“When we were looking for filming locations and actors, and watched the subsequent versions of the edit, we focused on technical issues and professional challenges. Today, following the subsequent premieres in various cities, we can only hope that we have helped create a film that will outlive us, because it tells a tremendously important story,” says Anna Różalska, interviewed alongside Nancy Spielberg. Różalska and Spielberg are the producers of the film Who Will Write Our History (dir. Roberta Grossman).
Dr Emanuel Ringelblum – a Jewish social activist. During the war, he decided to stay in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family. The originator and guardian of the Oyneg Shabes group that collected materials describing life in the Warsaw Ghetto and other ghettos. A Marxist. After the liquidation of the Ghetto, he went into hiding on the Aryan side, and was subsequently betrayed and handed over to the Nazis. Together with his wife and son, he was executed in the ruins of the Ghetto. Their bodies were never found.
Oyneg Shabes – a group of a few dozen people who, while in the Ghetto, documented the living conditions of Jews, Nazi politics, the state of consciousness of the imprisoned, and Polish-Jewish relations. The name of the group means ‘the Joy of the Sabbath’. The archive created by the group is now available to view at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and is gradually being published – to date, 36 volumes of documents have been released. Only two of the three parts of the archive were uncovered. The part buried at 34 Świętojerska Street on the eve of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising has not been recovered yet. It is probably located on the grounds of today’s Chinese Embassy.
Since 2017, the Oneg Szabat Program commemorates the Oyneg Shabes group and the Ringelblum Archive.
Paulina Małochleb: Are Emanuel Ringelblum and the archive he created recognized in the West?
Nancy Spielberg: No, not at all. Only people who study the Holocaust or the history of World War II in Poland know about them. That’s why we made this movie – because I love to tell little-known stories. Also, we wanted to present Emanuel Ringleblum to viewers other than historians. It was Roberta Grossman’s idea. She proposed that we should make a documentary film based on the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. She started to discuss this idea with historians and professors, as well as searching archival materials.
Anna Różalska: The legacy of the Oyneg Shabes group caused surprise and astonishment both in Poland and in the United States. The premiere of the film in New York was attended by many people who had never heard of the story, but wanted to learn about this partially-forgotten strand in the history of the Holocaust.
The documentary can also be understood in symbolic terms, as a kind of monument that the Ringelblum family never received.
NS: For Polish people, this film has an additional, more personal dimension, because of the physical proximity of the places in which its characters existed. Every day you walk these same streets on your way to work or on your way to a store, you move around the area of the Ghetto. And suddenly you realize that something important happened here in history.
AR: It wasn’t until the premiere screenings in Rome, New York, Berlin that I began to understand the meaning and significance of this film. When we were looking for filming locations and actors, and watched the subsequent versions of the edit, we focused on technical issues and professional challenges. Today, following the subsequent premieres in various cities, I can only hope that we have helped create a film that will outlive us, because it tells a tremendously important story.
What is the answer to the question from the title? Because it’s not only a question about historical justice, but also about memory.
NS: Emanuel Ringelblum’s archive was created to preserve as many testimonies as was possible, so when we make use of it today, we fulfil its mission. The film is meant to popularize Ringelblum, to make known his history, so that as many people as possible – also the young ones – find out about his archive. Nowadays, the archive is in the Jewish Historical Institute, so access to it is rather limited. Through our movie, we want to make a new symbol from this little-known hero.
Why is Ringelbum’s archive important today?
NS: The most crucial aspect of Oyneg Shabes’ activity was that they wrote about life, not death. When we think about the Warsaw Ghetto, we have in mind images of people dying from hunger, illness, in terrible conditions, amidst the violence. We don’t think about culture, social life, music. People from Oyneg Shabes witnessed both of these perspectives, and they left us with an incredibly complex vision of life in the Ghetto. In the archive, you can find all those little things reminding us about life: sweet wrappers, jokes, songs. That’s why the history of the Ghetto seems more human, we can identify ourselves with specific people, we know how they looked, what they were doing, what they liked. We don’t see them only as a nameless crowd on an Umschlagplatz.
What surprised you most in Oyneg Shabes’ story?
NS: First of all, they demonstrated how you can fight without using weapons. They had no military preparation, but clearly they revolted against the pushing down of them to the category of sub-humans; against humiliating Nazi politics. Members of Oyneg Shabes were well-aware of the uniqueness of their situation, they understood the significance of the events they were witnessing. They put a lot of effort into documenting Germans’ cruelty and atrocities, but also the diversity of Jewish life. Thanks to their work, they looked at life in the Ghetto – and at their own existence – from a completely different perspective, which gave meaning to their everyday struggle to survive.
In the movie, there are echoes of many current historical and social discussions. We observe acts of violence against women, the cruelty and barbarity of Jewish policemen towards their own people.
NS: This film was made by women, so it’s obvious that many female characters are featured in it. For example, Rachela Auerbach, a writer and journalist – also Ringelblum’s friend – who ran a kitchen employing mostly women. Besides, violence in the Ghetto was mainly sexual; its victims were women and young people. We all know the images of dead bodies of grown-ups and children, lying on the sidewalks, other people passing by. But we can’t imagine Jewish boys raping their classmates, because otherwise they would be shot; we can’t imagine Jewish women publicly exposed and forced to do sexual acts in front of crowds. Meanwhile, those scenes took place, and members of Oyneg Shabes documented them.
Who did you make this film for?
AR: Predominantly, it is intended for international audiences. Its main viewers are certainly not Poles. To some viewers, certain scenes might seem quite obvious, but we had young people all over the world in mind – those who mainly learn about history from films.
The paradox of this documentary is that in order to tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto and the work of Oyneg Shabes, you had to trawl through archives containing images created by the Nazis, which are propagandistic in character and present Jews in an unswervingly negative way.
NS: That’s the irony of this story. Oyneg Shabes collected all of those materials to show the diversity and complexity of Jewish life in the Ghetto, to rescue it not only from death and destruction, but also to preserve the memory of Jewish culture in the Warsaw Ghetto. To show this, we had to use dramatization – we added actors’ scenes to documentary footage. In documentary movies dramatization is not welcomed, but in our case it was necessary, because we had to oppose the image of the Ghetto from Nazi propaganda films. Paradoxically, scenes staged by us seem more authentic than footage shot by Nazis in the Ghetto itself. That’s the irony of history. Moreover, when we compare scenes from our movie with images from Nazi propaganda films, we see how much they had to lie, what great pains it took them to achieve this effect.
AR: The introduction of actors was the only way to reverse the power relations and weaken the meaning of Nazi films and photographs. Roberta Grossman – following a few years of archival research – was also able to find some little-known and quite rarely used photographs and films from the period. But still, they had to be counterbalanced, so the fictionalized part of the film has gradually expanded, with some scenes involving as many as 300 extras.
During the writing stages, did you think about the way in which Polish-Jewish relations would be portrayed? After all, this is an important issue discussed by Ringelblum in his notes.
NS: Yes, we talked about it several times with Roberta Grossman, but it’s not the main problem of our movie, it is more about the life of the Jewish community. Not wanting to impose anything, we decided to depict both positive and negative Polish characters. There is a scene in which Ringelblum’s wife is selling the tablecloth. A Polish woman is exploiting her desperate situation and paying her much less than it’s worth. But later we see that the Poles are saving the Ringelblums, and after the liquidation of the Ghetto, hiding them for a couple of months in the ‘Krysia’ bunker in Warsaw.
AR: The Polish film crew did not interfere with the shape of the script or the arrangement of the scenes. We were instead focused on choosing the locations, selecting actors – building the entire dramatic thread. We did not try in any way to influence the meaning of the film in relation to the discussions of antisemitism in Poland.
Why are the events in the Ghetto shown through the eyes of Rachela Auerbach, an educated Jewish woman, fluent in Polish and endowed with ‘non-semitic’ features?
NS: Because she’s an incredibly strong female character. First, she decided to stay in the Ghetto, where she ran a kitchen. After the liquidation, she managed to escape. She was one of the three Oyneg Shabes’ members who survived the war and were able to tell the whole story of the group. It was Rachela Auerbach who, after the war – first in Poland, then in Israel – was seeking to commemorate the archive and its creators. She became the guardian of the memory of the archive, and thus her character strengthens the power of this story.
AR: For us, it was important to honour Oyneg Shabes not as a group, but as individuals; to preserve their individuality. Hence, the film features photographs and portraits, fragments of memoirs signed off with first and last names – thanks to them, viewers will have a stronger impression of the tangible nature of history and their own participation in that history. Those were particular people with particular biographies who devoted their lives to a particular cause. Still, the record of all the names of people forming this group of about 60 has not survived to our times. We do not know for certain who was working for Oyneg Shabes. However, from today’s perspective it seems completely unbelievable, almost filmic, that among the three survivors was Hersz Wasser, who was the only person who knew where the metal boxes with the first part of the hidden archive had been buried.
Where did you find the locations for filming the fictionalized scenes in the film?
NS: We knew that we would have to shoot in Polish locations, otherwise our film would lose authenticity. Therefore, we turned for help to Ania Różalska and her Match&Spark production team.
AR: The Polish crew was responsible for this part of the work. They focused on seeking out locations mainly in Warsaw and Łódź. Film Commission Poland helped us a lot. We shot most of the fictional scenes in Łódź, because there we were able to adapt the already existing locations.
And how did you find the right actors?
AR: Roberta Grossman wanted to find actors who would physically resemble the historical figures. Piotr Bartuszek took care of this – he suggested Karolina Gruszka for the role of Ringelblum’s wife. Jowita Budnik was an obvious choice to portray Rachela Auerbach – after make-up, she bore a strong resemblance. During casting, we did the period hair and make-up and costumes – Jowita was immediately transformed into Rachela. We sent the footage of Piotr Głowacki in character as Ringelblum to the United States, where it was approved. All of these actors are not only lookalikes. They are, above all, highly intelligent people, aware of the historical importance of this story, portraying extraordinary people with great passion and dedication.
What did you want to achieve by telling Emanuel Ringelblum’s story?
NS: In the beginning, we just wanted to present a completely unknown story from World War II, to reveal some new aspect that was never revealed before. However, later we started to feel a growing sense of mission, because production of the film lasted several years, and during this time we observed with Roberta the gradual radicalization of social moods, as well as the rise of nationalist tendencies in Europe and Poland. Hence, we had a feeling that our voice and our educational mission are even more important.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Introduction translated by Joanna Figiel