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Who Will Write Our History?

A profoundly impactful piece, which aims to display as much as possible in conveying the story of the people who created an archive of Polish Jews’ writings and artwork buried beneath the Warsaw ghettos.

Who will write our history film still

There’s a line of voiceover dialogue in Roberta Grossman’s Warsaw ghetto based documentary, Who Will Write Our History. A writer in the hidden Oyneg Shabes Archive reflects upon the suffering that floods the world and the pain caused by the Nazi regime. But he finishes his sentence on this topic with the words, “and I, I am hungry”. This line marks a pivotal theme in the documentary, which premiered at Manchester Central Library on this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, namely the conflict faced by people in desperate situations between their commitment to themselves and to the community.

It must be noted that this documentary is not for everyone, even though it should ideally be watched by all. Like many classic feature films about the holocaust, such as Schindler’s List, it proves essential historical viewing that is tragically heart-breaking to watch. However, it also leaves a deep imprint on the viewer, unlike that which a dramatic portrayal can. This is largely due to the film’s use of real footage from the Warsaw ghettos, including images of bearded Jewish men being forcibly shaved by Nazi officers, children starving in the streets and, most distressingly, piles of malnourished human bodies being hauled away on wheelbarrows like waste. The documentary does feature some reconstructions of meetings between prominent figures behind Oyneg Shabes. But with footage like this, we as an audience don’t have the familiar faces of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in costumes. And we certainly don’t have the sense of security that once the cameras stop rolling, these familiar faces are just going to step away, take those costumes off and return to their daily lives.

Instead, Who Will Write Our History is a profoundly impactful piece, which aims to display as much as possible in conveying the story of Emanuel Ringelblum, Rachela Auberach and other prominent figures who created the Oyneg Shabes: an archive of Polish Jews’ writings and artwork buried beneath the Warsaw ghettos, with the intent of preserving a history which was being very much overwritten by barbaric forces.

But the event also included a further variety of ways in which those people were honoured. These included public readings of various accounts from writers found within the archive, demonstrating a range of emotions from anxiety to downright anger and frustration. There were also some samples provided of letters and documents from the archive on display, which visitors were allowed to read through personally and find a sense of living through their words. And there was even a storyboard displaying a timeline of the life of Irena Sendler, a social worker who helped to smuggle and shelter Jewish children out of the ghetto, and narrowly escaped the death penalty at the hands of the Nazis, after refusing to reveal any of her secret information under intense torture.

It is stories and documents such as these, all perfectly captured in the documentary, which ultimately make remembering the holocaust so essential. We, as a society, need to do more to remember not just the events, but the people. We need to remember their suffering and their day to day coping with life under these conditions, so that nobody should be made to experience them again.

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