Who has the freedom, resources and opportunities to tell the stories of history? The stories of the Oyneg Shabes are some of the courageous individuals who wrote, documented and saved the written histories of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto as “reporters from hell.” Based on the book by Samuel Kassow, Roberta Grossman’s captured the stories in Who Will Write Our History, documenting the lives and work of these writers through dramatizations, narration of the writing and interviews with historians - all interwoven to create a moving documentation of this important piece of history.
Lesley Coffin: What were your initial impressions of Kassow’s book, both the new information it revealed and insights you had, but also what in the book made you feel a film should come next?
Roberta Grossman: When I first read it, I recognized the masterful job Sam did to bring to life what I feel was the most important yet unknown story of the Holocaust. The archive has been known by scholars of course, but I felt this story should be known far and wide. And the hope with this film is that it is something which can be shared far and wide by millions of people around the world.
Lesley Coffin: When you were deciding the best approach to take on this film, what made you feel using the three storytelling methods and interweaving them would ultimately be the best method?
Roberta Grossman: Obviously, the scholarly interviews and archival material are what makes a documentary. And we have a lot of the Nazi propaganda footage of what was filmed in the ghettos, but they were filming to show “how terrible the Jews were.” I feel okay using that material because we were very careful not to use footage that was overtly propagandistic and when it was, we always identified it that way. But most of that footage is general street views. But the stories that came from the Oyneg Shabes archives are so personal, the journals and diaries and poems, I felt there wasn’t a way to visually match the power of the writing. And that made me think I was within my rights to use all the tools in a filmmaker’s tool box to create film with the gravities of a documentary and emotion of a dramatic feature.
Lesley Coffin: We’ve of course had a number of films about the Holocaust and one of the biggest criticisms have been the tendency to Hollywood-ize the events. When you were doing dramatizations, what decisions did you make to avoid that?
Roberta Grossman: Most importantly, I didn’t make anything up. Rachel Auerbach survived the war and wrote a lot about her experiences. She wrote an essay the day that Hitler was reviewing the troops in Warsaw, she wrote that a Jewish poet had come to see her. She said she was leaving tomorrow and he told her “we can’t all leave, we need someone to stay and run the kitchen.” So that dialogue in the film comes from her writing. There’s a scene in the film where Huberband was walking through the ghetto and stopped to listen to a violinist on the streets. I didn’t make that up, that’s from his diaries. He wrote that “there is music in the ghetto and the better musicians come out at night, and it was worth standing out in the cold to hear Mendelsohn’s Concerto in E Minor.” To me it was important not to imagine but to essentially record the writing.
Lesley Coffin: Because of the value the writing in the archive, was it a challenge to pick and choose which pieces you’d include in the film?
Roberta Grossman: It was terrible. I don’t know if there will ever be another film about the Archive, so leaving something out felt terrible. I spent two years writing the script and I have this horrible, unproductive process of putting everything I think is good or compelling into the document and then start to just carve away at it to find ways to move the story forward. But it’s a terrible process, because it feels horrible to cut something out you think is beautiful.
Lesley Coffin: I take the exact same approach when writing long form. I put all my thoughts and research down, and then edit from the large text, just to see all the work together at least once. I think a lot of non-fiction writers work that way.
Roberta Grossman: We spent a long time taking out and putting in the violin scene. The whole film could have just been about a diary or the essays about what happened to the people in that one apartment building. Auerbach wrote amazing stories about the people in the kitchen. So, it was a struggle to leave things out. It makes me happy to hear others take the same approach.
Lesley Coffin: When casting the dramatizations, did the actors speak of the pressure or responsibilities they felt towards the real people they were portraying?
Roberta Grossman: I filmed in Poland with Polish actors and remarkably, the actor I cast to play Emanuel Ringelblum knew who he was before I’d even started the project. He had read his diary and really loved him, so he of course felt a sense of responsibility. The women who played Rachel Auerbach spent a lot of time reading her work and really threw herself into the project. The commitment of the Polish cast and crew was very, very touching.
Lesley Coffin: Was there any discomfort or second thoughts about using the Nazi footage on a film like this, because of the film’s larger theme of victims telling their own stories?
Roberta Grossman: It was certainly an ethical question we grappled with, but I’m very comfortable with that decision because it’s what we have. Marian Turski, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and very involved with the Jewish Historical Institute, and he’s been known to hold up a picture of the Arch of Titus that depicts Jewish slaves being taken to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple. And he’ll say, they were trying to humiliate us with this image, but this is all we have. Without it we would have so much less. So, I feel the same way about the Nazi footage. Those are the people and if you have a consciousness about how it was shot and how your using it, I feel I have every right to use it as a Jewish filmmaker.
Lesley Coffin: When making the film were you considering the current day comparisons made about the importance of the written word and documenting the truth? Especially in the current political climate when freedom of speech and journalist are under attack?
Roberta Grossman: Well, I started working on the film seven years ago. So, I feel that what we’re seeing in the world right now is sort of bad for the world, good for the film. I had no idea that the film would come out at a time like this when journalists are being killed and journalism is accused of being fake and we don’t know what truth is. These were people willing to risk their lives, so their stories could be told from their point of view, and not their enemies. It could not be more relevant, especially with the rise of nationalism. It just feels like, when will we ever learn.
Lesley Coffin: When have you made any plans to use the film for educational purposes?
Roberta Grossman: I have. I’m working with one of the leaders in teaching tolerance and working on cutting the film down, so it can be used in the classroom, also cutting out some of the images which would be too difficult for children. And they’ll be writing a study guide, so the film can be used all over North America. And in Poland I’m working with a remarkable group called Forum for Dialogue, and they’re going into Polish high schools in towns that had a Jewish population and they give students the assignment to find out about the Jewish history of their towns. And then after a few weeks they come back and share what they’ve learned. So, they’ll be using the film and a polish language study guide.
© Lesley Coffin (1/19/19) FF2 Media
Featured photo: Roberta Grossman During May 2016 Poland Film Shoot. Photo Credit: Pat Mazzera.
Photos: Who Will Write Our History © Katahdin Production