I saw a movie the other night that everyone should see. WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY, a film by Roberta Grossman, produced by Nancy Spielberg, is part documentary, part-dramatization about life in the Warsaw Ghetto. This powerful film tells the story of a group of scholars, rabbis and everyday citizens who, in the face of massive atrocity and inhumanity, that at the time were largely unknown to the rest of the world, found purpose and meaning in the will to write down their experiences. In striving to ensure that their version of the events, the day-to-day barbarity of the conditions in which they were forced to live, was documented, their mission also engendered feelings of hope; hope that someday their accounts of this time (literally buried in the Ghetto) would survive, be found, and the lives lost remembered and honored.
As a Jewish mother of young kids, I often find it perplexing how to broach the delicate subject of the indelicate nature of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We want our kids to be aware, but we also want them to feel safe and sheltered from the uglier sides of humanity. We want them to know the stories of loss, sacrifice and heroism that make their lives possible, but we also want them to sleep at night. We want them to have the “right” pair of jeans, but also to be mindful that a pair of jeans means nothing in the grand scheme of things. We want them to innocently enjoy their freedom, but to understand that it should never be taken for granted.
Recently, the groundbreaking musical Hamilton (that has flooded everyone’s psyches and i-tunes purchase lists) tells the both sad and inspirational story of the birth of American history. The crux of its important message is that essential to any understanding of “history” is that it’s nothing more than the version of the events espoused by those who write it down. It is often not the most accurate, and it is inherently, impossibly, not the one experienced by all the people, all the time. But any story drafted, true or not, believable or not, for good or for bad, will always hold more weight than silence. There are narratives everywhere; indeed, every room can be “the room where it happens.”
Perhaps this is the best way to explain history to our kids: To encourage them to write it; to embolden them to keep their own accounts. History is taught, but also constantly in the process of being written. We can learn as much from our ancestors harrowing tales as we can from their profound decisions that, even in the face of danger and despair, theirs were histories worth recording. We can honor them by writing down our own stories.
We live in a digital world in which one could argue that everyone does have a voice; one that’s too often comprised of images -- what we look like, what we are wearing, doing, seeing, wanting -- tailored screenshots from the lens of our camera obsessed culture. But when one writes, one turns inward, not outward. When one writes, one presents their reality as truly only they can, in real time. When one writes, one talks to oneself, and to the world-at-large, at the same time. Have you ever found an old diary you wrote in your youth, and barely recognized the words at play before you? Amazing. We need more of that. For future generations.
Yes, our kids should know that Jewish history is full of oppression, tragedy and ignorance, and yet still buoyed by thousands of years of communicating culture, tradition, blessing, bravery, and the perseverance of the people who believed in, and lived it. They need to know that there is power, like no other, in the power of the pen.
They say if you see something, say something. I say if you see something, write something. Don’t hesitate to commit your version of the events to the ever-changing story of humanity. Your tales may not seem big, but it’s the small stories, in good times and bad, that link us as humans, and together create bigger pictures that will write, or rewrite, the history books. Your snarky memes and snapchat streaks won’t be archived in the annals of history one day. But maybe your writing will. Find your voice, draft your stories, write your songs, give words to your realities. They are powerful, meaningful and lasting.