Suffering from hunger and other indignities, with death lurking at every corner, dozens of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto resolved to set aside time daily to record what they were witnessing and to collect documents and artifacts that could bear witness to the great tragedy that had befallen them during the Holocaust.
Had they been discovered by the Nazis, they would have been condemned to death immediately. The fact they were able to pull off this feat under such circumstances is almost unfathomable.
No less astounding is the fact that this secret archive – large parts of it, at least – was ultimately discovered under piles of rubble, deep in the bowels of the earth, several years after the Warsaw Ghetto had been burnt to the ground in 1943.
A film documenting the extraordinary story of the secret Warsaw Ghetto archive, which included tens of thousands of documents and artifacts, will have its world premiere in July at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Roberta Grossman, “Who Will Write Our History” is a 90-minute docudrama that spotlights this unconventional and lesser-known act of resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto. It is based on historian Samuel D. Kassow’s book “Who Will Write Our History?” (he also served as the film’s chief academic consultant).
Weaving together reenactments, archival footage and interviews with experts, Grossman’s film traces the history of the secret archive: From its conception in 1940, when the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, to the dramatic discovery of the milk cans and metal boxes containing the treasure trove after the war. By that time, almost all of the nearly 500,000 inhabitants of the ghetto had been murdered.
The script also incorporates excerpts from the diaries kept by members of the secret group, some of them read by well-known actors like Adrien Brody and Joan Allen.
‘Simple proofs of life’
The film’s two main protagonists – played by Polish actors Piotr Glowacki and Jowita Budnik, respectively – are Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who spearheaded the documentation project, and Rachel Auerbach (aka Rokhl Auerbakh), one of the few members of the secret society of archivists to survive the Holocaust.
Despite the reenactments, the film often has a true documentary feel, especially in the scenes where special effects are used to superimpose the actors onto historical footage.
The Yiddish code name for what is also known as the Ringelblum Archive was Oyneg Shabes (“The Joy of Shabbat”) – presumably because its members would convene on the Sabbath. Its 60 members were handpicked by Ringelblum and represented a broad cross section of Polish-Jewish society, including doctors and rabbis, Zionists and Bundists (referring to members of the Jewish socialist organization).
Only Ringelblum and two other members of the group knew the underground locations of the hidden archive. Miraculously, one of them, Hersch Wasser, survived the war and was able to direct search crews to two of the locations.
In September 1946, following an intensive search, a first cache of 10 metal boxes – which had been hidden under a school building – was found. In December 1950, a second cache of documents hidden in two aluminum milk cans was discovered by accident by Polish construction workers digging underground.
To this day, a third cache has never been found; it is thought to be located under the grounds of the Chinese Embassy.
Along with the diaries kept by the Oyneg Shabes members, the archive included official and underground newspapers; transcripts of interviews with Jews who had escaped other ghettos and death camps; German billboard pronouncements; theater tickets; labels on goods sold in the ghetto; poems; drawings; and even jokes. “Simple proofs of everyday life and death,” as historian Jan Gobrowski describes them in the film.
For Ringelblum, it was absolutely critical that, even if the Jews did not survive, they would maintain ownership of their story.
“The Germans are sending film crews into the ghetto to show everybody how dirty we are, how filthy we are,” Kassow explains in an interview in the film. “They’re telling the world that we’re the scum of the earth, so unless we collect our own documents, posterity will remember us on the basis of German sources and not Jewish sources. Will the Germans write our history, or will we write our history?”
When the idea of the archive was first conceived, the Jews of Warsaw did not yet understand that they were doomed. They hoped to eventually dig up the material and write a proper history of the era when they had more time and better conditions to work.
Eventually, they realized that the chances of survival were slim and that this archive would serve others who would continue the work in their place.
As Kassow points out in the film, the concept behind the Oyneg Shabes project fit well with Ringelblum’s approach to Jewish history.
“Ringelblum was absolutely dedicated to the notion that Jewish history is not the history of rabbis, is not the history of philosophers, but it’s the history of the whole people,” he explains.
According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chief curator of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Ringelblum was heavily influenced in this approach by his work at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which had a branch in Warsaw. “There was a value placed on ordinary people and their experiences,” she says in the film.
Born in a small Eastern Galician town in 1900, Ringelblum was an active member of a left-wing Zionist party. He ultimately escaped the ghetto, together with his wife and son, but their hiding place on the Aryan side of the city was eventually discovered and they did not survive the war.
Auerbach, one of three archivists from the Warsaw Ghetto to survive the Holocaust, had been a journalist before the war. She ran a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto and was the major force behind digging up the archives after the war.
Auerbach, whose written depictions of ghetto life figure heavily in the film, would eventually immigrate to Israel, where she testified in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann and assumed a senior position at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial center.
Among the film’s most powerful scenes is one taken from Auerbach’s diary. It describes her roaming through the ruins of the ghetto after the war where she discovers, among the piles of belongings left behind by Jews sent to their deaths, a photo of a beautiful, smiling young woman in a bathing suit.
One of the docudrama’s executive producers is Steven Spielberg’s sister, Nancy Spielberg. She previously collaborated with Grossman on another Jewish-themed film, “Above and Beyond” (2014), which told the story of Jewish-American pilots who fought for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
Their new film is the latest sign that the Warsaw Ghetto archive is starting to earn the recognition it has long deserved. In 1999, it was one of three collections from Poland included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The others were the masterpieces of Frédéric Chopin and the scientific works of Nicolaus Copernicus.
Last November, Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute (aka the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute), which houses the archive, put it on display for the first time. “What We Were Unable to Shout Out to the World” is the name of a new permanent exhibition, which provides the public with a first-of-its-kind opportunity to view the original material up close.
“Who Will Write Our History” will premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Saturday July 21, with further screenings on July 22 and 28.