Who Will Write our History

In September 1939, Berlin attacked Warsaw and brought it under Nazi control, splitting the city into three sections – one German, another Polish, and a third Jewish. Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian, recognized that this was a moment which needed to be documented, not because of the obvious danger, but because of the cultural erasure the German soldiers systematically undertook each day through various propaganda tools. Ringelblum and his growing assemblage of writers, reporters, and scientists, as well as everyday members of the Warsaw Ghetto, documented everything they experienced, and gathered it together in an archive. He was determined to preserve the truth of Jewish identity. 

Who Will Write Our History, an adaptation of the book by Dr. Samuel Kassow, is directed by Roberta Grossman, and working once again with Executive Producer Nancy Spielberg (Above and Beyond), is a film which focuses on a small band of individuals who found strength in defiance of Nazi control through the simple act of writing. By chronicling their lives – what they saw, what they felt, what they refused to become – within a secret archive dubbed “Oyneg Shabes” (the joy of Sabbath), they found a way to be remembered as more than victims, as people who resisted.

Since any obvious activity of documenting could be punished by imprisonment or death, the archive was kept secret and was buried before the ghetto was burned to the ground during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. One cache was unearthed in 1946, another in 1950, and a third remains underground.

The Oyneg Shabes archive is a living record of the days within the ghetto as told by its members.  Within the archive, they celebrate the good days, mourn the bad, contemplate the ethical difficulties of surviving when people are dying of starvation and disease all around you, and try not to lose hope.  The film includes expressions of futility, despair, and outrage at the conduct of fellow Jews. Many debates arose as is revealed in the archive documents, such as what is the proper attitude toward the suffering of others. Is callousness an expression of weakness or strength? Included are as many viewpoints as the people who contributed their words to the project.

As Ringeblum himself noted, “The life of every Jew during the war is a world unto itself,” and how everlastingly fortunate we are that the Oyneg Shabes archive prevented the hell of the Holocaust from silencing their voices.  “Taking hold of one’s own narrative is all the more crucial in our current cultural moment,” says Saratoga Jewish Cultural Festival Coordinator Phyllis Wang, “when xenophobia is being upheld by too many in power. Just imagine the archive that may being currently compiled by those incarcerated along the US–Mexican border and potentially other places around the world.”Who Will Write Our History is presented by the Saratoga Jewish Cultural Festival and Temple Sinai through a generous grant provided by the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York. Showing is August 12, at 7 pm, at Temple Sinai, 509 Broadway, Saratoga Springs.  A dessert reception and panel discussion will follow. A $5 donation is requested. For reservations or information, contact 518-584- 8730, Option 2.  or email office@saratogasinai.org

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