Who Will Write Our History: The Oyneg Shabes Story

A shot of men praying in Warsaw Ghetto in Who Will Write Our History. Photo credit: Anna Wloch.

Who Will Write Our History tells the courageous but mostly unknown story of a covert group known as Oyneg Shabes and how they vowed to defeat the Nazis with pen and paper.

When we first meet Rachel Auerbach (Jowita Budnik, voiced by Joan Allen), she’s headed to on a train to Warsaw in 1946.  This is three years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that took place in April 1943.  While the war had been over for some sixteen months in Europe, Rachel recently learned that a hidden archive was found.  Nobody ever thought the archive would be recoverable.  Lo and behold, they ultimately recovered two caches.  The first of which came in September 1946 with the recovery of ten boxes.

“Let the witness be our writing,” Rachel Auerbach one wrote.

Journalists, authors, teachers, and children, among other Jews, took to the battle with their pens.  Through their written world, they would ensure the survival of Jewish history long after the Nazis decimated the Jewish population.  This is all thanks to the leadership of historian Emanuel Ringelblum (Piotr Glowacki, voiced by Adrien Brody).  The archive would go on to be included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.  The Ringelblum Archive, as it’s known, is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute.  This is the present-day location of what used to be the Jewish Social Self-Help (ZSS) offices.

“We have to understand that the archive at Oyneg Shabes is one great act of accusation against the German policy,” says Polish historian Jan Grabowski.  The historian points out that any underground activity or collecting of evidence of German crimes carried the death penalty.

Ringelblum was the leader of some 60 members of Oyneg Shabes and they would lead the fight against the Nazis.  When 450,000 Jews were sealed inside the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940, Ringelblum joined with other Jews–including journalists, scholars, and Jewish leaders–to form the group that became known as Oyneg Shabes.  Through Ringelblum’s leadership, these sixty members were on a covert mission to expose the Nazis for their lies and propaganda.  It’s taken many years but we’re finally getting to know what really happened in Warsaw.  Once the focal point of Jewish life, the city was decimated during the war.

We learn a few key things during the film’s post-script.  Of the sixty members, only three would survive the Holocaust.  These include Auerbach, Hersh Wasser, and his wife, Bluma Wasser.  Of the three million Jews living in Poland, only one in one hundred would survive.  Hersh (aka Hirsch Vasser) knew where the archive was buried so his survival played a key role in finding it.  Two milk cans were recovered in December 1950.  Finally, the third archive cache remains missing.  This one is somewhere underneath the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.  Whether it will ever be recovered certainly remains to be seen although attempts have been made.  This third archive contains half of the documents so it’s recovery is pertinent.  Samuel Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History? tells the story in book form–a perfect companion to the film.

After collecting testimonies from Polish survivors following the war, Rachel Auerbach emigrated to Israel.  She would take a job as the director of the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony for Yad Vashem.  It was in this role in which she came up with the idea to use the survivors’ testimony during Adolf Eichmann’s trial.

First and foremost, I want to thank director Roberta Grossman and executive producer Nancy Spielberg.  Because of them, the world is able to learn the story of Oyneg Shabes.  Yes, this is also something that we can read about in a book.  But there’s something that’s visually striking in watching it unfold on screen.  While many did not live to survive the Shoah, these 60 people made sure that Warsaw’s Jewish history would live on so as to “scream truth to the world.”  This was a period in which Jews were being killed by the Nazis without mercy so the this collection is very important.  Without this covert group, important history would probably cease to exist.  A lot of history is lost because of the Nazis but Oyneg Shabes made sure that something would survive.

The efforts to uncover such history is vital because Warsaw was–in essence–the center of the Jewish world.  Not even New York could make such a claim during the pre-war era.  This is why the recovery of this missing third cache is so important.  We do know that it’s out there.  Maybe the release of this documentary will pave the way for an excavation underneath the Chinese embassy.  I’m not saying that Jewish history depends on it but knowing what is in the documents would be great for our history.  What we have at the moment is only half of what was buried in 1943.  A total of 60,000 pages exist overall.

Please note that the theatrical release of Who Will Write Our History comes just weeks after the passing of Simcha Rotem at the age of 94.  Rotem was the of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jewish Resistance fighters to pass away.  May his memory be a blessing.

Who Will Write Our History is just one of many Holocaust era stories that were unknown for years but are finally being told.  While books may be great, it’s the documentary films helping to get the stories in front of a wider audiences.  While many of us are familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto, this film takes things to the next level.  It’s time for more people outside of Holocaust academia to learn the story of the Warsaw Ghetto.

DIRECTOR:  Roberta Grossman
VOICE CAST:  Joan Allen, Adrien Brody, Charlie Hofheimer, Peter Cambor
DRAMATIZATIONS CAST:  Jowita Budnik, Piotr Glowacki, Karolina Gruszka, Wojciech Zielinksi
FEATURING:  David Roskies, Karolina Szymaniak, Samuel Kassow, Jan Grabowski, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Abramorama will open Who Will Write Our History in New York at the Quad Cinema on Friday, January 18, 2019 and at multiple Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles on Friday, February 1, 2019.  A theatrical expansion will follow. Grade 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.