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New film about a remarkable story of spiritual resistance to the Holocaust gets global screenings

By Stacey Dresner

Sam Kassow and daughter/actor Serena Kassow who appeared in the film. Photo Credit: Anna Wloch

HARTFORD — “Who Will Write Our History,” the film based on Trinity College Professor Samuel Kassow’s book of the same name, recently premiered to sold-out audiences at the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The film also sold out at four screenings at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan late last month. 

And on Jan. 27, the film had a “Global Screening” in more than 300 theaters and museums in 55 countries around the world as part of UNESCO’s International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops in 1945.

Yet, if not for a glowing book review published in 2008, this film may never have been made.

“I never thought it would be a film,” says Kassow, Charles M. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College and an expert on Ashkenazy Jewry. “I was just very lucky because there was one really great review in the New Republic…Roberta Grossman, who is a well known documentary filmmaker read the review, read the book and then she wanted to make the film…So it all came out of a lucky book review.” 

Kassow published Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Oyneg Shabes Archive in 2007.

It tells the story of a group of Jews, led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who, in 1940, began gathering information and testimonies about what was happening to the more than 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Codenamed “Oyneg Shabes” (Joyful Shabbat), the group of scholars, journalists and community leaders buried the testimonies, documents, and photographs in metal boxes and milk cans under the ruins of the ghetto for safekeeping. Some of the documents were retrieved in 1946 and 1950. Today they are housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

The film, written and directed by Roberta Grossman and executive produced by Nancy Spielberg, depicts the members of Oyneg Shabes and their undertaking, through documentary footage, writings from the Ringelblum Archives, interviews and filmed reenactments. 

The film focuses specifically on two members of the Oyneg Shabes, Ringelblum and Rachel Auerbach.

Born in 1900, Ringelbaum was a member of Poalei Zion, a left-wing Jewish party. He was also a founder of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, established by scholars and intellectuals in Vilna, Poland in 1925 to preserve the Yiddish language and to study the Jewish culture throughout Eastern Europe. After escaping from the ghetto, Ringelblum and his wife and son were recaptured and executed in a Polish prison in 1944.

Born in 1903, Auerbach, a “member of the Polish-Jewish literary elite,” ran a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto while writing down the stories of her fellow Jews. One of only three of the group’s 60 members to survive, Auerbach helped to find the Archive after the war. After moving to Israel in 1950, she became director of the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony at Yad Vashem.

Director Roberta Grossman and Director of Photography Dyanna Taylor on set in Poland. Credit: Anna Wloch

In the film, Ringelbaum’s words are given voice by Adrien Brody, the actor who starred in “The Pianist”; actress Joan Allen speaks for Auerbach. The film is in Yiddish, Polish and English, with English subtitles. The dialogue in the film’s dramatic recreations comes from the actual writings of people in the Warsaw ghetto who told their stories to the Oyneg Shabes. 

“The director is not making up words,” Kassow explains. “The actors are speaking but they are using the real words of the people who wrote it down.”

Kassow was on hand in Poland during the production, serving as an advisor on the film. He was accompanied by his wife, Lisa Pleskow Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel, who was an extra in the film, and their daughter Serena, who gets a little more screentime.

“Lisa appears for half a second. But Serena has about 10 seconds and she looks really great,” Kassow, the proud father, says. 

“There were many moments that were very striking, but one of the first was standing amidst 150 other extras, most of whom were wearing Jewish Star armbands,” Lisa Kassow told the Ledger in a 2016 story on the production. “We had to use the restroom in a very old pre-war building in Lodz, where the wardrobe and makeup areas were. I walked into a bathroom and there was a young ‘Nazi’ shaving – a tall, blond, six-foot-tall, skinny 19-year-old extra in a uniform. It took my breath away.”

Sam and Lisa Kassow attended the “Global Screening” of the film at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO and Sam participated in a panel discussion after  screening with Grossman and Spielberg. The discussion was streamed live on Facebook.

In her director’s statement, Grossman notes that she wants “people not simply to learn from the film, but to be engaged and deeply moved.”

“In 1999, three document collections from Poland were included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the masterpieces of Chopin, the scientific works of Copernicus and the Oyneg Shabes Archive,” Grossman added. “Historians concur that the Oyneg Shabes Archive is the richest cache of eyewitness, contemporaneous accounts to survive the Holocaust. Despite its importance, the Archive remains largely unknown outside academic circles. It is my hope that Who Will Write Our History will change that in the way that only a film can do, by making the story accessible to millions of people around the world.”

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