Documentary Releases: Who Will Write Our History (2018) - Reviewed

The Oyneg Shabes were among the most vital historical documents in preserving the image of Jewish culture after years of skewing propaganda purported by the Nazi party, created and hidden on November 1940 within the Warsaw Ghetto by Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum.  The documents, exceeding 30,000 pages of photographs, manuscripts and posters, represent a significant triumph against the Nazis through intellectual acumen and clever resistance of their exterminatory tactics.  Only recently has this treasure trove of Jewish history been made available to the filmmaking public, prompting the interests of producer Nancy Spielberg and documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman to make a film treatment of that act of resistance in Who Will Write Our History.

Covered in Dr. Samuel D. Kassow’s historical text of the same name, Who Will Write Our History is an exploration of the efforts undertaken by Ringelblum and his resistance fighters to gather and preserve the Oyneg Shabes from oblivion at the hands of the Nazis and provide a portrait of the Jewish population undoctored by xenophobic propaganda.  Partially a straightforward documentary and partially a docudrama, Who Will Write Our History is a compelling and emotionally draining story to tell and yet whose cinematic techniques of cross-cutting between documentary interviews, archival footage and staged reenactments have the misfortune of occasionally disengaging the viewer. 

Interspersed with the interviews is a loose narrative thread involving the letters of Jewish journalist Rachela Auerbach who just narrowly escaped the Nazis.  Utilizing voiceover narration, we’re drawn into her world working with Ringelblum in a soup kitchen as well as gathering and hiding information from the Nazis.  Cut into the dramatized reenactments are snippets of archival footage which still has the power to stop viewers dead in their tracks and there were times when I wanted to look away.  And yet in the face of the unfathomable horrors captured on film and in photographs is the story of the network teaming together to create their own archive of what Jewish history really is. 

The film’s most vital moments come from the glimpses of the pictorial and literary archives we’re finally allowed to see.  So dense are the Oyneg Shabes that one wishes this program was devised as a documentary miniseries rather than trying to give a broad overview under the two-hour running time of a documentary feature film.  It is in this area where Who Will Write Our History as a film will leave some viewers wanting to see or hear more than the small amounts we’re given. 

While this film wants to probe into the heart of the Oyneg Shabes, how they came to fruition and how they escaped being demolished and erased from history, Who Will Write Our History only scratches the surface of a topic that with more breathing room would have made for a documentary series of a lifetime.  What’s here ultimately is only just the tip of the iceberg.

--Andrew Kotwicki