A new documentary highlights Holocaust writers and the ‘sacred memory’ they recorded

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Who Will Write Our History, with panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

FilmScene — Sunday, Jan. 27 at 5 p.m.

Still from ‘Who Will Write Our History’

This Jan. 27, in partnership with Iowa City’s Agudas Achim Congregation, FilmScene will take part in a global screening event (one of two in Iowa) to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Connecting our community with the International Day of Commemoration, FilmScene will show the documentary Who Will Write Our History, and Agudas Achim’s Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz will moderate a panel discussion with Lisa Heineman, professor of history at the University of Iowa, and Susan Simon, daughter of Holocaust survivors.

This brand new, 90-minute documentary, written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman and executive produced by Nancy Spielberg (yes, Steven’s sister), tells the story of Jewish resisters in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII through a combination of archival footage, photographs, contemporary expert interviews and reenactments that are seamlessly woven together to create a truly engrossing story.

Central to both content and presentation of this particular Holocaust story is the use of words throughout the film, as they are the resisters’ own. Who Will Write Our History is a stunning example of a film that stays true to the legacy of its subjects by collecting and presenting history from the perspective of those who lived it.

Mere days after Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a group of 60 journalists, scholars and community leaders began meeting in secret to collect articles and photos, also using their own diaries to record their experience, curating a secret archive that was buried underground. This clandestine activist society called themselves Oneg Shabbat (the joy of Sabbath).

In a time when German propaganda controlled the narrative for Polish Jews, writing down their own story was truly radical, and dangerous, work. Under the leadership of community organizer and historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum (voiced in the film by Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody), Oneg Shabbat members’ commitment to (re-)writing and preserving history from their perspective is what Hugenholtz calls “sacred work.”

After the war, only three of the 60 members remained, and Rachel Auerbach, who had been a prominent Warsaw journalist, was the only living member who knew the location of the hidden archive. Guided by Auerbach, the Jewish Historical Commission of Poland uncovered two of the three archival troves buried beneath the rubble of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. The third archive was never found.

Auerbach is given a prominent role in Who Will Write Our History, voiced by three-time Academy Award-nominee Joan Allen. Set as the story’s narrator, the historical Auerbach is a strong leading heroine of a film filled with heroism, and she is the perfect entry point for viewers.

After I watched the film, I was lucky enough to get to learn more about the story from Hugenholtz — which everyone in the audience of the FilmScene screening will also get to do. I can’t recommend this added benefit enough. The rabbi’s depth of insight was incredibly helpful in teasing out important lessons from a documentary that brings up so many big (and relevant) issues.

In connecting the history and resources of Judaism to the concept of journaling-as-resistance in the film, Hugenholtz went all the way back to the oldest Judeo-Christian piece of writing we have: the Torah.

“In a sense, the Torah is the world’s first collective ‘diary’ of the oppressed: it is our story; not the story of the powerful,” she said. “So yes, I’d say that historical writing is at the heart of Judaism, and it is a way to assert the dignity of all humanity. Words are so powerful; they can shape worlds, and our ancestors were wise to that.”

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She also mentioned a specific verse of the Torah, where “we are commanded to ‘blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget’.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

“It seems paradoxical, but I think that’s exactly the sacred work the diarists [in the film] sought to achieve: They didn’t want the Nazis to tell their story; they wanted to tell their own story,” she said. “They wanted to erase the Nazi evil by enshrining sacred memory. And we are still called to do that work today; not just as Jews, but as human beings.”

Hugenholtz has kept a diary herself since she was 14 years old, and she doesn’t plan to stop. She also encourages everyone, especially those who are marginalized by society, to document injustice.

“Raise your voice. You have a right to be heard,” she said. “It is your sacred imperative.”

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz will moderate a discussion of ‘Who Will Write Our History’ at FilmScene on Jan. 27. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Not allowing the powers-that-be to write your story is truly powerful resistance. It matters. For the members of the Oneg Shabbat Society that we meet in the film, journaling was not frivolous work. Rabbi Hugenholtz calls their archival task “a way to reframe the great spiritual treasures and storehouses of Judaism; a way to defy the ultimate Nazi oppression.”

In taking the time to listen to their story, we take part in their sacred work of the Oneg Shabbat Society — and we can learn so much from them. Rabbi Hugenholtz suspects that they would be “deeply moved” by Who Will Write Our History — to “know that the world has been made witness to their experience.”

“In a broader sense,” she said, “I think ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’ each other in a real, authentic, deep way is always sacred … So to study their work is to weave their story into our own.” She also made the point that “no one can be made a witness to the Holocaust and come out unaffected.”

Audiences who engage with this film and the discussion to follow on Jan. 27 are sure to be affected, but the experience is unlikely to be depressing. Audience members will take part in a sacred project of witness and remembering, which brings with it valuable empathy, but also has the power to instill the courage and resolve we need to tell our own stories.

Saunia Powell spent her youth studying theatre and theology. If you call for a chaplain at Mercy Hospital on the weekend, she’ll be there. During the week she wrangles writers at the International Writing Program. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 256.

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