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A history professor’s own history: Professor Samuel Kassow

Special to the Journal

Sam Kassow and his daughter Serena on the set of “Who Will Write Our History?”

“I didn’t have a normal childhood,” said Samuel Kassow in a remarkable case of understatement; the Trinity College history professor was born in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany to two Holocaust survivors.

Growing up, his parents didn’t like to talk about their experiences. “They went through hell, and they had a lot of anger towards Judaism,” explained Professor Kassow. His parents survived by mere miracles: his mother was about to be shot by an SS officer whose gun jammed. His father was only “lucky” because he was arrested by the Soviets, whose concentration camps featured higher survival rates. As a child of survivors, Kassow was very much affected by his background and developed an interest in Jewish history from a young age.

Yet it wasn’t always easy to fit into his Jewish identity. As a Jewish student at Trinity in the 1960s, he was in the minority. “I just wanted to be normal, but I lived two lives. In my dorm, I was the child of Holocaust survivors reading Yiddish books by myself,” says Kassow, whose first language was Yiddish. “My public persona was totally different. I joined a frat, I worked as a dishwasher at the campus dining hall, I had a girlfriend from Smith, but it was a superficial persona; it’s not who I really was.”

After graduating from college in 1966, he took a Fulbright in England at the London School of Economics and studied at Oxford until eventually deciding to get his PhD in history at Princeton. In 1972, he went back to Trinity as a professor, where he has been teaching ever since. Kassow’s first 15 years of teaching had very little to do with Jewish history and more to do with Russia, but after his parents died, things changed. “I realized so many survivors were dying off; the day would come when no one would really care or understand what happened, so I decided I would write about the Holocaust.”

Jews in the Warsaw ghetto are led by German soldiers to an assembly point for deportation to death camps, 1943.

At that time, most of the history being told about the Holocaust was about the Germans. Kassow sought to capture the identities and points of views of the Jewish people who were portrayed with little individuality. His research led him to focus on Polish Jewry before the war, specifically the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringleblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Through this secret archive of documents stored in milk cartons and buried underground, Ringleblum made it his mission to preserve the memory, culture and resistance of the people in the Warsaw Ghetto. In Kassow’s book, “Who Will Write Our History?”, he writes about the contents of the cartons that were uncovered after the war with the help of one of three survivors of the ghetto.

Kassow now divides his time teaching between Trinity College and various schools across the United States and abroad. He has taught in Toronto, at Harvard, Dartmouth, and this upcoming summer, he will be in Australia. While he focuses mostly on the Holocaust as a visiting professor, he likes to teach World War II and Russian history at Trinity.

In addition to teaching, Kassow has published several books, traveled all over the world and helped create an exhibit for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews located at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Most recently, he is working with Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman as a consultant to the film “Who Will Write Our History?”, based on his book.

Beyond his work, Kassow has a strong connection to his two grown daughters and his wife, Lisa, who is the Hillel Director at Trinity College. By passing along this history to his family and communities around the world, he hopes that all of this work will continue to educate people about the Holocaust and the Jewish people. “The Holocaust signifies anything you want it to. For me, it’s what happened to the Jews, and it’s my job to deepen that understanding and make others aware.”

On April 23, Kassow will speak about Polish Jewry and his studies at the Annual Holocaust Commemoration at the J. Henry Higgins Middle School in Peabody. This Yom HaShoah program is sponsored by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University and will also feature songs by the Salem State University Women’s Chorale, the Generations Candle Lighting Ceremony and the annual Sonia Schreiber Weitz Upstander Award.

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