We sat down with Roberta Grossman, writer, producer and director of WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY, a film about a group of journalists, writers and activists in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, who were willing to risk their lives so the truth would survive, even if they did not. Let by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, this group of courageous spiritual resisters created and buried the largest cache of eye-witness accounts to survive the Holocaust. Grossman discusses why she used documentary dramatizations to recreate this history and comments on the ever-present danger of the kind of propaganda used by the Nazis to dehumanize their victims. Interview conducted by Nina Young.
How did you come across Samuel Kassow's book, Who Will Write Our History?, and when did you decide to adapt his research into the documentary medium?
I had started work on another film on an inter-war Polish-Jewish topic. I read a review of Sam Kassow's book and was just floored that I didn't know the story it tells. I have spent, literally, my whole life reading about the Holocaust; how was it possible that I had never heard of Emanuel Ringelblum and the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto? As soon as I was ten pages into Kassow’s book, I knew that I had to make a film based on it. I contacted Sam and, with the help of a generous donor, was able to acquire the film rights to his book.
How does the subject matter of Who Will Write Our History differ from other elements of Holocaust history you've explored in your previous films?
Well, it's simply a different story: people, good friends included, when I started working on Who Will Write Our History, rolled their eyes and said, "Oh God, not another film about the Holocaust." But my retort to that is, "Gee, I didn't realize there had been six million films." Because everybody has a story that deserves to be told and heard. In this particular case, however, I believe that the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto is the most important unknown story of the Holocaust. Emmanuel Ringelblum and the sixty or so people he brought together to create the archive were giants of spiritual resistance. Ringelblum had the foresight, skill and devotion to create and run a very sophisticated research institute in the very depths of hell. The members of the secret archive had a mission: to tell the story of the war from the Jewish point of view. And they succeeded. As scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told me, if we didn't have the archive, we'd only know what the Germans wanted us to know. We wouldn't know anything about the individuals in the Ghetto, how they lived, what they felt. We wouldn’t know how the community came together to house refugees, feed the poor, and care for the ever-growing number of orphans. We also wouldn’t know the internal turmoil of real people coping with an impossible and deteriorating situation — how some people betrayed their own family members to the Gestapo while others gave their last piece of bread to save someone else. Another important aspect that distinguishes Who Will Write Our History is that we are used to learning about the Holocaust from survivor testimony, which, of course, is very moving and vital. But Who Will Write Our History is based on eyewitness, in-the-moment testimony from people who didn’t know how the story was going to end.
Two phrases in the film stood out when describing Oyneg Shabes: someone described the archive as "buried treasure" and another description was the archive as an "act of accusation". Could you explain those descriptions a bit further?
I don't know if you've ever been to Israel, but there is a beautiful museum in Jerusalem for the Dead Sea Scrolls. And yet, there has been scant attention outside of the realm of scholars to the Ringelblum Archive. To me, the Ringelblum Archive is the Dead Sea Scrolls coming out of the rubble of the Ghetto. It is 60,000 pages of the eyewitness, heart-wrenching, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always very human writing of people who were going through an unimaginable experience. So to me, the Ringelblum Archive is an invaluable treasure. Can you repeat the second question?
The archive documents were also described as "acts of accusation."
These people risked their lives. Nazis were very fond of collective punishment, so if I killed a Nazi soldier, the Nazis would come and kill not only me, but everyone in my family, my neighbors, and the people on my street. The Nazis didn't look too kindly on any kind of resistance and especially not organized resistance. Participating in a clandestine organization such as the Oyneg Shabes, meant putting your life at extreme risk. It was an act of spiritual resistance to reject propaganda and lies and assert that what we observe and who we are and what we know is the truth is worth dying for. I had no idea when I started making the film that it would come out at a time when the truth is so under attack and propaganda is masquerading as news as part of a political strategy. Recently, I've partnered for several screenings with the Committee to Protect Journalists. The reason is that contemporary journalists engaged in finding and reporting the truth are too often arrested, tortured, even killed by powerful interests who don't want the truth to be known. There are obvious parallels to the brave members of the Oyneg Shabes. Finally on this point ... When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, there was still a living, free press in Germany. It was limping along because of the terrible economic conditions. But, there was a free press and every time that a newspaper published an article that criticized Hitler or the Nazi Party, they were attacked as spreading “lügenpresse,” which translates as fake news. The current use of the expression 'fake news' is is intentional, and people on the far-right in Germany and Austria and the U.S. know that when Trump says 'fake news' he means lügenpresse. So it is really a strikingly frightening parallel.
Can you explain the process of deciding to stage the dramatizations in the film, which took over 5 weeks of shooting, alongside the archival documents and voice overs?
It is very difficult to make a documentary film about people who are dead, a place that no longer exists, and a civilization that has been wiped out. The eyewitness accounts in the Archive are the closest thing we have to a sit-down interview with Ringelblum and the other members of the Archive. The writing in the Archive is so powerful, especially the diaries, yet there is really very little to show on screen, and you can't make a film without visuals. I wanted to create visuals that would stand up to the writing of the Archive.I know we normally think of archival footage as being authentic, and recreations or dramatizations as being somewhat suspect, but in this case, I think those two things are turned on their head. The archival footage was shot by the Nazi propaganda units that were in the Ghetto and the dramatizations are based word-for-word on the writings from the Archive. The dramatizations in Who Will Write Our History were produced with great care: our production design team worked with scholars in Poland for 6 months before we arrived to shoot, to make sure every pen, every shirt, every piece of wallpaper was accurate. So we went to great lengths to give the film accuracy and gravitas. The main point is that I wanted the film to move people, and to be widely seen, and for the stories of the Oyneg Shabes and the people who created it to be known. I didn’t think that a dry documentary was going to cut it.
In terms of directing the performers, and the voice actors who are reading the diaries and various stories, how did you go about contextualizing for them the gravitas; to make sure the voiceovers and performances were in line with the intensity of the story?
Rachel Auerbach was a prolific writer. Jowita Budnik, who played Rachel Auerbach on camera, and Joan Allen who did the voiceover — I shared with them a lot of Rachel’s writing, so that they could get a sense of who she was. The same went for Ringelblum and all the others. I shared photographs of the real people with them. In terms of directing the actors, I did very little. First of all, they are just fantastic actors and very little directing was required. And, with the subject being so heavy, written material that is so intense, the only thing I really had to say is, "Less is more."
Why is Rachel Auerbach a significant person in this story?
Rachel Auerbach was part of the beginning, middle and end of the story of the Oyneg Shabes Archive. She was part of Ringelblum's milieu in Warsaw between the wars. She was in the Ghetto, ran a soup kitchen, was part of Oyneg Shabes, and she survived to tell the tale. And not only did she survive, she dedicated the rest of her life to writing about the Archive, about the writers, poets, and artists she knew, trying to make sure that they would be remembered, that their voices would be heard. Put all of this together and she and her writing provided a perfect point of view for the film.
Did you get to interact with any of the materials from the Ringelblum Archive yourself?
Yes, of course! The Archive is in Warsaw where it has been since the two caches came out of the ground, one in '46 and one in '50. I shot in the archive: you see in the credits, at the very end of the film, we show the actual documents in the archive. And also we faithfully reproduced every document that is in the dramatization sequences. We also made extensive use of photographs of the documents and objects in the Archive.
A diary from a member of the Oyneg Shabes group read, “I don’t wish to be praised, just to be remembered.” How can educators use this film as a teaching tool regarding past tragedies and historical memory?
I hope that educators can use the film to help students realize that history is not some fixed fact. That all history is interpreted. And who writes history, who tells the story, is critical to how the story is remembered. I just found this quote today, it is from Isaac Schiper, a Jewish historian who was killed at Majdanek [concentration camp]. Before he died, he told a fellow prisoner: "Everything depends on who transmits our testament to future generations, on who writes the history of this period. History is usually written by the victor. What we know about murdered peoples is only what their murderers vaingloriously cared to say about them. Should our murderers be victorious, should they write the history of this war, our destruction will be presented as one of the most beautiful pages of world history.... Or they may wipe out our memory altogether, as if we had never existed, as if there had never been a Polish Jewry, a ghetto in Warsaw, Not even a dog will howl for us."This is true for all persecuted groups in any time or period in history. What, for example, do we know about the Native Americans that were wiped out by disease when the Spanish first came to this content? Very little, right? We have some slave narratives, but if we had more, we would know more. We always need to take a critical look at history, to always ask who is writing and what is their point of view?I hope that teachers can help kids realize how important it is to write, to write their own stories, tell their own stories.
What is your connection and interest in telling stories of Jewish history or culture, whether it be in this film or in your previous works, Blessed is the Match and Above and Beyond?
And Hava Nagila: The Movie. Well, I am Jewish and I love Jewish history; I believe that film is the best way to teach history. I'm very compelled to tell stories that would otherwise remain unknown or not be as well known as I think they should be. I feel like I'm curating a small archive of my own, of historical Jewish stories.