In the penultimate moment in Ira Levin’s “The Boys From Brazil” (1976), an imprisoned concentration camp guard is interrogated by a thinly veiled Simon Wiesenthal. Angrily, the prisoner (a woman who strangled female Jewish prisoners with their own hair) yells that no one cares about the Holocaust anymore. Fast-forward to 2018, and it’s hard to argue the guard’s statement is wrong.
A poll taken in 2018 revealed that two-thirds of millennials do not know what occurred at Auschwitz, let alone recognize the name. It’s even more disturbing to look at Americans as a whole. A third of them contest the six-million body count collated by historians, believing the actual number to be much less.
Combine that with the belief there is no objective historical record of how the Nazis exterminated the Jews. George Orwell, writing at the height of World War II, believed that the concept of objective truth was forever gone amidst all the propaganda from both the extreme right and the extreme left. Of Nazi behavior in the occupied countries, the most horrifying thing the normally politically astute Orwell could come up with was Jewish prisoners being tortured in the “cellars of the Gestapo” and “elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools.”
Thus, historians of the Holocaust have had to labor under a triple burden. They have to wake up the apathetic, deal with the skeptics, and do battle with sinister forces that deny the Holocaust happened. (The deniers have a pet academic, historian David Irving, who seeks to buttress this assertion with “fact.”) To deal with the Jewish corpse count, Holocaust deniers claim it was the result of the Allied bombing of Dresden (an explanation first voiced by captured Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials). Smugly, they “point” to the lack of historical evidence.
“Who Will Write Our History?,” the new documentary of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews directed by Roberta Grossman, has first-person accounts of what the Nazis did to the Warsaw Jews. Through the diaries of Jews who were on the ground, the film provides the kind of objective truth Orwell believed to have vanished.
The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who collected evidence behaved as if Orwell was wrong. The film centers on Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian of Jewish culture present when the Nazis bulldozed into Poland in 1939. Ringelblum recruited Jewish artists, economists, and journalists to record what was happening. The chief sources for the film were the diaries of journalist Rachel Auerbach, whose objectivity under murderous conditions should shame journalists these days, who often report “not what happened but what should have.”
At first, Ringelblum and Auerbach sought to archive Jewish culture under Nazi rule, taking pictures of posters announcing Jewish concerts. But the two shifted from an appreciation of Jews who kept culture alive during Nazi rule to recording the increased brutality the Germans inflicted on them.
By 1943, news of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in concentration camps presented itself to Ringelblum from a prisoner he interviewed who had escaped from the Chelmo concentration camp. Ringelblum and Auerbach’s priorities shifted. No longer focusing on violin concerts, they began to sense their condition would not last forever, and that their Nazi tormentors would be brought to justice. Archiving Jewish culture gave way to providing evidence for Allied prosecutors.
In the film, one can feel this shift, as Auerbach’s archive mentions specific Nazis who took part in the murderous pogrom against the Jews. Hence, surviving Nazi rule to present this evidence became a top priority.
Thankfully, Grossman is not preachy, and is the rare kind of historian and filmmaker who allows the witnesses to take center stage. When he does use actors—Joan Allen and Adrian Brody—to voice the now dead witnesses, they don’t preach but instead let the material speak for itself. This is an achievement in our highly politicized culture, where the label of fascism is used so carelessly that it loses its meaning.
In a disturbing moment in Woody Allen’s otherwise comedic “Mighty Aphrodite,” a millennial asked what he thought of “Schindler’s List” admired the Nazis as badasses. Hopefully, “Who Will Write Our History?” will educate his generation about what happened and could happen again.