghetto seemed inevitable. Members of Oyneg Shabbes were also disappearing. Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the underground army, led the remaining desperate Jews in a revolt. Using pistols and homemade grenades, they attacked the Germans, temporarily disrupting the deportation process. The Nazis, desperate to suppress the first large scale resistance to their reign of terror, retaliated with full force. Crack troops of the Wehrmacht supported by tanks with flame throwers attacked the ghetto. The battle raged on for 33 days until the ghetto was burned and reduced to rubble.
With the ghetto burning and the walls crumbling all around, Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabbes comrades buried hundreds of thousands of pages of documents in steel canisters under the burning buildings. Their hope was that their writings would survive, even if they do not. Ringelblum managed to escape from the burning ghetto and hid for nine months, all the while writing and shaping up the archives. Ultimately, his hiding place was betrayed by a Pole and he, his wife and child were killed. Out of the more than 60 members of Oyneg Shabbes, only three survived the war.
In 1946, with the war over, Rachel Auerbach, one of the survivors of the original group used aerial photographs of the ghetto to find the location of the buildings containing the canisters. Two of the canisters, containing thousands of documents, were unearthed in 1946 and 10 boxes were found in 1950. A third set of cannisters was never discovered. In all, 35,000 pages of the original Oyneg Shabbes documents were found.
“Who will Write our History?” is a powerful documentary film based historian Samuel Kassow’s book by the same title. Kassow collated the original archives and brought them alive in his excellent book.
The documentary uses actual World War II footage, shot by the Nazis and recovered by the allies. Academy Award winner Adrian Brody reads the words of Emanuel Ringelblum, describing his fears and hopes as we listen to a voice from 75 years ago, written especially for us today.
We share the terror of discovery as the Oyneg Shabbes and their families hide in their bunkers. Their haunting words reveal their hope and fear, that we, in a future generation may someday hear them. With the daily deportations, members of Oyneg Shabbes are also caught in the dragnet. As the actors read the words of Oyneg Shabbes contributors, we listen to their fears that the pages will be destroyed, and no one will ever know their suffering and sacrifice.
While the Nazis attempted to show how depraved the dirty, filthy, lice riddled Jews were, Oyneg Shabbes chronicles explain the step by step methods the Nazis used force the Jews into such condition. Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabbes collaborators point an accusing finger from their fiery graves, as they shout their eye witness testimony for everyone to hear.
The archives also capture their humor, longing, hunger and determination to retain their humanity in the face of unspeakable hardships. “Who Will Write Our History?” defeats those who wish to minimize the culpability of the perpetrators of one of humanity’s gravest sins.
“Who Will Write Our History” was produced by a range of great talents, including Producer Nancy Spielberg, Grossman, and the voices of three-time Academy Award nominee Joan Allen and Brody. The documentary opens Friday at Quad Cinemas in New York. Designated as a “critic’s pick” in the New York Times and having glowing reviews in other publications, several screenings are already sold out. The film enters worldwide release on January 27, UN designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a must see for anyone who wants to know the truth about the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“Who Will Write Our History?” A Film by Roberta Grossman. Based on the book by Samuel Kassow. An Abramorama release. In English, Yiddish, and Polish with English subtitles. Official selection of the New York Jewish Film Festival.