Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 23, 2020

Who Will Write Our History

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Over the past couple of months, I have been going through some of the backlogged DVD’s I received from film studios meant to help influence my nominations for the yearly NYFCO awards in early December. Most have been ejected from my DVD player after 10 or 15 minutes, including the highly touted “The Farewell” (98 percent Fresh on RT.)

Close to the bottom of the pile was “Who Will Write Our History”, a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto. I generally have an aversion for any film about the holocaust since they implicitly play into what Norman Finkelstein has described as an industry. Since this one was executive produced by Steven Spielberg’s sister Nancy, my expectations were even lower since I associate the Spielberg brand name with “save the Jews” products such as “Schindler’s List” and “Munich”.

It turns out that I was wrong. “Who Will Write Our History” is a masterful study of a group of Jewish historians, artists, poets, activists, and journalists who belonged to Oyneg Shabes (joy of the sabbath), an underground group led by left-wing Zionists sympathetic to the USSR and the Communist Party. Unlike the desperate and poorly-armed Jewish combatants who died in the legendary uprising, Oyneg Shabes was at attempt to document the lives of Jews under occupation. Watching it yesterday had additional significance as an analog of New York City today. Instead of death at Treblinka, we oldsters might succumb to COVID-19.

In addition to gathering together articles from the Jewish press, photos, art works, and other memorabilia, Oyneg Shabes  provided mutual aid to those desperately in need, especially through soup kitchens. In my CounterPunch article last Friday about post-Sanders politics, I mentioned how my grandfather Louis Proyect led the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, N.Y. Among other things, this mutual aid group helped to bail out Jewish immigrants who were badly in need of food and housing when they got off the boat. Just as Occupy Wall Street came to help people in need after Hurricane Sandy, groups are coming together now to provide assistance to those trying to survive the COVID-19 ordeal. Socialist politics has often functioned as a promissory note about the future, better world. Oyneg Shabes and similar efforts today focus on the desperate present. Isn’t it possible that this is the best way to draw the oppressed into a fighting movement?

“Who Will Write Our History” is based on the 2007 book “Who will Write our History: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive”, written by Trinity College historian Samuel Kassow. Kassow’s book details the group’s work under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum, a leader of Poale Zion. Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) emerged out the Bundist movement that was the target of both Lenin and Trotsky’s polemics. At a certain point, Bundists became more and more convinced that it was necessary to create a Jewish state for their salvation. The rightwing eventually crystallized as MapaiKassow chapter on comradesKassow chapter on comrades, the same party that David Ben-Gurion led. The leftwing veered toward labor Zionism of the sort that both Ringleblum and Martin Monath identified with. (Monath, of course, is the subject of Nathaniel Flakin’s highly-regarded “Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Amongst Nazi Soldiers.”)

Kassow provides expert analysis along with other historians in the documentary that was directed by Roberta Grossman, who is also a prominent interviewee. Although Grossman’s primary interest is in Jewish life, she also made a film taking up the cause of American Indians (“500 Nations”) and another about blues singer Sippie Wallace (“Sippie”).

Grossman adopted a novel approach in “Who Will Write Our History”. She used a cast of actors and actresses to play the men and women of Oyneg Shabes. Speaking Yiddish, they have tense meetings about how to preserve the archives as well as Jewish lives. Next to Ringleburg, the most important character is Rachel Auerbach, whose work as an editor did not preclude her from serving in a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto. During her time there, she wrote “Two Years in the Ghetto”. Here is a brief excerpt:

Our heads were full of ash and soot from the fires that engulfed the city only a little while before. The heels of our shoes were split from trudging through the stone and bricks of buildings destroyed by bombs and our nostrils filled with smoke and the smell of corpses. The noise of planes and exploding bombs still echoed in our ears.

It looked as if an earthquake had hit the city. The government was dead but the body wasn’t yet buried, and we were the mourners for the burial. These were the last days of September 1939. After the capitulation of Warsaw and just before the German army officially marched in.

Near the end of September, on the first or second of a “Series of Black Days” of the first German placards on the walls, the poet Rajzel Zychlinsky came to me with the news that Emanuel Ringelblum was looking for me. He’d asked her to let me know I was wanted at the “Joint” office.

After the destruction of its building on Jasna 11, the “Joint” had moved to Wielka Street. We had heard that Ringelblum carried on with his work during the entire siege, in the most intense days of bombardment, even on that frightening Monday, September 25th, when the bombardment lasted without letup from eight in the morning till six at night. The day that marked the beginning of the fall of Warsaw.

Much of the footage in the film is quite grim. You see dead people lying in the street being carted off by Jewish laborers. You also see Nazi propaganda films attempting to depict Jews as unclean and untrustworthy. They are sickening. Despite the very dark nature of the film’s content, it is a stunning portrait of people rising to the occasion.

Some Jews operated in just the opposite way. Refusing to prettify life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Grossman makes sure to include scenes of Jewish cops operated in the name of the Judenrat herding their brethren into trains destined for Treblinka. The poet Itzhak Katznelson, who was part of the Oyneg Shabes leadership, viewed them as “the scum of the earth,” “filthy souls,” and “the so-called ‘Jewish’ policeman, who has nothing of the Jew and nothing of the human-being.” As for Ringelblum, he referred to the “cruelty of the Jewish Police, which at times was greater than that of the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Latvians.”

I will conclude with an excerpt from chapter five of Kassow’s book titled “A Band of Comrades” (the entire chapter can be read here) that describes the partnership between Hashomer Hatzair (a leftist Zionist group that both Monath and SWP leader Peter Buch belonged to) and the LPZ, Ringleblum’s organization:

Hashomer and the LPZ started to bury the hatchet with the coming of the war in 1939. Both groups realized that, apart from the Communists, they were the most pro-Soviet organizations in the ghetto. Neither group idealized the Soviet Union, but when the war began both agreed that, whatever its faults, the Soviet Union was the Jews’ best hope. True, Britain was fighting Hitler but that did not make London an ally of the Jews. After all, in 1939 Britain had betrayed Zionism with the White Paper. Zionism’s best chance depended on the collapse of British rule in the Middle East; only world revolution and the Soviet Union could make that happen.

So while Dror and the Bund supported Britain as she fought alone against Hitler, the LPZ and Hashomer wrote in their underground press about an “imperialist war” between Germany and Britain. Difficult as it may be to believe that these Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto saw no difference between Hitler and Churchill, the fact remains that under the conditions they faced they desperately needed ideological certainties and dogmas that afforded hope and a shred of optimism. Ringelblum did not discuss these views much in his diary, but his party preached these notions in its underground press, which was co-edited by Hersh Wasser.

Once Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, all Jews naturally hoped for a Red Army victory. Hashomer and the LPZ could now dispense with the unnatural cant about the imperialist war and cheer on a USSR that was allied with Britain and the United States. In March 1942 the LPZ, Hashomer, Dror, and the Right Poalei Tsiyon joined the Communists in the formation of an “Anti-Fascist Bloc.” As Raya Cohen has pointed out, the new situation forced Hashomer to become less focused on Palestine and more concerned with the “here”: the ghetto, the war, and the situation in Europe. Although the movement’s hostility to Yiddish never disappeared, it began to issue a Yiddish publication (Oyfbroyz), a sign that for all its elitism and isolation it was at last reaching out to those outside its narrow circle. Thus the ideological gap between Hashomer and the LPZ continued to narrow.

Finally, I must mention a very good review of Kassow’s book on the World Socialist Web Site. Although I am very critical of the sect, I highly recommend Clara Weiss’s 2015 article:

After the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the Bolshevik government for the first time granted full civil rights to a substantial part of Eastern European Jewry. In response to these developments, the Poalei Tsiyon split into a left and a right wing in 1920. (Borochov himself had turned against the revolution before his early death in December 1917.) The right wing opposed the Revolution and was oriented toward gathering support from British imperialism for the foundation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In Palestine, the Right Poalei Tsiyon became the basis for David Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity), the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party, which played a major role in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the Left Poalei Tsiyon (LPZ), whose own members in Russia supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, defended the Soviet Union and advocated world revolution. The LPZ’s claim to admission to the Third International (Comintern) was rejected by Lenin, however, as the party refused to break with the ideology of Ber Borochov. The Left Poalei Tsiyon continued to support the foundation of a Jewish nation state in Palestine, albeit on a “socialist basis.” Central to the organization’s political and cultural work was its emphasis on the significance of Yiddish culture, based on the language of the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

Overall, the LPZ stood significantly to the left of the better known and larger Bund, which opposed the seizure of power by the working class in 1917 and continued to work within the Second International. Many members of the LPZ and its youth organization, Yugnt (Youth), defected to the Communist Party of Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s, and both organizations often worked together closely.

Given the extraordinary impoverishment of substantial sections of Jewish workers and intellectuals and the growing anti-Semitism under the regime of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, both left-wing organizations enjoyed significant support. The Bund and the LPZ oversaw impressive networks of newspapers, ran their own schools and were active in numerous self-help organizations and trade unions. As Kassow points out:

For a young person who lived in a cellar in Lodz’s impoverished Balut or Warsaw’s Smocza Street, groups like the Bund and the LPZ were far more than mere political parties. They represented a road to self-respect and human dignity, a way to strive for ‘something better.’ (p. 35)

(“Who Will Write Our History” is available for $2.99 on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Hulu and other VOD sites.)


  1. Good to hear you rejected ‘The Farewell’ out of hand. I sat through it as it was my last chance to see something on the big screen. Italy closed all theaters the next day. Director Lulu Wong strung out a wash-line of clichés to show us life is not the same in NYC and China. Manhattan millennial single returns to Changchun because her grandmother is dying of cancer. Granddaughter, a state-of-the-art advanced thinker, is upset that the family won’t tell the old woman she is doomed. The New-York transplant is troubled by this backwardness till the end of the movie, which is long coming. So does the beloved old woman die? No, that would be cruel and make the paying public sad. As the curtain falls, we are informed that six years later grandma is still around.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 23, 2020 @ 9:42 pm

  2. You know where they really hated The Farewell”? In China!! All the Hollywood bankrollers thought they’d rake in millions. They even let the Chinese government review the script first. But the movie bombed. Chinese people don’t care about things like diversity and the stuff that woke Americans like. You know what American movie is the highest grossing in China? Avengers: Endgame. That’s right.

    Comment by Warren Oates — March 27, 2020 @ 5:35 pm

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