“Who Will Write Our History?”

The Past, The Future

Amos Lassen

“Who Will Write Our History” shares the   mostly unknown story of a covert group known as Oyneg Shabes and how they promised to defeat the Nazis with pen and paper. Rachel Auerbach (Jowita Budnik, voiced by Joan Allen), is headed to on a train to Warsaw in 1946, three years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that took place in April 1943.  The war had been over for a year-and-a-half and Rachel has learned recently that a hidden archive was found.  Nobody ever thought that this archive would ever be recovered.  Two caches were found and the first came in September 1946 with the recovery of ten boxes.

Journalists, authors, teachers, and children and other Jews battled with their pens.  They were determined that their written world would ensure the survival of Jewish history long after the Nazis had done their dastardly deeds.  Historian Emanuel Ringelblum (Piotr Glowacki, voiced by Adrien Brody) wanted to make sure that  the archive would go on to be included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register and to become known as the Ringelblum Archive. Today it is housed at  at the Jewish Historical Institute which used to be the Jewish Social Self-Help (ZSS) offices.

“Who Will Write Our History” 2016 dir Roberta Grossman

It is important to understand that the archive at Oyneg Shabes is one great act of accusation against the German policy,” says Polish historian Jan Grabowski.  He 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 who 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 create the group that became Oyneg Shabes.  Through Ringelblum’s leadership, the sixty members were on a covert mission to expose the Nazis for their lies and propaganda.  Now we are  finally getting to know what really happened in Warsaw.  Once the focal point of Jewish life, the city was almost destroyed during the war.

Of the sixty members of the group, 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 containing archival material were recovered in December 1950.  Finally, the third archive cache remains missing and is The third archive contains half of the documents so it’s recovery is crucial.

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.  She came up with the idea to use the survivors’ testimony during the trial of Adolf Eichmann.   While so many did not live to survive the Shoah, these 60 people made sure that Warsaw’s Jewish history would live on and this was being carried out during a period which Jews were being killed by the Nazis without mercy.  Without this covert group, important history would probably not exist. 

“Who Will Write Our History” is just one of many Holocaust era stories that were unknown for years and are now being told and it examines the past as it cautions about the future.  The film which focuses on a small band of individuals who found strength in defiance of Nazi control through the simple act of writing. They chronicled their lives and  what they saw, what they felt, what they refused to become fora secret archive– Oyneg Shabes” (the joy of Sabbath). They found a way to be remembered as more than victims but as people who resisted.

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.”

“Who Will Write Our History” focuses specifically on the Warsaw Ghetto and  is split into three congruent portions running simultaneously that create an immersive and contextually thoughtful experience. The first portion is a reenactment of events featuring actors in the roles of the individuals central to the creation of the secret archive. The second portion uses voiceovers in the place of most of the dialogue for the actors. Though the actors do have a few lines which they speak themselves, the bulk of the dialogue comes from letters from the archive, which the faceless voices communicate while we watch various reenactments take place. The third portion is a series of experts who offer commentary on what was happening.


The film is an emotionally-charged experience, and a necessary one. Even now, the lessons of the past remind us all that too easily can unease turn into frustration, into hate, into violence and that the violence perpetrated on a people can happen to anyone with enough time and without resistance.

This is a shattering and inspiring story to tell, yet its style continuously holds us at arm’s length. Under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum the Oyneg Shabbos circle of academics and journalists documented life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, collecting eye-witness accounts. Most of the film is told through the words of the Oyneg Shabbos group (so-called because they often met on Sundays. In large measure, the film also draws from visuals preserved within their hidden archives.

“Which side of the story becomes the official narrative? Whose accounts do we elevate to the level of “truth,” and whose do we ignore or even bury? What is real, and what is fake? These are top-of-mind questions in 2019.”