Thursday, January 17, 2019

Who Will Write Our History?

It was history, scholarship, and paperwork at its most heroic and subversive. 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 and ephemerals that the National Socialists most definitely did not want preserved. The efforts of Ringelblum and his colleagues are documented and partially dramatized in Roberta Grossman’s Who Will Write Our History? (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the Quad.

Most of the film is told through the words of the Oyneg Shabbos group (so-called because they often met on Sundays), particularly Rachel Auerbach, one of the few survivors. In large measure, the film also draws from visuals preserved within their hidden archives. In doing so, Grossman breaks from and explicitly criticizes previous docs that have relied on the propaganda images produced by the National Socialists themselves, such as the film Warsaw Ghetto, examined in-depth during Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished. In fact, the two documentaries would pair up provocatively.

Of course, there are also talking heads, including Samuel Kassow, whose eponymous book served as a road map for Grossman’s film. Much like Grossman’s Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, WWWOH also incorporates dramatic re-enactments. These live-action interludes work well enough, because they recreate moment of high danger and intrigue, but they lack a central figure who is comparably compelling as the tragically young and idealistic Senesh.

WWWOH has been positioned as a documentary on Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos, but it really uses them as a mirror to reflect the Warsaw Ghetto. Patrons who want the nuts and bolts on how the archive was assembled would probably be better directed towards Kassow’s book. Nevertheless, Grossman’s film will undoubtedly be eye-opening for many viewers, but there could be expectations issues for those better versed on the Warsaw Uprising and Holocaust history in general. It is not as richly entertaining as the Above and Beyond, Grossman’s rip-roaring chronicle of the creation of the Israeli Air Force, but WWWOH clearly has a different reason for being.

You can be sure WWWOH is a well-intentioned, worthy film. The Hon. Ronald Lauder, former Ambassador to Austria and current president of the World Jewish Congress would not be on-board as an executive producer if that was not the case. Recommended for general audiences, Who Will Write Our History? opens tomorrow (1/18) in New York, at the Quad.