Former Inquirer Reporter Andrew Cassel Translates Holocaust Diary
In 2015, Andrew Cassel retired from his career as a newspaperman after 35 years, including 23 at The Philadelphia Inquirer. But the longtime business reporter was not ready to just kick back. He became a visiting professor of business journalism at Penn State University. Then, two years later, he entered a master’s program in liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania.
But it was not until 2018 that Cassel found his retirement project.
He was on a Google journey into the story of Dr. Aharon Pick, a Jewish doctor who lived in Lithuania’s Jewish ghetto under German occupation during World War II. Cassel knew about Pick because his grandfather was a friend of the doctor in Lithuania. And on this Google journey, he learned that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., had Pick’s diary. He reached out and urged the museum to translate it.
The Philadelphia resident and Society Hill Synagogue member began working with a translator, Gabriel Laufer, a museum volunteer and former engineering professor at the University of Virginia. The duo’s work is now a translated journal called “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter,” published by Indiana University Press on April 4.
“It was a labor of love. Once I got going, it became engrossing,” Cassel said. “It tells you a lot about the experience of the Holocaust that you don’t get from reading popular accounts.”
Cassel first learned about Pick in 1990. He picked up a book in his parents’ house that his grandfather had put together containing memoirs from Keidan, the town in Lithuania where Cassel’s grandfather and Pick lived. One article was by Pick, according to an email from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum about Cassel.
“It was a memoir of growing up in this town, and it was fascinating,” said Cassel to the museum’s PR team.
Seven years later, Cassel received a package from a cousin in Israel about the Hebrew-language publication of Pick’s journal from the ghetto. Pick’s son took it with him when he moved to Israel after the Holocaust. Sometime after, “some folks got a hold of it and decided to publish it,” Cassel said.
Pick “worked in a Lithuanian hospital for more than a dozen years,” according to the email from the museum. But then the Nazis “outlawed Jewish doctors from treating non-Jewish patients.” As the email goes on to explain, “Pick was forced to move into the Šiauliai ghetto, where families were forced into cramped living situations. Essential food items like bread, milk and meat were hard to find, and there was punishment for Jewish people caught smuggling these items. Vermin riddled the ghetto, often making edible provisions scarce.”
The doctor’s journal contained passages like this one: “Horrible rumors regarding the fate of the Jewish population in Poland terrify us by day and take the sleep from our eyes by night. The cup of poison which has been spilled upon us in the last year is now the fate of our brothers in Poland. Exterminations of entire communities, killings of hundreds of thousands of Jews. They are telling us that tens of thousands of our brothers had been killed with poisonous vapors [gasses] like bedbugs and cockroaches — they had chosen a beautiful death for them!”
Pick learned about the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day in June 1944. His final entry was about how the West was coming.
“’Maybe this means we’ll survive and be liberated.’ But he didn’t survive. He had an illness and he died shortly after that,” Cassel said.
“It’s frustrating,” Cassel added. “You see this drama unfolding, and then it just stops.”
As he read the story and started working with Laufer to translate it, the former reporter viewed it as a much longer assignment.
“You start going from one discovery to another,” he said.
Now that it’s out, Cassel believes he’s contributed to Holocaust memory.
“I’m waiting to see if the rest of the world agrees with us, but we’ll find out,” he said.
The translator is already working on his next project: a translation of a book written in Yiddish and published in the late 1940s by a survivor, Levi Shalit, from the same Lithuanian ghetto. Ellen Cassedy, a Yiddish translator and a friend of Cassel’s, asked him to join the project. Cassel thinks they have a tentative contract with another university publisher.
“It’s a fascinating read,” he said. “But it’ll reach more people when we get it translated.”
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