The pen is not always mightier than the sword, but it can record. As the Nazis took over Poland, set up the Warsaw Ghetto and made propaganda films depicting Jews as animals, a group of about 60 Jews created an archive to show what was taking place. The group took the code name Oyneg Shabes, and a new documentary, “Who Will Write Our History,” tells the story of how incredible testimony was preserved.
Members of Oyneg Shabes knew carrying documents that incriminated the Nazis would land them a death sentence if caught. They hid documents in milk cans and only a few people knew where they were stashed so that the location wouldn’t be given up if members were captured and tortured.
They also put out a clandestine bulletin through the Polish underground telling that the German goal was the murder of the entire Jewish population and that 700,000 Polish Jews had been murdered at that time. The reports made it to London and were broadcast on June 26, 1942.
The group was led by Emanuel Ringelblum. With a voice that is somber and heartfelt, actor Adrien Brody narrates excerpts of Ringelblum’s diary.
“We have struck the enemy a hard blow and if England keeps its word, perhaps, we will be saved,” Brody says, recounting the words of Ringelblum.
The leader recruited journalist Rachel Auerbach who worked at a soup kitchen. In her diaries, she lamented that so many died of starvation. She and two others were the only ones to live to tell their stories. Ringelblum did not survive the Holocaust. He and his family made it to another part of Warsaw and hid with a Polish gentile, but they were all shot to death when they were discovered.
Based on the book by historian Samuel Kassow, the film (from Abramorama Studio) is heartbreaking. With fine direction by Roberta Grossman, we hear words from different diaries. Some haunting ones come from Leyb Goldin, who marvels at the rare operation on a child. He comments at the oddity of watching the child’s mother waiting outside. He wonders what the point of the operation is, when the child will likely die anyway.
“And suddenly you remember that dead Jew whom you tripped over today,” a narrator reads Goldin’s words. “Somewhere, years ago, there was a mother, while cleaning his head, knew that her son was the cleverest, the most talented the most beautiful. And now the brightest and most beautiful child in the world lies in a strange street. And his name isn’t even known… Our howls are like the cry of jackals. But we are not animals. We operate on our children.”
We hear the words of Abraham Lewin, whose wife was taken away by the Nazis:
“I ought to go after her, to die. But I have no strength to take such a step…. She went out in a light dress without stockings with my leather briefcase. Our life together of over 21 years has met with such a tragic end.”
Another harrowing piece of writing comes in the form of the last testimony of a man who knows these will be the last words he writes:
“There’s terrible shooting going on in the street. I just heard my parents’ building is surrounded. I am going to run to my parents and see if they are all right. Remember, my name is Nahum Grzywcz.”
The documentary, which includes simple re-enactments with actors, will make you cry and will make you angry. We see how writing was one of the last things that could be used to show a small modicum of power, with almost no food and in some cases, almost no hope. Surprisingly, there isn’t much devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, except to say that it came as a surprise and there was no clear military objective. Auerbach, who at that time lived outside the ghetto and posed as a Christian, could see the smoke and hear the explosions from her window.
Amazingly, much of the archive was recovered in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto. “Who Will Write Our History” should be seen by as many people as possible because it enables the viewer to feel the pain of the people through their words, rather than simply hearing numbers about those who died or survived. It also makes you wonder how you might have dealt with the excruciating conditions. It also makes you think about how it is that their fate was to live and die in a nightmare while you will go to sleep tonight with enough food in your belly and the knowledge that you will not be a prisoner.