If the phrase “History is written by the victors” has become
a truism, here is the film that takes the would-be victor, fascism, and
transforms its own records and documents into a mirror of its perfidy. It also
stands as a tribute to those who fought against fascism from inside the Warsaw
Ghetto. The simple telling of its story is a resounding call to arms for all
who hear its ring of courage.
A group of Polish Jewish writers and intellectuals whose members found each other in the Warsaw Ghetto during the months leading up to Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, risked what little remained for them. They embarked on an underground project to document not only the horror of the fascists’ extermination campaign, but to show future generations that Jews stood their ground when it counted.
The documentary film, “Who Will Write Our History,” is making
the rounds of Jewish film festivals in San Francisco, San Diego, Louisville,
and Houston, among other cities. It tells the story of Oyneg Shabbat, a cadre
of writers, who, deprived of the opportunity to write, or leave the Warsaw Ghetto,
joined forces to collect wartime ephemera. Among the documents they archived
were posted German declarations, underground Yiddish newspapers, and photos the
Nazis took of the degradation of Jews, via beatings and/or ridicule inflicted
by German storm troopers. They preserved German propaganda in Polish that
misrepresented Jews as unclean, unhealthy, and a threat to Polish society, and
footage of the literal railroading of Jews into labor and death camps outside
Warsaw. The documentarians supplemented the found items by journaling their own
impressions of everyday life under conditions of death by starvation and
disease, or summary execution.
The film profiles two leaders of the Oyneg Shabbat: its founder, Emanuel Ringelblum, a Warsaw writer, and his recruit, Rachel Auerbach, whom Ringelblum convinced to remain in Warsaw rather than flee to join her family. She was a writer whom he knew chiefly by reputation. Their small underground circle included a Rabbi, poets, historians with connections to the left wing of the Polish Labor Party, and Zionists.
Recognizing that most of Jewish history was written and passed down by Rabbis, Ringelblum’s intention was to tell this segment from a secular point of view that captured the experiences of working class Jews, those stripped of the few resources they possessed. As the Nazi presence intensified, declassé bourgeois and middle class Jews, who had lost positions of privilege, were forcibly herded into the ghetto, alongside their poorer landsmen. Eventually all were steamrolled by the Nazi invaders into a despised underclass. Opportunist Aryan Poles took advantage by engaging in blackmail, smuggling, and fingering of Jews to authorities. Sympathetic Poles risked their lives to hide Jews. Oyneg Shabbat didn’t shrink from exposing the treachery committed by Jewish ghetto cops, who did the bidding of Nazi higher ups assigning them to round up for extermination a one-thousand-Jews-per-day quota.
This film may embarrass some who try to pass off as erudite
the facile and dangerous notion that we in the U.S. are living under fascism
today, or impugn Jews for claiming the right of return to Israel because it was
their historic native land, or claim that Israel is an Apartheid state. “Who Will Write our History” should serve to
refresh their awareness of what the period from 1938-1942 was actually like and
help them understand why their comparisons are especially odious, not to
mention perniciously misleading.
By creating what Ringelblum called a “cellar within a cellar,” Oyneg Shabbat’s project succeeded in showing the world what fascism looked like. Though only two members of the group survived the ghetto, their posterity plan worked, and their work outlived them. We witness through the Nazis’ original images, and additional footage that recreates the Warsaw Ghetto, the uncommon caliber of courage marshaled when faced with random but certain death and destruction. No dispensations based on quotidian aspirations enter into it. Only bravery trumps treachery, and when you act bravely to choose fight over flight, you discover that there’s more than one way to make your stand.
Quite literally, at the sound of the jackboot on the stair, steel boxes containing the materials that the dedicated team collected, were secreted in a building which, within days, met with destruction in retribution for the Warsaw Uprising. The fascists set fire to the ghetto and burnt it to the ground. They then razed whatever remained.
Recovery of the cached documents is a small miracle that only those who dedicate themselves to the patient exhumation and excavation of war detritus can fully appreciate. Grossman and her team have turned that treasure trove into a filmic tribute to the dignity of Warsaw Ghetto fighters who rose up against antisemitism, fascism by standing up for the dignity of Jews and their anti-fascist allies.
The rest of us are fortunate to be able to celebrate this precious conquest, albeit with the sober realization that we have our work cut out for us. With the crisis of world imperialism confronting us today, what W. H. Auden referred to in his poem “September 1, 1939,” as the “furniture of home,” is splintering all around us. There is no time like the present to wage a fight to deprive of their power those positioned to unleash a final solution by again scapegoating a people who have borne that historical burden under the lash of a vicious, self-anointed but fictive, “master race.”