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'Who Will Write Our History' Gives New Insight Into Warsaw Ghetto


In 1940, in Nazi-occupied Poland, a group of Jewish historians, journalists and others gathered in secret. Days before, hundreds of thousands of Jews had been sealed by the Nazis inside the Warsaw Ghetto. This group decided to resist with the power of their words. Under the code name Oyneg Shabes, or the joy of Sabbath, they started documenting every bit of their lives. They collected poems, essays, underground newspapers and diaries that captured unflinching real-time accounts of the horrors around them. Now, a new documentary film tells the story of this time. It's a hybrid movie that includes archival footage of Nazi atrocities. And we hear actors reading verbatim from the letters and diaries of the Warsaw Jews.


ZACHARY MOOREN: (As Abraham Lewin, reading) The news about the expulsion of Jews is spreading like lightning through the ghetto.

ADRIEN BRODY: (As Emanuel Ringelblum, reading) A wave of evil rolled over the whole city as if in response to a nod from above.

BLOCK: When the Nazis began mass deportations of the Jews, sending them to the gas chambers, the Jewish leaders in Warsaw buried everything they'd collected - in boxes and milk cans - in a desperate attempt to save it. In the years after the war, much of it was unearthed. The new documentary about that hidden archive is called "Who Will Write Our History." And the director of that film, Roberta Grossman, joins me now. Welcome to the program.

ROBERTA GROSSMAN: Hi. Thank you very much for having me.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the man who started the collective in the Warsaw Ghetto, the driving force behind it, the historian Emanuel Ringelblum. And let's listen to part of a letter that he wrote before he was captured and ultimately deported and killed.


BRODY: (As Emanuel Ringelblum, reading) Remember that our workers were ever faithful to the ideals of our culture until their dying moments. The flag of culture and of struggle with barbarism was clenched in their hands until death.

BLOCK: It's such an incredible image, that flag of culture. What is he talking about there? What's the meaning of that?

GROSSMAN: I think culture to Emanuel Ringelblum and the people of his milieu meant the better angels of our nature. It meant valuing humanity at its best, creativity in art and literature and music, in relationships, human kindness and in stark contrast to what the Nazis were presenting themselves as, the enemies of humanity. He really saw culture as being a force of resistance. Resistance can come in many forms, in the woman who risks her life crossing out of the ghetto to buy food for her starving children. That's a form of resistance. Writing in a diary and recording the crimes of the Nazis. That's a form of resistance. Writing about the experiences of individual lives and not allowing themselves become nameless victims. That's a form of resistance.

BLOCK: Yeah, even just putting the name on the page or showing what the arts and the intellectual scene was among the Jewish people of Warsaw, that was vital.

GROSSMAN: But even more than that - I mean, the emphasis was on the truth, right? These were people who were willing to risk their lives for the truth. And they - Emanuel Ringelblum and the others of the Oyneg Shabes - as they realized that perhaps all of European Jewry was going to be destroyed, they did not want the history of their people to be told by their murderers.

BLOCK: And that question of - point of view, which is embodied in the title of the film, "Who Will Write Our History" - it's also the title of the book by historian Samuel Kassow that was the basis of this and was interviewed in your film. He's asking whose lens are we looking at when we view the Holocaust. Who's telling that story?

GROSSMAN: Exactly. But it was critically important because the Nazis had propaganda units in the ghetto all the time. And there's a lot of diaries and writing in the Oyneg Shabes archive that mentions this. And, obviously, what they're trying to do is to take photographs and footage that will - they can then use to show the Jews as less than human. And so the members of the archive saw what they were doing, what they were collecting, what they were writing as a counterbalance to that.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a bit of writing from a 19-year-old in the Warsaw Ghetto, David Graber, who was writing, essentially, what was his last will, later found in the archive. It's read here by an actor.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As David Graber, reading) What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground. I would love to live to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world.

BLOCK: Much of the archive was dug up from the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto after the war, but it is not widely known. Why do you think that is, this great treasure that David Graber was talking about?

GROSSMAN: That was a question I asked myself when I read Sam Kassow's book about 10 years ago. I was completely outraged because I had spent my life reading and learning about the Holocaust, and I didn't know the story. And then, I started asking other people and no one had ever heard of the story. And, to me, this seems like the most important untold story of the Holocaust, or unknown story of the Holocaust. This was the most important, the largest, the most thorough eyewitness cache to survive the Holocaust.

And I think that the reason it hadn't been more well-known is a bit complicated. One reason is that it stayed in Warsaw behind the Iron Curtain.

And Sam Kassow and David Roskies' another scholar in the book - they posit that, perhaps, even a more profound reason why the archive remained unknown or, indeed, continued to be buried is because it's far too honest, right? There's Jewish prostitutes. There's Jews who tell the location of the family - hidden jewelry to members of the Gestapo in order to get some small favor. It's not a simple picture as perhaps was needed or wanted right after the war and for many decades after. So it didn't fit quite into the narrative.

BLOCK: When you go and look at all of this writing and ephemera from the Warsaw Ghetto, what is that like for you? What are you seeing?

GROSSMAN: I'm seeing a rich and vital community. I'm seeing a murdered civilization, a very diverse civilization. Ringelblum went to great lengths to have people of all political stripes - religious, nonreligious, young, old, rich, poor - he really wanted a picture. It's a time capsule of a murdered civilization.

BLOCK: And, at the end of your film, we see this fact. Three million Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Only 1 in 100 survive the war. When you hear that number, does it ever get any less surprising?

GROSSMAN: I continue to be completely confounded by the Holocaust and by the cruelty and absurdity of it. And I - often, I have even, you know, friends of mine. When I told them, when I started working on this film seven years ago, what I was doing, there was sort of this general eye-rolling and like, oh, God, not another film about the Holocaust. And my easy quip is, oh, I didn't realize there had been 6 million films. But, more seriously, I think it's a rift in civilization. It's a rift for humanity. And we're still continuing to grapple with how did it happen and why did it happen and how could we prevent it from happening again.

BLOCK: That's Roberta Grossman, director of the feature documentary "Who Will Write Our History." Thank you so much for talking with us.

GROSSMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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