On January 27th, 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated those individuals the Nazis had imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration and death camp in operation. In recognition of that act, the United Nations established International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 in honor of all those who lost their lives during Hitler’s attempt at European dominance. On this day in 2019, writer/director Roberta Grossman’s adaptation of Dr. Samuel Kassow’s book, Who Will Write Our History, debuts simultaneously across the globe. It’s a film which focuses on a small band of individuals who found strength in defiance of Nazi control through the simple act of writing. By chronicling their lives – what they saw, what they felt, what they refused to become – within a secret archive dubbed “Oyneg Shabes” (the joy of Sabbath), they found a way to be remembered as more than victims, as people who resisted.
In September of 1939, Berlin attacked Warsaw, resulting in the town coming under Nazi Germany control and the town being split into three sections: a German section, a Polish section, and a Jewish section. Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian, recognized that this was a moment which needed to be documented not because of the obvious danger, but because of the cultural erasure the German soldiers systematically undertook each day through various propaganda tools. Ringelblum and his growing assemblage of writers, reporters, scientists, as well as everyday members of the Warsaw Ghetto, documented everything they experienced and gathered it together in an archive. Since any obvious activity of documenting could be punished by imprisonment or death, the archive was kept secret and was buried before the ghetto was burned to the ground during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. The Oyneg Shabes archive is a living record of the days within the ghetto as told by its members. Within the archive, they celebrate the good days, mourn the bad, contemplate the ethical difficulties of surviving when people are dying of starvation and disease all around you, and try not to lose hope.
Unlike many films which explore the events of the Holocaust, Who Will Write Our History focuses specifically on the Warsaw Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. Like the book which inspired it, History is split into three congruent portions running simultaneously to create an immersive and contextually thoughtful experience. The first, most immediate, portion is a reenactment of events featuring actors in the roles of the individuals central to the creation of the secret archive. The second portion is the use of voiceovers in the place of most of the dialogue for the actors. Though the actors do have a few lines which they speak themselves, the bulk of the dialogue comes from letters from the archive, which the faceless voices communicate while we watch various reenactments take place. The third portion is a series of experts who offer commentary on what was happening during the six year period which History tracks. On their own, each of these portions would make for a fascinating cinematic experience, however, through their combination, History becomes a chilling watch as the safe separation between audience and actor melts away and as the words from the past feel absolutely present and tangible.
Films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist afford audiences relative safety during the viewing experience. While the audience is plainly aware that the actions they’re witnessing are true, seeing Liam Neeson, Adrian Brody, or any other known actor on screen creates a subconscious protection that the mind requires. In simple scope, the real events of World War II are hard to grapple with, so presenting them through the actions of surrogates enables the audience to endure historical reenactments more easily. History uses actors as surrogates for the same purpose. It establishes a safety net for the audience before the first words of a voiceover are heard. Even then, the use of voiceover is commonplace for films of all types, so, again, Grossman utilizes familiar tools to ease the audience into History, and to establish the background and set up the time period. Before we’ve gotten too far into the film, several of the historians are shown, providing context on what’s been established so that the audience possesses a sense of weight. By slowly introducing each of the three means of storytelling which combine to construct the form of History, a groundwork is established, enabling the whole film to weave in and out of each frequently overlapping portion. Doing so creates a conversational, casual approach to what History presents which is an integral aspect as the further into History the audience goes, the darker the situation becomes.
This, of course, is no surprise to anyone who’s heard of World War II, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto, or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But, especially for those who are less familiar, the handling of these historical moments by Grossman give the individual stories extraordinary weight. It’s one thing to read a history book or see portrayals from your favorite actors, but another to hear the words of those who endured German subjugation against real propaganda video from that time and place. Suddenly, the protective veil of cinema is gone and all that’s left are the words: words from Rabbi Shimon Huberband who wondered how it’s possible to practice your faith when the tools to do so properly are denied you or would possible cause grave physical harm; words from Rachel Auerbach, a reporter working at the soup kitchen in the ghetto as a favor to Ringelblum, who recounts the notion that the food they serve doesn’t prevent starvation, but merely delays it; words from 14-year-old Sarah Sborov who recounts the night her mother died in their bed; words from Abraham Lewin whose wife was deported on their daughter’s 15th birthday, detailing how their daughter cried in her sleep, desperate for her mother to return; words which transform from Yiddish, a cultural tongue, into Hebrew, perhaps as a signifier that while the culture may be gone, the people remain. Though all of this might feel like emotional manipulation, Who Will Write Our History forswears this through the balance of its three portions, giving the audience a face, offering a voice, and providing context.
Utilizing a different approach to documentary filmmaking to be sure, Who Will Write Our History is an emotionally-charged experience, and a necessary one. Even now, 74 years since the Red Army emancipated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the lessons of the past try desperately to engage the present to remind us all that too easily can unease turn into frustration, into hate, into violence, that the violence perpetrated on a people can happen to anyone with enough time and without resistance. Perhaps, by taking the words of the Oyneg Shabes and giving them physical form, Grossman may instill the notion that even the act of picking up a pen is enough to fan the flames of resistance.
Who Will Write Our History premieres at the New York Jewish Film Festival on Thursday, January 17, 2019 before the film opens in New York at the Quad Cinema on January 18th. Additional screenings will occur at multiple Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles on February 1st, before a slow expansion across the world. Additionally, there will be a special engagement screening at over 200 locations worldwide on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th.
For more information on where to find a screening near you, head to the Who Will Write Our History website.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.