Who Will Write Our History | Facing History & Ourselves

Who Will Write Our History

This educational version of the documentary tells the story of the Oyneg Shabes archive, created by a clandestine group in the Warsaw Ghetto who vowed to defeat Nazi lies and propaganda by detailing life in the ghetto from the Jewish perspective.
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At a Glance

video copy


English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust
  • Resistance

Who Will Write Our History

What factors contributed to one person surviving, and another dying?

I am writing this as a witness.

I know how it was for me.

I still see before me Emanuel Ringelblum's living tall figure.

I hear his voice.

All my talks with him in those years, months and days.

I want to focus on what I personally experienced.

I mean the hidden archive that Dr. Ringelblum created and led until the destruction of the Ghetto.

A huge mass of materials that give a picture of the Jewish people under the Nazis are all collected in the Ringelblum archive.

Yet three years after it was hidden, the search for the buried archive in the desert of the Warsaw Ghetto had not even begun.

Just finding a certain house among the rubble was difficult enough.

But to find a cellar within a cellar, in which the Archive was hidden, was almost like an archaeological expedition.

The papers that will rise up from the dead are the eyewitness accounts of our disaster and our resistance.

[ANNOUNCER] On September 1st, 1939, [ANNOUNCER] the Nazi Army smashed into Poland.

These were the last days of September 1939.

The roar of the dive bombers overhead and the relief of breathing when the explosion comes-- not in the house you are in.

[ANNOUNCER] On September the 27th, Warsaw fell.

On one day in that series of black days, a Yiddish poet came to see me.

She brought me news that Emanuel Ringelblum was looking for me.

As wave after wave of refugees arrived in Warsaw, Dr. Ringelblum was one of those who organized relief.

Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum was a well-known public figure, even before the war.

We occasionally bumped into each other at a Yiddish theater premiere or a book launching.

This first meeting with Ringelblum would play a decisive role in my fate.

And lead to my remaining in Warsaw and not leaving with the stream of runaways to where my closest family called me.

Dr. Ringelblum started keeping a daily diary immediately from the first days of the war.

Jews were removed from all posts in government and Aryan owned enterprises.

Their bank accounts frozen.

They were not allowed to use railways or buses...

...to go to theaters or cinemas.

February 7th, 1940.

Jewish women were seized for labor.

And, it just so happened, women in fur coats.

February 23rd.

Nalewki Street looks like Hollywood these days.

Everywhere you go, you see a star.

Today, the 29th of September, got a blow to the mouth for not saluting a German.

Jews of Warsaw, and as a matter of fact, Jews of Poland, it didn't take long for them to come to a conclusion that the worst scenario was in the process of happening.

I mean, all kinds of indignities.

It started as soon as the Germans arrived.

Forcing them to perform humiliating labor.

Jews being pushed, literally, into the gutter.

Almost all the photography that we have that documents the Holocaust was taken by Germans.

By the German propaganda unit.

I think it's really important that when people see these photographs, that they understand that they're seeing through a German lens.

And the photographs are profoundly humiliating to the Jews who have been photographed.

Saturday was terrible.

The loud speaker announced the division of the city into three parts, German, Polish, Jewish.

Gradually, a ghetto is being established.

The ghetto is closed.

And a new era begins.

A man who visited the other side tells of the great difference.

The cafes are full of people.

The streets not overcrowded, as in the Ghetto.

Those who read horoscopes for the Jews...

say they are bad.

Emanuel Ringelblum understood that he had a story to tell.

But in order to do it justice, he couldn't do it alone.

Just eight days after the Ghetto was sealed, several of us met with Dr. Ringelblum in his apartment on 18 Leszno Street.

The whole institution was dubbed Oyneg Shabes, which means "the joys of Shabbat", for reasons of secrecy.

At the beginning, their basic goal was to collect and to record eye-witness accounts and use the materials to write the history of the war from the Jewish perspective.

The Germans are sending film crews into the ghetto to show everybody how dirty we are and how filthy we are.

They're telling the world that we're the scum of the earth.

And unless we collect our own documents, posterity will remember us on the basis of German sources and not Jewish sources.

Will the Germans write our history or will we write our history?

Many Jews make their living outside the Ghetto.

Now, they're cut off from it.

There was an immediate shortage of bread and other produce.

There's been a real orgy of high prices ever since.

You could buy some food on the black market, but it was very, very expensive.

A loaf of bread costs an equivalent in today's dollars, sixty dollars.

What the Jews can do at that stage is basically to sell out their accumulated wealth.

However people who are brought from outside of Warsaw, they are being given, let's say, two hours.

And they can take one little package each.

And they are basically dumped into Warsaw Ghetto.

So, once they sell their jackets, trousers, and their humble belongings, they are basically left to their own devices.

Good morning.

The self-help provided ideal cover for the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

And under this cover of gathering information for welfare, the Oyneg Shabes was able to keep its secrecy, and at the same time to employ all of its members.

The refugees related the history of their towns to our coworkers, who later wrote it up.

In the terrible overcrowding of the ghetto, the refugees lived in housing conditions that simply cannot be described.

The worst experience was the night mommy died.

During the night, I felt her cold and stiff.

But what could I do?

I lay close to her until morning.

And then a neighbor helped me carry her out of bed and lay her on the floor.

Ringelblum had sent me to work in the kitchen at 40 Leszno Street.

And the kitchen gave me a unique observation point.

The 100 kitchens in the Ghetto were the front line in the war against hunger.

For the crowds of refugees...

for whom the soup from the kitchen was their only food of the day.

I start to write so many times, and every time, I just feel helpless.

I worry that these terrible pictures of the life we are looking at every day will die with us.

Like pictures of a panic on a sinking ship.

A messenger from Ringelblum came to me.

I learn about the Oyneg Shabes.

Ringelblum is calling me to join it.

The Jews started to write.

Everyone did.

Journalists, authors, teachers.

Even children.

You're cut off from the whole world.

You can't go to school. You can't make a living.

So, writing becomes the only recourse, to feel a sense of ownership of one's self.

Literary pieces and reports from the Ghetto streets, poetry, jokes and the songs of beggars came flowing in.

The Oyneg Shabes collected diaries, commissioned works about refugees, illnesses, smuggling, about the situation of the Jewish child, the role of women, and about hunger.

Ringelblum stayed in touch with us through his executive secretaries who gave us notebooks and stipends.

Each essay and each account, the longest and the shortest, had to pass the critical eye of Dr. Ringelblum.

We have to understand that the archive of Oneg Shabbat is one great act of accusation against the German policy.

Any underground activity, any kind of collecting of evidence of German crimes, carried with it the death penalty.

Even those in the archive's confidence did not know who was in charge of the physical safeguarding of the collections.

This was Israel Lichtenstein, who did not have any contact with other archive workers.

Only Israel Lichtenstein, Hersh Wasser and Emanuel Ringelblum knew where the documents were.

So, if the Gestapo arrested a member of the Oyneg Shabes, even under torture, they would not be able to divulge the location.

More than sixty members of the Oyneg Shabes collected artifacts, such as German pronouncements, official and underground newspapers.

Labels on Ghetto goods.

White Jewish ribbons with the blue Star of David.

The watchword of the organized groups of the Jewish community was: To live with honor and die with honor.

An expression of this was the wide scope of the cultural work which was undertaken.

A network of underground schools, a central library for children and a theater were created.

In the first year of the Ghetto's existence, nearly 80,000 people died of Typhus and starvation.

Slowly, the previously wealthy middle class will share the fate of the poorest refugees.

What is the use of all our work if we can't save even one person from hunger?

I have not managed it through my work with a single person.

Not one!

Rachel Auerbach came to the disheartening conclusion that the Jewish public kitchen never saved anybody from starvation.

One is left with the tragic dilemma.

Are we to dole out spoonfuls to everyone?

Or are we to give full measure to a few, with only a handful having enough to survive?

Every day, we receive such terrible news from the provinces.

The Oyneg Shabes are interviewing people who are giving them first-hand accounts of mass shootings in Eastern Poland.

It's hard to believe.

The strangest torments and weirdest deaths, men, women and infants, with no distinction made between adults and children.

Will a remnant of us Jews survive?

Meanwhile postcards are coming into the Warsaw Ghetto.

People are waiting to be deported.

Then you get the reports from Chełmno.

An escapee described the gassing of Jews in Chełmno.

This was the first ever description of the mass murder of Jews in a death camp.

So the killing is to the east of Warsaw and to the west of Warsaw.

Now, the agenda of the archive changed to something totally new and horrible.

The documentation of mass murder. For long, long months, we tormented ourselves with the question, Does the world know about our suffering?

And if it knows, why is it silent?

Everybody agreed that the most important thing was to arouse the world to the horror of the organized extermination.

The Oyneg Shabes put out a clandestine bulletin.

The main message was that the Germans were hell bent on the total murder of the Jewish population.

And using the channels of the Polish underground, the Oyneg Shabes sent four reports to London.

This is the BBC.

We will now broadcast a special program about the horrific bestialities that the Nazi occupier is perpetuating on the Jews.

Exhaustive information has reached London to fully convey the cruel, premeditated system through which the Jewish population is being executed by the thousands.

According to the information available now, the Germans have murdered about 700,000 Polish Jews in all.

These inhumane crimes being committed against defenseless people call for fair and severe punishment.

Friday, June 26, has been a great day for Oyneg Shabes.

This morning, the English radio broadcast about the fate of Polish Jewry.

We raised a cry to the world with exact information about the greatest crime in history.

And perhaps saved hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews.

We have struck the enemy a hard blow.

And if England keeps its word, then perhaps, we shall be saved.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 1942.

A day of turmoil, chaos and fear.

The news about the expulsion of Jews is spreading like lightning through the Ghetto.

Jews are running, as if insane.

Mothers and children wander around like lost sheep, "Where is my child?" During the Great Deportation, the Germans ordered the Jewish police to collect five to seven thousand Jews every day.

Sunday, July 26th.

The action continues.

Shouts and screams.

Outside my windows, they are checking papers and arresting people.

The seizing of an eight-year-old girl, prettily dressed.

She screams, "Mummy!" Those rounded up are divided up into those fit to work, those able to survive, and those not fit to be transported.

The last group is killed on the spot.

Eclipse of the sun, universal blackness.

My wife, Luba, was taken away during a blockade on 30 Gesia Street.

A life together of over 21 years, has met with such a tragic end.

Today is Ora's fifteenth birthday.

What a black day in her life and in my life Ora was talking in her sleep, "Mama, don't leave me." During that terrible summer, they decided that it was time to bury everything that they had collected so far.

There was no time to lose.

Israel Lichtenstein's two young helpers were once his students.

They contributed their own notebooks and farewell letters to the materials they were burying.

There's terrible shooting going on in the street.

I just heard my parents' building is surrounded.

I am going to run to my parents and see if they are all right.

Remember, my name is Nahum Grzywacz.

I do not ask for any praise.

I only wish to be remembered.

I wish my wife to be remembered, the artist Gele Seckstein.

My daughter Margalit is 20 months old today.

She has fully mastered Yiddish and speaks it perfectly.

I pity this lovely little talented girl.

She, too, deserves to be remembered.

We were not afraid of the risk.

What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground.

I would love to live to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up, and scream the truth at the world.

In six weeks, the largest Jewish community in Europe was shipped off in cattle cars to Treblinka and killed.

Among them, most of the staff of the Oyneg Shabes.

Should I regret that I did not flee Warsaw before the war?

Maybe I could have managed to save some of my most beloved closest ones?

The memories of those who survived are often as hurt and broken as their lives.

That is why the most believable witness will be the written word from those years.

Which is now under the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto was just a heap of rubble.

It was hard to know where a street had been, much less where a building had been.

Luckily, they had pre-war aerial photographs.

Using the spire of a Catholic church, they estimated where the building would have been, and that's where they started digging.

A message came to me in Łódź.

The foundation of the building has now been reached.

Will it be possible to get to the necessary place?

Will anything be found?

Who Will Write Our History

Used with permission of Katahdin Productions

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