‘Who Will Write Our History’

‘Who Will Write Our History’

Producer Nancy Spielberg talking about making Jewish documentaries

Nancy Spielberg (Nancy Spielberg)
Nancy Spielberg (Nancy Spielberg)

When executive producer Nancy Spielberg was in Poland during the filming of the 2018 documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” based on a secret archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the extras — a little girl — approached her on the set.

“She came over to me with her mother,” Ms. Spielberg recalled. “And her mother said, ‘We are so honored to be a part of this.’ Then she whispered to me, ‘We’re Jewish. And my mother lived in the Warsaw Ghetto.’

“Here was this granddaughter acting in a film that her own grandmother sort of lived — and survived the Warsaw Ghetto.”

That poignant encounter underscored the urgency of Ms. Spielberg’s mission of visually documenting stories of the past to educate present and future generations.

Ms. Spielberg will join the Greater MetroWest Jewish community by Zoom on February 9 for a dialogue. Registrants will receive an exclusive link to watch “Who Will Write Our History.”

Written and directed by Roberta Grossman based on the book of the same name by historian Samuel Kassow, the 90-minute award-winning film is about Emanuel Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabes Archive, a clandestine trove of writings and photos contributed by Jews of the doomed Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1942.

Mr. Ringelblum’s entries are read by Academy Award-winning actor Adrian Brody. Three-time Academy Award nominee Joan Allan is the voice of Rachel Auerbach, the survivor, writer, and historian who escaped the ghetto and is one of the documentary’s main characters.

“It took Roberta about eight years to finish the project from the time she bought the rights to the book,” Ms. Spielberg said.

“She had to translate Rachel Auerbach’s diary from Yiddish, she had to find all the right historians to make sure that in the film we would create an accurate visual history. This isn’t Hollywood; you can’t take creative license. Every word spoken in the film, except maybe one line, is from the diaries.”

Even the set-building was carefully researched. “If you see a death certificate on the wall in the film it is that person’s actual death certificate, or a copy of it, and not a prop. It was super important that we make it as historically accurate as we could.”

Ms. Spielberg, who lives in Riverdale, met Ms. Grossman when she was searching for a director for her acclaimed 2014 documentary, “Above and Beyond.” That film is about former American World War II fighter pilots who helped get the nascent Israeli air force off the ground, literally.

Ms. Grossman got the job.

“I loved how she handled recreations in her previous films, such as ‘Blessed Is the Match’ and ‘Hava Nagila,’” Ms. Spielberg said. “I saw that she had a good Jewish neshama,” a Jewish soul.

While they were working on “Above and Beyond” in 2012, Ms. Grossman asked Ms. Spielberg to be the executive producer for the documentary she was developing based on the Kassow book.

“When I first heard about a secret buried archive, that Spielberg brain goes, ‘Oh, like ‘Indiana Jones?’ It was not at all like that,” Ms. Spielberg, the younger sister of “Indiana Jones” director Steven Spielberg, recalled. “But it was so intriguing, and the more I looked at it the more I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Raising money was a large part of her role. “We do these films not for profit,” she said. Some first-, second-, and third-generation survivors in the MetroWest region were among the supporters of the project.

(Incidentally, Ms. Spielberg has additional ties in New Jersey; her father-in-law was Rabbi Dr. Leon Katz, spiritual leader of Congregation Adas Israel in Passaic from 1938 to 1984.)

“Who Will Write Our History” has been shown at festivals in countries including Poland, Romania, Kazakhstan, Russia, Norway, Austria, Brazil, Italy, Australia, Cameroon, Myanmar, Namibia, Belarus, and Tanzania, among many others. In 2019, a simultaneous global screening took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at UNESCO headquarters in conjunction with the World Jewish Congress.

Ms. Spielberg, whose parents both were American-born, said the Polish actors in the documentary “were passionate about learning their lines in Yiddish and being a part of the story.”

It is “the story” that drives her own passion.

“When you’re younger, you hardly want to listen to the stories that your parents and grandparents tell,” she said. “You are living in the now. I hit the age where suddenly I had this tremendous desire to know a lot more.

“When my brother made ‘Schindler’s List’ and then created the Shoah Visual History Foundation, I and countless others recognized how powerful it was to gather these stories and listen to these stories from the mouths of the people who lived them. This generation of survivors is leaving us, and if we don’t have something to pass on, then the stories will disappear along with the people.”

She said that given the prevalence of Holocaust denial and antisemitism, “I almost feel like we have to force-feed the younger generation something to connect them back to their Jewish roots, to understand what this was about.”

She noted that blatant antisemitism in the 1930s was a driving force that motivated the pilots interviewed in “Above and Beyond” to help Israel, “not because they really felt Jewish but because they were reminded that they were Jews — and not in a nice way. I don’t know that our kids are going to stand up like that. We have to hope they do.”

Ms. Spielberg now is putting the finishing touches on a documentary about the June 2016 terror attack at a Max Brenner restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market.

David Saginaw, the president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, said the federation “has a commitment to building community, creating a sense of belonging and the importance of remembrance and gratitude. This program recalls our history and also speaks to the importance of being part of helping the community today. It’s a wonderful partnership between the Ner Tamid Society and Holocaust Council.”

The Ner Tamid Society is a donor circle within the federation. Its chair, Susan Weinstock, said, “We want to show our deep appreciation to Ner Tamid Society members for their long-standing commitment to our community. We believe that Nancy Spielberg’s message of commitment to the Jewish community and perseverance will resonate with this dedicated group of donors.”

What: Writings of the Past Inspire the Future: A Dialogue with Nancy Spielberg

When: Wednesday, February 9, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Zoom

Registration: Go to www.jfedgmw.org/nancy-spielberg-event-registration/.

Sponsors: The Ner Tamid Society of Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, in partnership with the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ.

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