When director and filmmaker Roberta Grossman read Professor Samuel Kassow’s book Who Will Write Our History, she was fascinated, horrified, and outraged that such a powerful and poignant story had received less media attention than other prominent histories of the Holocaust. She was inspired to turn Kassow’s book into a blended documentary that captures the spirit of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto through a buried archive of personal letters, diaries, photos, and art from the oppressed Jews struggling to survive behind its walls.
On January 17, members of FF2 Media attended the world premiere of Who Will Write Our History at the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Grossman’s film retells the history of a team of Jews (calling themselves “Oyneg Shabbos”) living within the constraints of the Warsaw Ghetto who committed themselves to preserve written, photographic, and drawn evidence of their struggles and emotions during the Nazi regime.
Lead by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and assisted by writer Rachel Auerbach, the team of approximately 60 members risked their lives to preserve the humanity of their community through documents they buried before the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis and nearly everyone was either murdered or deported to the death camps. Click HERE to read FF2 Media’s full review of Who Will Write Our History.
After an intense, beautiful, and teary screening, the audience was ready to bombard the panel with questions and high compliments. Sitting on stage with Roberta Grossman and Samuel Kassow, were moderator Aviva Weintraub from Manhattan’s Jewish Museum and executive producer Nancy Spielberg.
Aside from many compliments and accolades about how beautiful and powerful the film was, the audience raised important questions that get right at the heart of what Who Will Write Our History does best.
When asked about the origins of the film, Roberta Grossman thanked Kassow, who was her obvious inspiration and one of her sources of information for the film. The two mentioned that the history we often see of the Holocaust comes from a distinctly German perspective because the Jews were stripped of their ability to take photographs and document the horrors once they were inside the camps. Kassow and Grossman obviously share Ringelblum’s goal of reclaiming that history from a Jewish perspective.
When asked about Grossman’s decision to incorporate dramatized narrative into the documentary, she had a clear response. She felt it was important to use direct words from the archives in her portrayals of the characters. Not a single detail or sentence in the film was constructed or fabricated, and Grossman was sure to point out that this was intentional. “We live in a time of debate about what is true and what is fake.” Thus, her decision to use direct quotations from the archive even in the reconstructed portions of the film sends a clear message: these stories are real, they are here to stay, and they are of infinite importance in how we decide to carry out our future decisions.
Grossman also commented on the logistics of her decision to incorporate dramatizations. How do you show such powerful writing in a documentary? You can only show so many of the actual documents from the archive. Grossman’s decision to have actors speak and re-enact poignant seems from the creation of the archive in the Warsaw Ghetto accomplishes many important tasks for both filmmaking and documenting history. She allows us to feel the weight of the words as they are spoken through the characters. We know these are real people, these are their real words and this is how they actually described their real struggles.
The audience was also adamant about pushing that the film be shown to younger audiences. Although the theater was packed and there wasn’t an empty seat in sight, I was certainly the youngest person in the room by about thirty years. Audience members recognized the importance of showing such a powerful and engaging film to future generations in order to carry its message forward. Grossman assured the crowd that Who Will Write Our History will be broadcasted on PBS, shown in Polish high schools, and screened at Hillels across the country.
I was sitting next to Professor Sandy Flitterman-Lewis at the screening. She is a renowned film theorist, author, and Holocaust and Jewish studies expert. In response to the screening and Q&A, she said, “After the impressive and moving documentary on Ringelbum’s Warsaw Ghetto archive, the Q&A provided important extra information. The film introduces us to Rachel Auerbach, largely absent from the most conventional discussions of the Archive. She was one of three survivors (out of 60) who was instrumental in recovery of the materials. The filmmaker and historian extended the discussion of her work. The second thing, perhaps more important, involved the recovery of the third milk can. Dr. Kassow explained why he thought it was destroyed: probably disappointed Poles who had dug it up expecting Jewish loot and finding paper destroyed it. The session was very productive, short as it was, and generated much enthusiasm for widespread distribution of this important film.”
© Dayna Hagewood (1/31/2019) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Shot from a reenactment in Who Will Write Our History.
Top Photo: Samuel Kassow’s book.
Middle Photo: An image of the archives.
Photo Credits: Amazon (Kassow’s book) & Who Will Write Our History Press Kit