“Who Will Write Our History” is a Holocaust documentary that reveals the little-known Oyneg Shabes archives and the story of Polish Jews recording what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Nazis imprisoned nearly 500,000 people before shipping them off to death camps.
Written and directed by Roberta Grossman, the film does so utilizing Nazi propaganda video shot in the ghetto in 1940-42, photographs of the principal figures, interviews with academics and authors who have studied the archives, voice-overs of their writing and dramatized re-enactments.
The latter is usually a distracting-at-best, disruptive-at-worst technique that rarely serves a film well. But the re-enactments here are very well done -- both shot and acted with dialogue lifted word-for-word from the archives -- and, frankly, the picture would not have worked without them.
At the film’s center is Emanuel Ringelbaum (writing voiced by Adrian Brody), a historian who, put in charge of social relief in the ghetto, assembled about 60 journalists, lawyers, scientists and community leaders to secretly document the occupation of Warsaw, the horrors of life in the ghetto and finally, the Nazi atrocities that saw Jews too weak to work shot in the streets while others were being loaded onto the trucks to take them to the camps.
Among those writers was Rachel Auerbach (writing voiced by Joan Allen), who worked in one of the soup kitchens that struggled to feed the teeming masses of refugees forced into the ghetto and one of just three of the Oyneg Shabes members to survive. Her writings and story frame the picture from its opening scenes of her return to Warsaw to the unearthing of the archives.
Only three people, the man who buried the tin boxes containing the writings, drawings and photographs, Ringlebaum and Hirsh Wasser, knew where the archive was buried. Wasser and his wife, Bluma, were the only other Oyneg Shabes survivors besides Auerbach.
“Who Will Write Our History” can be a tough watch at times, both via the haunting Nazi video, shot to further humiliate the Jews, the re-enactments, which, to choose one example, show a hungry man wandering the streets waiting to get his daily bowl of soup tripping over a body, dead on the sidewalk, and via the testimony from the archives and the historians.
Together, they document horrors that must never be forgotten -- that 3 million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, of the starvation and disease in the ghetto, of the anguish of people being rounded up for shipment to their death.
But they also show the resilience, survival and resistance of the Jews -- from the formation of performing arts companies in 1941 through the Warsaw Uprising two years later, with looks at how the religious Jews tried to cope in the ghetto and, briefly, the assistance given to some Jews by ordinary Poles.
I knew nothing of the Oyneg Shabes archives, Auerbach — who later testified against Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and convinced prosecutors to use the words of survivors against him — or details of life in the ghetto.
That made “Who Will Write Our History” particularly revealing and, with its depiction of the Jews and the testimony of their writings, deeply moving and sorrowful.