Who Will Write Our History?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 18, 2019

'Who Will Write Our History?'
'Who Will Write Our History?'  

After the Germans forced their way into Poland, they began to round up the Jews from the city of Warsaw and beyond and force them all into one quarter of the city. This became a ghetto where Jews, forbidden to work and, eventually, to leave, struggled to survive. Though the world was shrinking and darkening around them, some of the Jews in the ghetto rose to the challenge of recording their thoughts, dreams, and daily experiences in the form of poetry, essays, and diaries. These writings were gathered into a great archive and, eventually, buried in several secret locations. The aim was simple, and profound: To create a record that would counter German propaganda and survive the ghetto's doomed populace.

That's the narrative of Roberta Grossman's disturbing, enlightening, unsettling — and necessary — documentary "Who Will Write Our History?" Grossman and a cast of contemporary actors rely on the trove of recovered writings (dug from the ruins of the city after the end of World War II) to give voice to a generation of murdered people. They also turn their lenses toward modern historians who help explained contextualize what was happening, and who the heroic leaders of this effort were.

Chief among them were historian Emanuel Ringelblum (portrayed in dramatic reenactments by Piotr Glowacki; his writings are voiced by Adrien Brody), who realized that history was in the making all around him, and also understood that if the victors are allowed to write history uncontested, then theirs will be the only version that future generations will ever know. Ringelblum was wise to perceive this, given the deep, well-architected lies the Germans devised.

Ringelblum convinced one of the city's leading literary lights, Rachela Auerbach (Jowita Budnik) not to flee when she had the chance to do so, but to remain bravely in place in order to help the beleaguered Jews survive. Her selfless courage was, unusually, rewarded in that Auerbach managed to survive the experience, unlike the vast majority of others who had been confined to the ghetto. Auerbach's writings help frame the story and provide an anchor for the other voices that reach out to speak to our own darkening time.

Not unlike Peter Jackson's WWI doc-epic "They Shall Not Grow Old," this project uses restored, colorized footage from the era in question. But Grossman also creates new reenactment footage, tinted so as to resemble the restored film she includes. A wealth of blackened white footage and archival photos also help illustrate the horrors of the Nazis' crimes, while the wealth of artifacts the film shows us — posters and decrees among the diary entries and sometimes shocking film and stills of monstrous outrages perpetrated by sadistic occupying soldiers — gives the film a grounded sense. This happened in the real world, a world much like our own, and not in some Hollywood fantasy. The suffering was real; the cruelty was real.

The film will shatter your heart. It might also want to make you pick up a pen and refuse to allow the world's current outrages to be documented only by those who would shape them for ends of their own. "Who Will Write Our History?" answers its own question, and in so doing charges its audience with a grave and sacred responsibility: To tell our own stories, on our own behalf.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.