Episode 10

Sam Kassow

In October 1945, Celia Kassow gave birth to her son Sam in a German displaced persons camp. Seventy-five years later, Sam Kassow reflects on his mother’s life and an astonishing journey of discovery to his mother’s hometown in Eastern Europe.

About Sam

Sam Kassow was born October 3, 1945, in Wasseralfingen, a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, to his parents Celia and Kopl. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and is today a leading historian of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust. Sam went on to earn a B.A. from Trinity College, Hartford; an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics; and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. His mastery of Russian, German, Hebrew, and Polish, in addition to his native Yiddish, has given him access to manifold sources on East European Jewish history, while his family background, painful as it was, has afforded him unique insights into the society’s lived reality. Sam’s magnum opus is surely Who Will Write Our History? (Indiana University Press, 2007), later adapted into a documentary film of the same name. The book offers a reconstruction of prewar and Holocaust-era Warsaw through the life of Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian and Zionist socialist activist who created the massive Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw ghetto.

Photos and Artifacts

The Kassow family. Photo courtesy of Kassow Family

Sam Kassow. Photo courtesy of Kassow Family

The Kassow family. Photo courtesy of Kassow Family

Celia and Sam Kassow. Photo courtesy of Kassow Family

The children of the Kassow family. Photo courtesy of Kassow Family

Zalman Zimmer, Piotr Belevich, and Salva at the ceremony at Yad Vashem. On the background is the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous, 7/12/1999. Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem, File Number 8191
https://photos.yadvashem.org/photo-details.html?language=en&item_id=40139411&ind=9

Piotr Belevich at the ceremony at Yad Vashem holding the Honor Certificate, 7/12/1999
Source: Image from Righteous Among the Nation
Credit Yad Vashem
File Number 8191
https://photos.yadvashem.org/photo-details.html?language=en&item_id=40139412&ind=10

Szarkowszczyzna between 1919-1939. Public Domain
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%C5%A0arko%C5%AD%C5%A1%C4%8Dyna,_Dzisna._%D0%A8%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%BA%D0%BE%D1%9E%D1%88%D1%87%D1%8B%D0%BD%D0%B0,_%D0%94%D0%B7%D1%96%D1%81%D0%BD%D0%B0_(1919-39).jpg#/media/File:Šarkoŭščyna,_Dzisna._Шаркоўшчына,_Дзісна_(1919-39).jpg

https://www.radzima.org/pl/foto/55358.html

Episode Notes by Dr. Glenn Dynner 

Sam Kassow was born October 3, 1945, in Wasseralfingen, a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, to his parents Celia and Kopl. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and is today a leading historian of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust.

As with many children of survivors, the most formative events for Sam may have occurred before he was even born: his mother Celia’s Holocaust experience (see Celia Kassow — Part 1 and Celia Kassow — Part 2).

Celia Kassow (née Cymer, 1923-1994) was a native of Szarkowszczyzna, Poland, a predominantly Jewish town within a predominantly ethnic Belarusian region whose nearest city was Vilna. In the summer of 1942, after the Germans had already massacred most of the Jews of Szarkowszczyzna, Celia and her sister Slava were hidden by Piotr Bilevich, a Polish farmer who had done business with their family before the war. The next year, Celia, Slava, and Piotr fled to the forest and joined a Soviet partisan unit. Celia and Piotr “married” during that time, but after liberation Celia met Sam’s father, Kopl, and settled temporarily in the Stuttgart DP camp. Sam was born nine months later.

The traumas of war and genocide had a devastating impact on Celia and, by extension, Sam. Suicidal and then ill with mastitis, Celia initially sent her newborn to be cared for by others. When Sam was three years old, the family immigrated to New Haven, Connecticut. Sam remembers his father Kopl as “a wonderful man, a caring and loving father, a hard-working breadwinner.” But his parents’ marriage was difficult, like many such unions born of tragedy and loneliness.

Sam’s childhood was shrouded by the recent catastrophe. In addition to his parents’ allusions, Sam grew up under the weight of the unsparing stories of his father’s uncle, Abe, who shared his room and proved eager to unburden himself. Thus it was that, as a young child, Sam heard all about Abe’s flight from the ghetto in Vileyka, Belarus, the murder of the wife and children he had left behind in a panic, and details about “gas chambers, about the death camps, about the Einsatzgruppen, about the ghettos.”

Sam’s mother’s more vague references proved just as formative for Sam. In college, when Sam dated a non-Jewish woman and experienced the “nirvana” of a ski trip with her “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family … normal people,” Sam’s mother put a stop to the relationship. She merely explained that she, too, had “given something up that caused her a lot of pain,” an allusion to leaving Piotr.

Sam went on to earn a B.A. from Trinity College, Hartford; an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics; and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. His mastery of Russian, German, Hebrew, and Polish, in addition to his native Yiddish, has given him access to manifold sources on East European Jewish history, while his family background, painful as it was, has afforded him unique insights into the society’s lived reality.

Sam’s magnum opus is surely Who Will Write Our History? (Indiana University Press, 2007), later adapted into a documentary film of the same name. The book offers a reconstruction of prewar and Holocaust-era Warsaw through the life of Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian and Zionist socialist activist who created the massive Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw ghetto.

In addition to his groundbreaking scholarship, Sam has engaged in invaluable educational endeavors, from teaching classes at Trinity College to curating museum exhibits and consulting for documentaries and podcasts. He has also trained and very generously encouraged emerging historians within Russia and Poland.

Sam’s manifold projects often took him back to Eastern Europe, where he finally found a resolution to his mother’s story: he tracked down Piotr. The jilted lover, now an elderly man with a middle-aged daughter, was not exactly thrilled to meet Celia’s son, who was clearly not his own. But the next time Sam visited, he brought Celia’s sister, Slava, and “they really, really connected. And then … we started the documentation rolling for Yad Vashem to recognize him as a Righteous Gentile.” Celia and Piotr never reunited, however. Their love remained both the product and casualty of the Holocaust.