I’ve been watching and writing about Holocaust movies for almost 40 years, and yet every year films are made about aspects of that historical event that surprise me.
It’s astonishing. At this rate, filmmakers will be discovering new Holocaust topics to make movies about 40 years hence.
“Who Will Write Our History?” tells one of those unexamined stories. In November 1940, soon after the Nazis herded all of Warsaw’s Jews into the ghetto, the historian and Yiddishist Emanuel Ringelblum and a clandestine group of 60 scholars, journalists, and community leaders began to gather a secret archive of documents. Working under the code name Oyneg Shabes, Ringelblum and his associates urged ordinary people to write down everything they saw and experienced in order to create a historical account from a Jewish perspective. The collection, which was modeled on YIVO, the great Yiddish library and research center in Vilna, included diaries, poems, posters, jokes, and songs, along with first-hand narratives of daily life and eyewitness accounts of Nazi horrors. When the Germans began to empty the ghetto and send the residents to Treblinka, Oyneg Shabes buried 60,000 pages deep underground in the hopes that the documents would survive, even if the collectors didn’t.
Ringelblum may be an unfamiliar name to many, but his project was common knowledge in the survivor community where I grew up, as was the world’s indifference to the accounts of the Nazis’ extermination plans he managed to smuggle out to London.
Writer/director Roberta Grossman, an experienced documentarian, has approached her subject through a variety of nonfiction filmmaking techniques. There are interviews with talking heads — experts on the Holocaust and Polish Jewry, both Jews and Poles — a ton of archival photographs and films, and extensive recreations of the men and women in Oyneg Shabes and the Ghetto, using Polish actors speaking both Yiddish and Polish. The skillful combination of these techniques makes the film extraordinarily vivid and compelling. Grossman is sensitive to the reality that almost all the footage we have of the Ghetto and the Holocaust in general comes from German propaganda films. That has to affect our perception of what we see, since the German goal was to portray the Jews as degraded and wretched creatures who were less than human. Using dramatized recreations helps to balance that impact and focus on the courageous and noble work that Ringelblum and his associates pursued.
Our guide is Rachel Auerbach (voiced by Joan Allen), one of the few survivors of Oyneg Shabes, who initiated the excavation of the manuscripts after the war and later worked for Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. An essayist and journalist, with a particular interest in women’s lives, she also was the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger’s lover for a while. Through her writings, we learn about the variety of Jewish life in Warsaw before the war, and later, when she takes over the communal kitchens in the Ghetto, we see the residents’ constant struggle to obtain enough food to stay alive. Auerbach and Ringelblum escaped the Ghetto and fled to the Aryan side of Warsaw as the Ghetto burned. She survived. He did not.
Two of the three caches that Oyneg Shabes buried have been recovered. In 1999, UNESCO included the Oyneg Shabes Archive in its Memory of the World Register.
Another excellent docudrama about a little-known facet of the Holocaust is the German film “The Invisibles.” Selected for the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival, this movie uses the same mix of techniques — dramatizations, interviews, and archival footage — to create a film filled with suspense and as exciting as a thriller. After Goebbels declared Berlin free of Jews in 1943, seven thousand Jews remained in hiding. Of those, 1,700 survived until liberation. “The Invisibles” focuses on four young people — two men and two women — and recounts through interviews with the four survivors and dramatized segments how they managed to live through the remaining years of the war. Seventeen-year-old Hanni Levy dyed her hair blonde and spent her days wandering the streets, often ducking into movie theaters, until she found shelter with an understanding movie clerk. Cioma Schonhaus worked as a passport forger and became successful enough to afford a sailboat. Eugen Friede, another teenager, hid in the home of a sympathetic Communist and eventually joined a resistance group. Ruth Arndt pretended she was a war widow and found work as a maid in the home of a Nazi officer who was a black marketeer. All of the stories feel like movie plots, as do so many stories of Holocaust survival.
It is no surprise that a German film focuses on the kindness and support that some Germans provided to vulnerable young Jews. This approach makes “The Invisibles” a lighter, pleasanter viewing experience than “Who Will Write Our History?” Director Claus Rafle, another experienced documentary filmmaker, intersperses the interview material with the dramatizations in a highly effective manner, and the actors even begin to resemble their real-life counterparts after a while. In lesser hands, dramatizations in documentaries can be suspect, a way to juice up the drama, but in both these films they make the stories more vital and more comprehensible. They are excellent additions to the growing canon of Holocaust films.