Watching Who Will Write Our History | Facing History & Ourselves
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Watching Who Will Write Our History

Students view the film, analyze a primary source from the Oyneg Shabes archive, and consider why it matters who tells the stories of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust
  • Resistance


About This Lesson

In the Warsaw ghetto, from 1940 to 1943, a group called Oyneg Shabes (meaning “joy of the Sabbath” in Yiddish, a reference to the group’s practice of meeting on Saturdays) conducted research and secretly assembled an archive that documented both Nazi crimes and also residents’ brave efforts to maintain life in the face of death. Under the leadership of historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the group gathered writings, assembled statistics, and collected artwork, photographs, and objects of daily life, over 35,000 pages in all. Collected in tin boxes and aluminum milk crates, the documents were buried secretly in the ghetto in 1942 and 1943, in three places known only to a few people. Of approximately 60 people who worked with Oyneg Shabes, only three survived. After the war, they worked with other survivors to find the buried archives. Two sets of documents were uncovered, in 1946 and 1950. The third has never been found.

This lesson imparts the story of the Oyneg Shabes to students through a 37-minute classroom version of the documentary film Who Will Write Our History. Day 1 of this lesson, intended for the day of the film screening, offers suggestions for how to set a reflective tone before viewing the film and how to help students capture their observations, thoughts, and emotions in their journals immediately after. Day 2 provides students with the opportunity to analyze a document that was included in the Oyneg Shabes archive and to consider more deeply why it matters who was documenting and telling the stories of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto for future generations. 

While the film briefly puts the story of Oyneg Shabes in historical context, we recommend providing students with a deeper contextual background for the Warsaw ghetto and the Holocaust itself. If this deeper examination is not already part of your course, see the Notes to Teacher section below for additional lessons and resources for building important context for you and your students.

Why does it matter who tells your story?

For members of the Oyneg Shabes, how was writing their own history an act of resistance?

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 8 activities
  • 1 video
  • 1 reading
  • 2 extension activities

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Depending on students’ familiarity with the content of the film, you may want to introduce some of the following historical themes and developments prior to showing the film in class: 

  • Examine Pre-War Jewish Life
    To give students a more nuanced understanding of the lives of Jews in Poland before they were imprisoned in the ghetto, and to help students better appreciate the Jewish cultural life that the Oyneg Shabes tried to sustain and document under Nazi occupation, consider showing the clip Rachel Auerbach and Jewish Life in Warsaw between the Wars (02:41), excerpted from the full-length version of the documentary. You might also wish to pair the clip with materials from the lesson European Jewish Life before World War II from the unit Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior
  • Preview the Experiences of Poland’s Jews under the Nazis
    Since the activity of the Oyneg Shabes took place in the Warsaw ghetto, it may be a good idea to provide some additional context about the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland before students watch the film. The reading The Holocaust in Poland offers background information on the Nazi occupation, persecution, and, ultimately, mass murder of Jews in Poland. Additionally, the reading The Jewish Ghettos: Separated from the World details the history of the creation of Jewish ghettos under the Nazis and some of the experiences of daily life for those who were trapped inside. 
  • Understand the Steps Leading to Mass Murder
    If your students haven’t studied it in depth, it is important that they have some basic knowledge about the history of the Holocaust before watching Who Will Write Our History. In the video Step by Step: Phases of the Holocaust (06:47), historian Doris Bergen divides the history of the Holocaust into four phases, described on the handout Phases of the Holocaust. Pass out the handout and give students a few moments to read through the information. Then show the video so that students can hear Bergen’s description of the four phases.

In addition to the above activities, you might consider assigning the reading Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto from our resource book Holocaust and Human Behavior, or read it aloud before showing the film. The connection questions from the reading preview many of the themes of the film, so you might want to have students discuss one or more of those questions.

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Day 1 Activities

Before students watch the film, share the unit’s essential question and ask them to think about it as they watch: Why does it matter who tells your story?

  • To increase students’ retention of the topics covered in the film, you may want to preview the film by providing some basic background information on the Oyneg Shabes. You might share the following synopsis of the film with students:
    In November 1940, days after the Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, a secret band of journalists, scholars, and community leaders decided to fight back. Led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and known by the code name Oyneg Shabes, this clandestine group vowed to defeat Nazi lies and propaganda not with guns or fists but with pen and paper. They described life in the ghetto from the Jewish perspective. They commissioned diaries, essays, jokes, poems, and songs. They documented Nazi atrocities with eyewitness accounts. They sent reports of mass murder to London via the Polish underground. Then, as trains deported them to the gas chambers of Treblinka and the ghetto burned to the ground, they buried 60,000 pages of documentation in the hope that the archive would survive the war, even if they themselves did not.
  • Because it may be confusing, you should let students know in advance that the film uses both archival footage (footage taken at the time) and historical re-enactment (actors playing historical figures). In some cases, the film also employs a blend of both archival and dramatic footage, filming actors against a green screen with archival footage in the background. (See “Analyze the Craft of the Film” in the Extensions section for an activity that explores the visual and artistic techniques used in the film.)

Watch Who Will Write Our History (37:37) with your students. As students watch the film, ask them to record in their journals any images, words, or observations that they find important, notable, or striking.

Ask students to complete a journal reflection on the following prompt to help them process their thoughts and feelings immediately after watching the film:

  • What did it take for the members of the Oyneg Shabes to create their archive? What obstacles did they have to overcome?
  • What risks did they take? What might have been the consequences if their project had been discovered by the Nazis?
  • Why, in a time of such desperation and struggle and at great personal risk, would the members of the Oyneg Shabes devote precious energy and resources to creating an archive? 

Then ask students to complete a Color, Symbol, Image activity. Ask them to think about the most important theme, idea, or emotion that surfaced for them in response to the film. Then have them reflect on how they can communicate the essence of what they’ve seen using a color, a symbol, and an image.

Day 2 Activities

Using the Think-Pair-Share strategy, ask students to share with a partner a word or phrase from their responses to the Color, Symbol, Image activity on Day 1.

  • Tell students that they will be examining an artifact from the Oyneg Shabes archive in order to reflect on the essential question they were introduced to on Day 1: Why does it matter who tells your story? 
  • First, replay a clip from Who Will Write Our History, beginning at 7:10 and ending at 11:15. 
  • Use the following quotation from the film and the questions that follow to have a brief discussion with students: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says, “I think it’s really important that when people see these photographs that they understand that they are seeing through a German lens, and the photographs are profoundly humiliating to the Jews who have been photographed.”
    • Why is it important to understand the identity of the photographer when analyzing images of the Holocaust (or other historical events)?
    • What might be the consequences of letting the story of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto that is told from the Nazi German perspective go unchallenged?
  • Next, read aloud as a class the reading Rabbi Shimon Huberband’s Account of Jews Being Executed for Leaving the Ghetto. After students have read, allow them to process this emotionally challenging text using the Wraparound strategy. Give them time to think of a response to the following question: “What words or phrases come to mind after reading this text?” Ask each student to share one word or phrase with the class.
  • Once students have had the opportunity to share, use the Fishbowl teaching strategy to guide a class discussion, beginning with the following questions: 
    • What do we learn about these people and their motives for smuggling from Rabbi Huberband’s account? 
    • Why does Huberband include a letter from Yosef Peykus? What is the value of a firsthand account like Peykus’s? 
    • Compare this source to the Nazi propaganda discussed in the clip you just watched. What is the difference between what the Nazis wanted to show and the reality that Oyneg Shabes wanted to preserve?
    • How might our understanding of the Holocaust be different if Nazi sources were the only ones to have survived? What is the value of Huberband’s account, and of the Oyneg Shabes archive as a whole?
  • Record on the board important points that come up in the conversation, and instruct students to copy them into their journals at the end of the discussion.

Close the lesson by asking students to write a private journal reflection in response to the essential question: Why does it matter who tells your story? Encourage students to use evidence from the film and their notes from today’s class discussion to guide their thinking.

Extension Activities

The following activity helps students think beyond the conventional definition of “resistance” and place the activities of the Oyneg Shabes within a broader context of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. 

  • Explain to students that it is crucial in a study of the Holocaust to acknowledge the various ways that Jews and others targeted by the Nazis resisted.
  • Students will often associate the idea of resistance with violent or armed rebellion. It is important to acknowledge that such actions did occur, such as the efforts of Jewish partisan groups, the sabotage of the crematoria by Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, or the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Tell students that scholar Michael Berenbaum writes that for those who resisted violently, “Death was a given.” Ask students to consider the question: If death was a given, why might Jews have resisted anyway?
  • Then explain to students that there are other types of resistance for them to consider. Pass out the reading A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity and read it aloud with the class.
  • After reading, ask students to respond in their journals to the following questions:
    1. What is dignity? What do you think Lévy-Hass means by the phrase “a basic feeling of human dignity”? How did the Germans try to deprive Lévy-Hass and her fellow prisoners of this feeling?
    2. How did Lévy-Hass attempt to restore dignity for some of those imprisoned in her camp? Were her efforts an act of resistance?

To explore how the film employs visual and artistic techniques to tell its story, you might wish to share the following note from director Roberta Grossman with students:
While striving to avoid “tricks” that would “fool” an audience, the film does employ transparent visual effects such as compositing actors shot against green screen with archival footage. The goal here is to bring the past to life while balancing against the high standards for veracity in a documentary. To achieve this goal, we blended archival and dramatic footage, pulling from the tools of dramatic feature storytelling. While fully aware of the complexity of these techniques, I reached for these visual tools because Who Will Write Our History tells the story of a place that no longer exists (the Warsaw ghetto), about people who are long dead, and about a period of history captured primarily in black-and-white film and mostly by Nazi propaganda photographers and cameramen. I want people not simply to learn from the film, but to be engaged and deeply moved.

  • You might also ask students to discuss the following questions:
    • What is Grossman’s reasoning for the visual effects she employs in Who Will Write Our History?
    • According to Grossman, why is a blend of archival and “dramatic” (re-enactment) footage uniquely suited for a documentary on this subject? 
    • Did you notice the difference between historical footage and re-enactment footage when you watched the film? Which type was more effective at both engaging and moving you? 
    • What else did you notice about how the film was made or the choices the director made? 
    • What questions would you ask the director?

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