When One Reviewer Makes the Difference

Hailed as “one of the most important studies on the Holocaust to have appeared in years,” by the Curator of Stanford University’s Judaic and Hebraic Collections, Samuel Kassow’s riveting and monumental work WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY? was all but ignored when published by an academic publisher in July, 2007. However, when Carol Janeway, a Senior Vice President of the Knopf Group, came upon the lone national rave review in The New Repulic exclaiming that WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY is “The most important book about history that anyone will ever read,” she quickly began an easily won crusade to republish Kassow over here.

A true rags to riches publishing story, the publishing of WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY in paperback has become a testament to the vitality of trade paperback publishing and the sustained power of a passionate review. Since our publication in January, media interest has grown like wild fire, with appearances on C-Span’s Book TV, WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show and others, and culminating with an unprecedented full page, glowing review in the Los Angeles Times Book Review http://www.latimes.com/features/books/la-ca-samuel-kassow22-2009feb22,0,7699999.story by Louise Steinman (http://www.louisesteinman.com/), showing once again how one review can still make a huge difference in the life of a book.
Louise was kind enough to sit down and discuss how she came to Kassow and why she feels so passionately about this title in particular and this approach to publishing in general.
VA: When did you first hear about WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY by Samuel Kassow?

LS: I wasn’t aware of Kassow’s book until I was asked to review the Vintage edition. I try to keep abreast of books from university presses, but they’re not that well distributed and it’s easy to miss an important work like this.

VA: What do you think makes this title, and its particular publishing path, so vital?

LS: More and more authors are turning to university presses as the publishing world sinks its assets into celebrity memoirs. For a trade publisher to pick up a challenging work like Kassow’s is quite extraordinary in these times. By so doing, Vintage brings this work to the attention of a whole new audience. Someone at Vintage recognized the importance of this particular book; that also caught my attention.

VA: Did you know anything about Ringelblum or the Oyneg Shabes archive beforehand?

KS: I’d spent some time reading Ringelblum’s diary (which had been published in the 50’s.) I didn’t know how the diary related to the larger collective endeavor of Oyneg Shabes. I wasn’t aware of how the archive had been sequestered, nor was I aware of what the Oyneg Shabes team risked to collect and create the archive. Though I’ve been studying Eastern European history the last few years, Kassow’s book really explained to me what was at stake politically and morally in answering the question “who will write our history?”

VA: Why do you think people are so moved by and drawn to this particular story?

KS: The voices of those who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto now reach us across an abyss, that very “echo” of peoples’ struggles that the journalist Gustava Jarecka prophecied in her last will and testament, included in the archive.

We’re all living in a troubled moment of history now. People are struggling in so many ways around the globe, in our own country. Kassow’s book tells of perseverance and dedication to truth-telling during a period of brutal oppression. It’s inspiring to read what was accomplished against all odds. The Oyneg Shabes writers were determined that the perpetrators would not have the last word on what happened in the ghetto. It’s a powerful achievement.

VA: Why do you think Samuel Kassow is both heroic and brave for taking on this story now?

KS: What Kassow did was simply mind-boggling. There are thousands of pages of documents, written in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew. They were spread over several archives. He framed the whole story, enabling readers to see the themes, the strategy behind the whole Oyneg Shabes enterprise. He brings to life the moral dilemmas going on among the writers who knew death could come at any moment. This book obviously took a long long time to write. Kassow is so thorough and so generous in sharing his sources, and his prose is elegant– a delight to read. The conviction that this was an essential story to tell must have sustained him through the long writing process.

VA: What are you working on now?

KS: My own work often deals with memory, history, reconciliation. I’m currently working on a book called The Crooked Mirror: A Conversation with Poland. This investigation began in 2000, when I was invited to attend the week-long Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, organized by the Zen Peacemaker Order. That’s when I realized that, because of my own family history, I carried around unexamined prejudices against Poles—but I knew very little about Polish history and had until then, never met any Polish people. For the past nine years, I’ve been traveling in Poland, re-establishing a relationship with the town where my mother’s family lived for hundreds of years. That connection had been sundered both by emigration and the trauma of the Shoah. I’m fascinated with current efforts towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation. In this book, I follow the fault-line of my own prejudices. Ringelblum himself had a lot to say about Polish-Jewish relations, and Samuel Kassow lays the groundwork so that you can begin to understand the complexity and the richness of the entwined fates of Poles and Jews.

More with Louise Steinman:


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