After the Nazis rounded up 450,000 Jews and forced them into the Warsaw Ghetto, a covert group comprised of journalists, scholars and community leaders worked to keep their heritage alive. The group was called Oyneg Shabes and it defied the Third Reich with pen and paper.
“This man, Emanuel Ringelblum, he unleashed the plan that they were going to keep diaries and collect artifacts,” said Myra Shindler, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. “Everything they collected and wrote was buried underground in tin cannisters.”
Shindler is working with the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival to co-sponsor the one-night-only Arizona premiere of “Who Will Write Our History?,” a documentary based on Ringlebaum’s story and the uncovering of the tins that he and Oyneg Shabes hid. The film, based on Samuel Kassow’s book of the same name, was written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman and executive produced by Nancy Spielberg. Grossman has produced or directed many films, including 2015’s “Above and Beyond,” about Jewish fighter pilots who volunteered to fly for Israel in 1948, and “Hava Nagila (The Movie).”
“What inspires me generally is to tell a story that I think is important and might not be told if I don’t do it,” Grossman said. “Another thing that inspires me is anger. In this case, anger that the incredible story of Oyneg Shabes was so little known.”
Grossman said members of Oyneg Shabes had two primary goals: to have the story of the war told from the Jewish point of view and to have Jews remembered as individuals.
“Talk about resistance,” Shindler said. “Here is a spiritual resistance that really tells the history of what happened like nobody else could.”
Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival Co-Executive Director Jerry Mittelman thinks that Grossman is one of the most inspirational documentary directors who both educates and enlightens. He said film is an especially powerful art form for storytelling of this kind. “A film can hold a stronger message, because of its visuals,” he said.
Unfortunately, Grossman didn’t have the chance to interview any members of Oyneg Shabes, so she filmed scenes that were based off the writings and archives that have been discovered.
“I chose ‘characters’ that were members of the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto and told their stories through their own writing,” Grossman said. “I interviewed scholars to help put the writing of the members of the Oyneg Shabes in historical context.”
Mittelman thought Grossman’s portrayal was effective and dramatic. He hopes the film will help people realize that no one should be judged based on the color or their skin or religious beliefs.
“It’s very timely, in that it brings the history of the Warsaw Ghetto into the present,” Mittelman said. “With the racism and bigotry. and most especially with the current effects on the Jewish people in Pittsburgh.”
Shindler hopes the film will educate audiences on the effects of the Holocaust. She especially wants teens and children to learn from this story and perhaps utilize what they see and hear in the film in an upcoming BJE essay contest.
Grossman also thinks the film is very timely.
“I hope people will be inspired by the people who were, quite literally, willing to die for the truth,” Grossman said. “They refused to let their murderous enemies define them — remember that the Nazis justified the need for the Warsaw Ghetto because the Jews were dangerous, lice-carrying typhus spreaders.”
She asks if that sounds at all familiar today.
“A caravan heading our way with people who have TB, etc.?” Grossman said. “Words matter. Racist words can turn into bullets if they are not challenged. I think by simply watching the film, audience members are honoring and fulfilling the primary goals of Emanuel Ringelblum and the other members of the archive who risked their lives so that the truth would survive, even if they did not.”
“Who Will Write Our History?” will screen on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at Harkins Shea 14 Theater in Scottsdale for one night. The film will come again at the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival in February.
Grossman will conduct a question-and-answer session with the audience after the film’s premiere. JN
Tickets can be ordered online at bjephoenix.org or at the BJE office at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, 12701 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale.