Sunday, January 27
The Warsaw Ghetto was closed to the world on November 15th, 1940 imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children in an area just over three-square kilometers. Conditions were beyond dismal; and I can only imagine that, for those living in the Ghetto, hope for some form of human decency and normal life was dwindling.
Emanuel Ringelblum was a Jewish historian living in the Warsaw Ghetto. And while many around him were scared and confused about their current situation, Ringelblum understood that the story of the Jewish people needed to be told and it needed to be told by the Jewish populace themselves. So, Ringelblum made the dangerous and selfless decision to lead a team of Jewish activists with the purpose of documenting life in the Ghetto.
This operation went by the code name Oyneg Shabes which is Yiddish for Sabbath delight. Ringelblum and his team of well-placed observers worked clandestinely and tirelessly collecting stories, jokes, songs, paintings, documents and anything else that gave insight into life in the Ghetto. Their work was dangerous. And if a member of Oyneg Shabes was discovered, they would be killed. But the brave men and women of Oyneg Shabes understood that their work was worth the risk. If they were going to be defeated, they were determined to give their side of the story.
Aperture Cinema recently screened the documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” which tells the story of Oyneg Shabes. The documentary follows several professional actors as they recreate – word for word – scenes and dialogue found in the actual archives and superimposes these characters into the backdrop of Nazi propaganda videos. The stories were not a second-hand account nor were they written after the war – they were written by the people who lived there during that moment in time.
The documentary tackles a myriad of difficult and often unpleasant topics. Is it worth giving food to someone who is beyond help when food is scarce and needed by others who may yet live? Is ignoring a dead body in the street a sign of weakness or strength? Is there always hope? And, most importantly, how can we put an end to this type of suffering?
“Who Will Write Out History” was screened on January 27th – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s February, now, meaning that it is Black History Month. And while we have these occasions to mark remembrance and celebrate historically oppressed peoples, it seems like the lessons that we should be learning – lessons like tolerance, acceptance, and love – are being lost. Schools, churches, and synagogues are being attacked. Families are being separated at the border. And offensive rhetoric of all types seems to be the norm. But if the Oyneg Shabes and “Who Will Write Out History” teach us one thing is that we do not have to accept this as the norm.
I had never heard of Oyneg Shabes before I saw this film. I didn’t know what the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto were like and I had never heard of this secret archive that so many risked their lives for. As a Jew, I had failed to learn my own history. But I was filled with a sense of pride from what I learned. A renewed sense of identity and power in a climate that seems to demand passivity. So, I implore you, dear reader, to make the same mistake I did; remember who we are, what we’ve come through, and where we are going. Be proud of who you are in the faces of those who want to silence you. Remember.
Written by: a/ staff Sam Blumstein
Photography by: a/ staff Noland Vannoy