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'Who Will Write Our History' Tells Of Secret Archive During The Holocaust

A new documentary film, called "Who Will Write Our History," is based on a book by Samuel Kassow, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

The film tells a lesser-known story from the Holocaust about a hidden archive created in secret by a group of Jewish men and women. It's showing around the world this weekend. 

For more than two years starting in 1940, the group collected artifacts to document their lives, as German Nazis began to send millions of Jews and others to extermination camps.

Kassow said the man behind the archiving effort, Emanuel Ringelblum, was an academic, like himself.

Samuel Kassow, Trinity College: As a historian, I was always amazed by the story of Emanuel Ringelblum — a historian who understood that you could fight with paper and pencil, not just with guns. That the Germans not only want to kill you, but they want to erase your memory.

So Ringelblum was determined: even if we Jews don't live to see the end of the war, even if we die, we'll bury time capsules so that people will remember us on the basis of Jewish rather than German documents.

Jill Kaufman, NEPR: Had the story been told before you got your hands on it, as a historian?

Well, I kind of knew about it. I read John Hersey's novel The Wall. I knew something about Ringelblum, but I didn't really put two and two together until the mid-'90s.

This was an incredible story. It was a collective project. There was a plan to study Jewish society from the ground up — study Jewish women, Jewish children, corruption, religious life.

The archive tried to collect everything. It collected journals, diaries, posters, candy wrappers, the menus from fancy restaurants in the ghetto where policeman and speculators spent their money.

Wait: fancy restaurants in the ghetto?

There were fancy restaurants in the ghetto. Gourmet restaurants, where you could have anything you wanted, as long as you had the money. And there was a small group of people in the ghetto who had tons of money — the smugglers, the policemen, the collaborators. And they knew: "Tomorrow I might be dead. I might as well spend the money now."

And the archives wanted the menus from those restaurants. They wanted doorbell instructions. If five families are living in one apartment, you know, the rings for each family is going to mean something. There were also photographs. There were drawings, sketches, maps.

And then some were commissioned to keep journals and write. They told stories of what was happening, sure who they were.

Right. The archive tried to collect everything.

Wojciech Zielinski in a re-enactment scene from the documentary "Who Will Write Our History."
Credit Anna Wloch / Abramorama
Wojciech Zielinski in a re-enactment scene from the documentary "Who Will Write Our History."
A still from the film "Who Will Write Our History," based on the book by Samuel Kassow.
Credit Anna Wloch / Abramorama
A still from the film "Who Will Write Our History," based on the book by Samuel Kassow.

Where do you come into this as a historian? How is it that you came across this story?

Well, I'm a child of survivors. I was born a displaced persons camp in in Germany. [My parents] were from a part of Poland that is now in Belarus. But in Poland, and in Belarus, we weren't Polish. We were Jewish.

There were almost four million Polish Jews when the Germans came. And the survival rate was extraordinarily low. That culture was murdered. The language was murdered, and having grown up with that culture, in a way, I was fascinated by the story of this project of cultural resistance. I was also intrigued why nobody paid attention to the archive for so many decades.

When the first cache of the archive was buried, these people thought, at least the last comfort was even if we die, these writings will make a difference. But for decades, nobody cared.

One cache was found in '46, and they were buried in tin boxes, and a lot of water seeped in, so a lot was destroyed. A second cache was found accidentally by Polish construction workers in December 1950. That second cache was hidden in milk cans, so the documents were preserved better.

Then there was a third cache that was buried about a week before the outbreak of the battle of the Warsaw ghetto. And the site where that was buried, over time, became the site of the Chinese Embassy in Poland. About 15 years ago, some Israeli searchers got permission from the Chinese to dig underneath their embassy, and search for that missing third cache, but it was never found — and probably never will be found.

If you are the one that sort of brought all this into one place, that got the attention of a filmmaker, that's quite the responsibility for a culture that is decimated, and part of your family life.

You know, there are basically two kinds of historians. There are the historians who just think about their own careers, who see history as a way of chalking up credentials. And then there are the historians who understand that history is a collective enterprise, that you have to help other historians. You have to encourage other people to help gather documents. 

Had Ringelblum not believed that history was that kind of a field, he would never started the archive, but he was thinking about future historians. So I feel that he was thinking about me, and that I was kind of redeeming a challenge that he laid down.

So is it an obligation that you fulfilled in some way?

I don't know if I fulfilled it. I tried to. More people know about him. I can't believe how many people came up to me and said, "I've never heard of this guy before." He totally sank into oblivion.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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