Samuel Kassow, a professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., speaks a bit of everything. He's fluent in Yiddish, gets by in Polish, knows his way around Russian and Hebrew, and has a good reading command of German and French.
But he won't need a translator when he speaks in Philadelphia this weekend; his message will be very clear: Jewish resistance during the Holocaust wasn't just about fighting back with guns.
"Jewish resistance wasn't just armed resistance," he said. "It was cultural resistance; it was trying to keep your family together; it was trying to maintain your humanity when the Germans were trying to dehumanize you."
Kassow, 63, will deliver the keynote address at this year's annual Memorial Ceremony for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs on Sunday, April 11, at 1 p.m., at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The event, Philadelphia's largest Yom Hashoah commemoration, will also feature Yizkor prayers and remarks from secular and religious community leaders. The rain site is at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia.
This year's theme is "Resistance," which lies at the center of Kassow's book, Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto.
'Nothing Really Like It'
Kassow said that he wants to emphasize in his remarks that resistance entailed more than just combating the Nazis with violence because "if you just associate resistance with armed resistance, then you're saying that 99 percent of Jews didn't resist, and that wasn't the case."
As an example of another, less glamorized form of resistance, he offers the Oyneg Shabes archive, the subject of his book. The archive was the project of Emanuel Ringelblum, a Jewish Polish historian who, as Kassow explained, "before the war was a respected, but not a first-ranked figure — a kind of journeyman historian and community organizer."
Added the scholar: "Wartime turns some people into monsters and other people into heroes, and Ringelblum kind of understood that he had to rise to the challenge, and he did."
As the Warsaw ghetto was being closed off in 1940, Ringelblum began the process — in collaboration with a few other leaders — of archiving all sorts of material from the ghetto's inhabitants.
Over the course of three years, Jews in the ghetto contributed not just recollections of their own experiences under Nazi rule, but histories, theological pieces, photographs, diaries, recipes, even candy wrappers — anything that might serve as a remembrance of the culture the Nazis were working to extinguish.
While many other Jewish communities maintained their own archives during the Nazi period, Kassow said that Ringelblum's was larger and better organized than any other. "This was a group of people that really had a purpose, had a plan; and in that sense, there was nothing really like it."
The Oyneg Shabes archive's name translates to the "Joy of the Sabbath" and got its title because its organizers generally met on Saturdays.
Nearly everyone involved with the archive, including Ringelblum, was killed during the war. The archive itself was buried beneath the streets of Warsaw in tin boxes and milk cans, not all of which have been found, despite extensive searches. Those involved who did survive the war assisted in finding it beneath the ghetto rubble.
The archive was exhumed between 1946 and 1950.
Though Kassow wrote a pair of books prior to Who Will Write Our History?, neither dealt with the Shoah, but rather centered on Tsarist Russia. The historian said that the experience of researching and writing a Holocaust book was vastly different than anything he'd done before.
Whereas his Russian books dealt with a well-organized and well-documented story, "here I was dealing with a society that was being destroyed, and instead of documents that were deeply arranged in files and archives, I was dealing with documents that had been hastily buried in boxes and tin cans that didn't surface until after the war. You could see in the documents the escalating terror — the rupture, the disintegration of these people's lives."
Aside from an academic interest in the archive, Kassow had a personal tie. The historian is the son of Polish Jewish parents and was born in a displaced persons' camp in Germany. He said that over time, he came to understand that Ringelblum's story was fascinating, and that as a historian he had the particular tools necessary to tell it.
He said that it eventually came down to the question: "If I didn't write the history of this culture, who would?" The research and writing of the book took about eight years, including visits to Poland, Israel and Washington, D.C., all three of which have materials from the Oyneg Shabes archive. The new Yad Vashem facility in Jerusalem has a section dedicated to the collection.
As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindle and history moves on, many have pondered about the future of Holocaust studies, and whether or not that subject will be subsumed into the larger, more generalized topic of genocide.
Kassow said that while it's perfectly legitimate to pursue both topics, future historians must be careful that the Shoah not be "understood as just killing; it has to be understood also as a very important chapter in Jewish history, and many questions from that perspective would not be asked from the perspective of genocide studies."
Kassow knows a thing or two about Jewish history — in fact, he's currently serving as a consultant to Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews, set to open in 2012.
His specialty vis-à-vis the museum deals with the period between 1860 and 1939, which, he explained, saw a rapid transformation of Jewish life, including the rise of political parties, modern Yiddish literature, industrialization, urbanization and more.
That goes a long way toward explaining why the Ringelblum Archive was so important.
He stressed that it's crucial to remember that "Polish Jews weren't all born in 1939, and that when the Holocaust began, Polish Jewry was already a vital and resilient community.
"You can't really understand what happened in the Holocaust without understanding what happened to that culture before the war."