Asking History’s Big Questions
Professor Sam Kassow ’66 wants students to understand why history matters.
It takes some getting used to: all the invitations coming in, one after another, to attend and speak at film festivals in Chicago, Montreal, Paris, and Rome. But for Trinity’s Samuel D. Kassow ’66, Charles H. Northam Professor of History, on whose book the documentary Who Will Write Our History is based, it is satisfying to see how much interest the film has sparked for what he deems “one of the most heroic stories of the Holocaust.”
Kassow, a scholarly authority on the Holocaust, has received many accolades for his 2007 book—published in eight languages—the full title of which is Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Indiana University Press). One reviewer for The New Republic magazine even wrote, “This may well be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read.”
Now the 90-minute documentary, which had its world premiere in San Francisco in July 2018, is drawing even more people to learn the gripping story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his resistance to Nazi oppression. In Nazi-occupied Warsaw of 1940, Ringelblum established Oyneg Shabes, a clandestine organization chartered to document all facets of Jewish life under Hitler and to preserve a historical record. Though decimated by murders and deportations, the group persevered in its work into the spring of 1943. Before Ringelblum and his family perished in March 1944, he and his associates managed to hide thousands of documents in milk cans and tin boxes.
It is a story that Kassow has shared with Trinity students taking his class on World War II. “It’s important to learn about the idea of cultural resistance, that you can fight with pen and paper, not just guns. What it says about one’s humanity that, even facing death, they were leaving documents in time capsules: it shows this very human need to tell the truth, to be remembered, and to fight back against total obliteration,” said Kassow.
Kassow also served as lead historian for two of eight galleries of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in October 2014 on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Poland.
Students taking Kassow’s class as part of the first-year Humanities Gateway Program can expect to read significant intellectual works by Voltaire, Marx, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche, among others. “I want students to understand some of the main contours of European intellectual history,” Kassow said. “One major theme: How could it be that the traditions of the Enlightenment proved to be so vulnerable? Only 150 years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man—issued in 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution—you had the beginning of World War II. The ideals that were superficially so attractive … why were they totally defeated in Europe by 1939?”
Kassow ultimately asks students to consider the big questions of history. “I want students to understand why history matters,” he said. “I want them to be aware of how much you have to take an interest in politics and really fight for the values that you believe in, if you believe in democracy.”
Written by Kathy Andrews