The most famous diarist of the Holocaust, Anne Frank, began to write down the drama of her daily life with no ulterior motive (apart from her teenage ambition to write fiction). But in March 1944, the year before she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she heard a radio broadcast by a member of the Dutch government in exile who promised to publish the letters and diaries of his people after the war. From that moment on, Anne Frank knew that she was writing for posterity, even if she could never have guessed how important her words would one day become.
By contrast, the diarists chronicled in “Who Will Write Our History,” a vital and sobering documentary directed by Roberta Grossman, always knew that they were drafting the record of an existence whose memory — were it not for them — would be wiped away. They were Jewish residents of Warsaw who, in the fall of 1939, right after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, were corralled into a walled-off, overcrowded, systematically starved and impoverished section of the city that became the largest “ghetto” created by the Nazis.
I put “ghetto” in quotes because the word, to our ears, implies a desperate residential ruin that develops over time out of socially and economically unjust conditions. But the Warsaw Ghetto, though in certain ways a neighborhood (homes, buildings, shops), was really a sprawling, state-run murder asylum. Before the war, there were 350,000 Jews living in Warsaw (roughly one-third of the city’s population), and within a few years nearly all of them had died. Many were deported to Auschwitz or Dachau, but the “ghetto,” where thousands perished, was designed by the Germans as a daily purgatory of degradation and torture.
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It hardly trivializes what went on in the Warsaw Ghetto to say that there was an element of showmanship tucked inside the horror. Propaganda is on some level theater, and nearly all the films and photographs that exist of the Warsaw Ghetto were shot by the Germans and reflect their depraved voyeuristic point-of-view. Even when the images resemble news footage, they conjure a pornography of death.
That’s where Emanuel Ringelblum, the central figure in “Who Will Write Our History,” came in. He was a tall dark and stately Polish-Jewish historian who realized, early on, that the Nazis intended to snuff out every vestige of the Jewish culture they despised with such insanity. He began to keep a diary of what he saw, and more than that he recruited a group of followers — artists, academics, writers — to scribble down their everyday experiences, with the intent of making sure that those fragments of life would survive on the page.
He assembled their diaries into a vast archive, code-named Oyneg Shabes (“The Joys of Shabbat”), and what it contained wasn’t just a quotidian record of the crimes of the Nazis. It was an assertion of the diarists’ own fears and hopes and dreams and identities and daily habits and small pleasures, all experienced in the face of hell. Their diaries became a form of resistance: a rejection of the walking death to which the Nazis had consigned them. The ugliness of Nazi propaganda said: This is how the Jews live (lice, disease, poverty). And, what’s more, they deserve it. The voice of Oyneg Shabes shot down that mythic racist lie. It said: We are not what the Germans say we are. It said: We fight the Nazi death cult — every moment, every day — by declaring the fullness of our emotions and the abundance of our lives.
Grossman, the co-director of “Seeing Allred,” based “Who Will Write Our History” on a book by Samuel D. Kassow (tellingly, she drops the question mark from the book’s title), and she has made a moving documentary that’s nestled inside a rather standard one. The history of how Oyneg Shabes actually worked (the gathering of the diaries, the way they were concealed and ultimately hidden in bunkers) is presented as a true-life Holocaust detective story, yet there are limits to its fascination. What’s haunting about the movie is its existential chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto and how the humanity within its borders fought to keep from melting away.
And frankly, I had mixed feelings about the film’s extensive use of dramatic re-enactments. One of the documentary’s key figures is Rachel Auerbach, a Warsaw journalist who became an instrumental member of the archive and lived to tell the tale of how it evolved. There are lengthy sequences in which she’s portrayed by the Polish actress Jowita Budnik, with Emanuel Ringelblum played by the Polish actor Piotr Glowacki. The scenes that take place between them consist of things that the movie couldn’t otherwise depict, but they seem to have been lifted right out of a doleful, rather nondescript WWII biopic. More than that, though, the impulse to convert these moments into “drama” undercuts the essential message of the movie: that their words could tell all. This may be the rare instance of a filmmaker, devoted to the eloquence of her subject, who nevertheless underestimates it.