A Conversation With Award-Winning Filmmaker

By: Kaytlin Thornton | Contributor

On Thursday, Oct.15, the McCall Library, alongside other community partners, hosted a virtual conversation with film director Roberta Grossman where she answered questions about her award-winning documentary, “Who Will Write Our History?” based on Samuel Kassow’s book of the same name.

Grossman is an award-winning filmmaker with a passion for history and social justice, who has written, directed, and produced more than forty hours of film and television.

The documentary follows the story of the Oyneg Shabes, a secret band of Jewish journalists, scholars and community leaders, led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. Together, this group compiled an archive that documented the war from the Jewish perspective.

Grossman was inspired to create the documentary when she worked on another film that took place in interwar Jewish Warsaw. It was around this time when she read Samuel Kassow’s book and realized that Oyneg Shabes may be the most important little known story of the holocaust. 

“I couldn’t believe that we didn’t know about it,” Grossman said. “And the deeper I went into it, the more shocked I was.”

So, she contacted author Samuel Kassow, and they got to work. The documentary itself took eight years to make. Combined with the twelve years it took Kassow to write the book, twenty years of passion and dedication went into bringing this story to the screen. 

The documentary showcases that pre-war Poland contained a vast Jewish culture universe, an urban center with a 30% Jewish population. It was rich and varied and vibrant, something that many depictions of the holocaust struggle to convey. 

“Often in holocaust films, we learn a lot about how people died, but not a whole lot about how they lived,” Grossman said, “but I love these people, they’re so contemporary. They’re so modern. The members of the Oyneg Shabes, they’re historians, they’re sociologists, they’re writers, they’re journalists, poets, economists. Ringelblum wanted a broad range to represent the Jewish world that was in Warsaw.”

“Who Will Write Our History?” also contains rare footage that is typically not seen in other films. 

Grossman had the resources to send researchers to places like Germany, Poland, and Israel on a mission to dig into the archives and find things that no one had ever seen before. The archival research took place over several years, even during the editing process. 

The conversation discussed the ins and outs of the documentary’s creation, the use of archival footage, the scholarly interviews, the research process, how the resources were acquired, the use of actors for dramatization, and how it all came together to create a cohesive narrative. 

“The goal was to make the film have the gravitas of a documentary and then to have the emotional pull, and the entertainment pull of a feature film.” Grossman said, “I wanted people to watch the film. I wanted people to know Ringelblum, and I wanted them to be moved by what they saw.”