Historians have hailed the archives as one of the most significant collections of Holocaust narratives ever produced by its victims—a vast trove of documents about the lives of the people living in the Warsaw Ghetto and the human rights abuses they suffered, compiled by a code-named group of Jewish intellectuals and saved from the 1943 destruction of the ghetto because they were stashed in boxes and milk containers that were buried beneath buildings. The voices contained in the archive are as pressing today as they were when Oyneg Shabes first set them to paper.
“At a time when we’re still hearing from Holocaust deniers, watching a resurgence of white nationalists from throughout Eastern Europe, it becomes more important that we continue to bring stories to light. Yes, this did happen. Yes, look at its impact, and yes, safeguard: It could happen again,” said Dan Prinzing, executive director of The Wassmuth Center for Human Rights in Boise.
Prinzing and Rabbi Dan Fink of Ahavath Beth Israel will lead a discussion of the archives following a screening of Who Will Write Our History, a documentary about Oyneg Shabes that will screen on Wednesday, May 1 (Holocaust Remembrance Day), at The Flicks. The documentary, directed by Roberta Grossman, fleshes out the story with newsreel footage from the ghetto and dramatic recreations of events. Already a critical darling at film festivals around the world, it has favorable notices in The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times remarking on its evocative power and the strength of its storytelling.
That Who Will Write Our History elicits strong reactions to events that took place almost 80 years ago testifies to its cinematic merits. It also dovetails with efforts in Boise to keep the memory of the victims of the Holocaust alive. The Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, with its 2018 expansion to include the Marilyn Shuler Classroom for Human Rights, includes the Spiral of Injustice, the first rung of which is “language,” which is so often used to normalize and justify abuse.
This idea is the conceptual focus of Yael Heronski's acclaimed 2010 documentary, A Film Unfinished, which digs into an incomplete Nazi propaganda flick about the ghetto that historians long considered a primary source of information. Using that same footage, Heronski exposes the people in front of and behind the cameras to reveal the chasm between reality and portrayal.
Both films use archival footage to show conditions in the ghetto and comment on how—and by whom—history is created, but Grossman's documentary, the only one of the two set to screen in Boise, shows a different side of the proverbial coin, one on which the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto tell their own stories even as the Nazis attempt to eradicate them and harvest those tales for their own ideological ends.
“I don’t want to talk in terms of just issues or themes,” Prinzing said. “We have to be able to relate as people. This becomes an example where the film brings to life the faces and the voices for those that were directly impacted. That’s critically important for us: It’s not just an event in history—these are real people.”