By the time Serena Kassow appeared in a film about the Warsaw ghetto’s secret archive, she had heard about “the most important untold story of the Holocaust” for the better part of her life.
As the daughter of Holocaust historian Samuel Kassow, the 21 year old grew up watching her father collect stories from local survivors in Connecticut, particularly those from Poland. Years of learning culminated in May, when Kassow joined her father on the set of “Who Will Write Our History?” a documentary based on his book about the Warsaw ghetto’s “Oneg Shabbat” archive.
The day after receiving her theater studies degree from Boston’s Emerson College, Kassow flew to Poland for what she called “an incredibly personal month.” Having heard she was a theater student, the film’s producers cast Kassow as a featured extra. On ghetto sets in Warsaw and Lodz, she portrayed a typist preparing reports for the clandestine archive, from which 25,000 documents have come down to history.
Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Samuel Kassow led the creation of two popular galleries at the acclaimed POLIN museum in Warsaw, opened in 2014 to depict 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. Kassow designed the museum’s pre-war “Jewish street” exhibit, which — like the entire museum — sits atop a storied area of the former ghetto, close to uprising sites and several memorials.
“My father made the ‘Jewish street’ exhibit like he was making it for me and my sister,” said Kassow. “It is made for someone who has not studied pre-war Jewish life in Warsaw, with a lot of artifacts on display about films, sports, magazines, theater, and all the things we are still interested in today.”
‘A nation that produces these monsters’
Oneg Shabbat visionary Emanuel Ringelblum was a communal leader and respected scholar before the war. An expert on Jewish history in Poland, he was well suited to document Warsaw’s imperiled Jews, up to 300,000 of whom were eventually gassed at Treblinka.
Several principles guided Ringelblum and Oneg Shabbat volunteers he worked with. No aspect of ghetto life was too inconsequential for them, whether candy wrappers, ration cards, or jokes and slang of the day. All aspects of ghetto political life were to be represented with underground newspapers, meeting minutes and other documents. Oneg Shabbat was not to be an “edited” version of history, but an exhaustive collection of primary sources.
Of particular interest to historians has been Ringelblum and others’ sharp criticism of ghetto leaders, including the Jewish Council appointed by the Nazis to execute their orders.
“Maybe a nation that produces these monsters deserves what it is getting,” wrote Yiddish writer Shie Perle in an Oneg Shabbat document, as recalled by Samuel Kassow during a lecture at Emerson College in April.
“These monsters,” according to Kassow, were the Jewish policemen under orders to empty the ghetto of its inhabitants. When Perle wrote those words, Oneg Shabbat members already knew the truth about Treblinka, as proven in reports sent to Great Britain about the death camp.
“He put this [criticism] in the archive so that people would trust it,” said Kassow, adding that Ringelblum wanted resistance and “quiet heroism” to shine through the buried collection. Also, Kassow admitted, “Ringelblum had an intuition that after the war, people would ask stupid questions.”
‘We control how we are remembered’
Executive-produced by Nancy Spielberg, the release of “Who Will Write Our History?” next year could revive interest in the missing, third cache of documents buried by Oneg Shabbat staff in 1943.
With the first and second caches unearthed in 1946 and 1950, there has long been speculation about the final trove of documents buried near the ghetto’s brush-making shops before the uprising. Since paved over, the area is now home to the Chinese Embassy.
A team of Israeli archeologists failed to uncover the third cache beneath embassy grounds during a 2003 excavation. However, if the documents were buried in milk canisters or metal boxes, as with the first and second troves, today they could potentially be located with ground-penetrating radar (GPR). Investigations conducted at Treblinka and elsewhere have made fruitful use of GPR and other non-invasive tools refined since 2003.
As of now, there are no plans to dig or scan for Oneg Shabbat’s missing swan song to history. Reportedly, the cache contains documents about several Jewish fighting groups and preparations for the revolt. There has been recent debate about the roles played by various armed groups during the uprising, and sources from the ghetto’s final months could clarify points of contention — assuming the cache is ever found, and that any documents are legible after 73 years (and counting) in the ground.
According to Samuel Kassow, the Oneg Shabbat creators wanted “posterity to remember them from Jewish and not just German sources. As long as we control how we are remembered, you haven’t killed us,” Kassow said of the group’s motivation.
Film director Roberta Grossman called the archive, “the most important untold story of the Holocaust,” setting the bar high for her documentary, currently in editing.
In contrast to films focused on the ghetto’s climactic uprising, this production promises to shed light on the full three years of life, and death, behind ghetto walls. This broader view includes women’s roles in creating the archive, acting as resistance agents, and sustaining life in the ghetto.
As one of just three Oneg Shabbat members to survive the war, historian Rachel Auerbach will feature prominently in the film. Her poignant studies on children and starvation are highlights of the archive, along with her personal dairy. While hiding in the Aryan part of Warsaw following the uprising, Auerbach wrote essays about the ghetto’s destruction and Treblinka that were circulated throughout Poland.
Lamenting the “black soil of Jewish Warsaw,” Auerbach recalled the ghetto’s bagel sellers, knife wielders, and ubiquitous beggars in her essay, “Yizkor, 1943,” written after her escape. She recorded the names of her relatives sent to Treblinka and Belzec, and compared her memory to a cemetery for murdered loved ones. Throughout Nazi-occupied Poland and beyond, the genocide was to rage on for another, third year.
“I feel the need to say Yizkor four times a day,” wrote Auerbach, who later established the witness testimony department of Yad Vashem in Israel.