WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY – The story of a secret archive

Based on the book of the same name written by the historian Samuel D. Kassow, WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY, directed by Roberta Grossman, premiered in Italy at the Rome Film Fest, is an outstanding documentary about the story of an archive.

The voiceover of Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of Polish Judaism and Rachel Auerbach, one of the first women in the Jewish intellectual world, recount through extracts from the archive and diaries of the main characters the extraordinary life of the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1939, when war broke out, Emanuel Ringelblum was one of the most remarkable figure of the Zionist Marxist-oriented left wing. In spite of all warnings and advices, Ringelblum decided not to leave from Warsaw, the city where soon after the extermination of the Jews would start.

In the immediate aftermath of Warsaw fall, on 27 September 1939, Ringelbum contacted Rachel Auerbach «We cannot all flee away», he told me when asking me to take on a soup kitchen for Jewish refugees financially supported by the Jewish Diaspora in America. «[…] This was to change my life forever.»

On 12 October 1940 Warsaw was divided into three sectors: Polish, German and Jewish. The Germans enclosed all the Jews in a Ghetto.

«Nalewki street looked like Hollywood, everywhere you could see a star

A part of the city which not long before had been animated by a culturally vibrant community («Culturally the Jews in Poland were a State in the State.») turned into a hell, with over 500,000 people (30% of the population) packed into a little over three kilometers in cruel inhuman conditions dying of disease starvation, hardship. On November 15 the Ghetto was sealed.

Something that had never been seen was about to happen. Something that would become the history of the Jewish people and Ringelblum understood what was happening.

Some days after he set up ‘Oyneg Shabes’ (literally the Joy of Saturday because in the beginning its members met on Saturday). It was a secret organization in which he brought together the best of the brilliant Polish -Yiddish intelligentsia of the time: economists, journalists, scholars, and historians, Rabbis, businesspeople, teachers. Zionist, Socialists and Communists. To all he handed out notebooks and encouraged them to record their everyday lives: «Write everything down, everything is important.»

Regelblum’s purpose was clear. He wanted to create an archive to collect the witness accounts of life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto. «Will the Germans write our history or will we?»

Pages and pages of stories, phrases, drawings, pictures. «Genuine proof of life and daily death.» The whimpering of beggars, the cries of starving children, corpses lying in the streets. Because everything is important when recording history. Victims and perpetrators, hangmen and heroes. Snapshots of ordinary life, Jews trying to carry out their religious rituals, the network of clandestine schools, the theatre, the cultural life that the Jewish community kept alive in a desperate attempt to live with honor.

Everything was meticulously collected to be selected afterwards when the war would be over. to preserve their history, to wipe out the disgrace of the Nazi cinema propaganda depicting the Jews as dirty, infected and shunning water for their personal hygiene. One year after the sealing of the Ghetto over 80,000 Polish Jews had died of hunger.

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY, masterfully crafted, with a highly effective narrative and aesthetic structure based on a cinematic reconstruction that intertwines archive images and films interviews with historians and experts. Roberta Grossman is very able to emotionally (and painfully) engaging the viewers, immersing them in that story full of horrors. Even the horrors committed by the very victims, even the rage of the Jews against other Jews, and the brutality of the Jewish police driven by hunger to hunt down their brothers.

«This is the biggest difference between Regelblum’s arhive and other post-war documents […] you cannot find these.»

The mass deportation during the terrible summer of 1942 resulting in the extermination of the largest Jewish community in Europe. Over 200,000 Jews were deported and sent to die in the extermination camp of Treblinka, another 5,000 and 7,000 were sent to labour camps. Bit by bit the extermination took on the face of the Final Solution Ringelblum’s archive changed. From then on, it was not only an historical and moral eyewitness to pass on to future Polish-Jewish generations, but also the incredible stories of those who managed to escape from the labor camps scattered all over the country. This gave the archive an extraordinary legal value to be used after the war to bring to trial the mass muderers of the most massacre in the history of mankind.

The very humanity who “maybe does not know and if it does why doesn’t it take action?”, over and over again, like an obsession, Ringleblum repeated to himself. Right up to the dire realization that not even the English would intervene in the Warsaw Ghetto nor elsewhere, even though the BBC on June 1942 had reported the killing being committed against the Polish Jews through the dispatches secretly sent by Oyneg Shabes.

On 7 March 1944 Emanuel Ringelblum was captured with his wife Yehudis and his son Uri from where they had been hidden in a bunker in the Aryan side of Warsaw where for months even though exhausted by hunger he had kept on writing his diaries, essays and treaties in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew. On 18 September 1946 a group of researchers excavating under the piles of rubble of a school in the ghetto brought to light one of Ringelblum’s archives.

«A real archeological dig» Rachel Auerbach called it. A second part of the collection would be digged up in 1950, while the third and final collection has still yet to be recovered. Ringelblum was afraid that no Oyneg Shabes members would survive to retrieve the approximately collection of the 6,000 documents before ghetto would be completely destroyed. A well-founded fear. Out of the sixty Oyneg Shabes only three survived: Hersh Wasser (who led the excavation after the war), his wife and Rachel Auerbach.

In 1999 the Warsaw Ghetto Archives were assigned a “Memory of the World” status by UNESCO in addition to Chopin’s masterpieces and Copernico’s scientific works. An extraordinary eyewitness account. A World Heritage.

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