Metro

Kristine Keese, 82; scholar wrote Holocaust memoir

Dr. Keese published “Shadows of Survival: A Child’s Memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto” this year.

Dr. Keese published “Shadows of Survival: A Child’s Memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto” this year.

Kristine Keese spent part of her childhood in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, and for decades it seemed as if those years were destined to be forgotten.

When she moved away from Poland after the war to “another country, another life, another culture,” her memories of dodging death at the hands of the Nazis lay dormant. “The past seemed less and less believable,” she wrote in “Shadows of Survival: A Child’s Memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto,” which was published this year.

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“I have been writing this book for over 60 years, mostly just in my head,” she added. “As a child in the Warsaw ghetto, I kept a diary interspersed with poems and overheard stories. It had to be destroyed when we left the ghetto so that no traces of where I had been could ever be found.”

Dr. Keese, whose careers included teaching sociology at Brandeis University, where she helped found the women’s studies program, died of breast cancer Oct. 8 in her Plymouth home. She was 82 and divided her time between Plymouth and Wellfleet.

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When Dr. Keese first arrived in New York City as a refugee after the war, the reactions of other children at school made her more determined to forget her past.

“Some kids in school started asking me about things and I started telling them a little bit about some version of what I had been through. . . . And a little girl jumped up and said ‘Don’t believe a word she says. My father says all these refugees, they just come here, they tell you this terrible story so you feel sorry for them and they lie,’ ” she told comedian Paul Gilmartin in 2012 for his podcast “The Mental Illness Happy Hour” — an interview that became the foundation for her memoir.

“And that shut me right up,” she added. “And at that point I made a decision that when you come out of an insane asylum, you don’t tell people that you came out of an insane asylum and you don’t describe what happened in the insane asylum. You pretend that you’ve always been normal, and that life has always been normal for you. And that was kind of a defining decision at that point of how I was going to act.”

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By the time she wrote her memoir, Dr. Keese had established her expertise in other pursuits. While teaching sociology at Brandeis in 1981, and writing under her previous married name of Kristine M. Rosenthal, she and Harry F. Keshet coauthored “Fathers Without Partners: A Study of Fathers and the Family After Marital Separation.”

For their research, they spoke with nearly 130 fathers who had been divorced or separated for more than a year and who took an active role in caring for their children. “We conclude that men need their children,” they wrote in a book that challenged conventional notions about families in which parents no longer live together.

The authors “offer good advice as well as sympathetic observations of these brave fathers,” Globe reviewer Christina Robb wrote in March 1981. “Their book reads easily and blazes clear trails.”

Dr. Keese’s own trail subsequently led away from academia. She and her second husband, Robert Keese, a commercial fishing captain, fished along the coasts of Alaska and Florida. In Alaska, she also was an evaluator for a Native education program.

In the late 1980s, the Keeses bought land in Plymouth that became Cranberry Hill Farm, and initially they were among “the few people in Massachusetts who were growing cranberries organically,” said her son Richard Rosenthal of Beverly Hills, Calif.

Born in Warsaw in 1933, Kristine Maria Devert was a young girl when she became a resident of the Warsaw ghetto, which German officials had established and where they forced all Jews from the city and surrounding countryside to live.

In the podcast and in her memoir, Dr. Keese recounted harrowing stories about times when she and her mother narrowly escaped dying. Her accounts of other moments are just as poignant.

“I used to read — I read a lot,” she said in the podcast. “I went through every book that I could get my hands on, and maybe that was another one of my escapes. When I read, I completely lost track of reality. And because there was no electricity, I used to end up reading holding the book out the window where there was the last of the light.”

She spoke about how she chose which memories to recall and which to try and forget: “You take the good parts and you say, ‘These good parts I can be in control of. The bad parts I can’t be in control of so that’s not what I’m going to focus on.’ ”

After the war, she moved with her mother, an uncle, and a great-aunt to New York City. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, where she studied philosophy, and from Harvard University with a doctorate in education.

Her first marriage, to Robert Rosenthal, ended in divorce. She married Robert Keese in 1980. Along with her work at Brandeis, Dr. Keese taught at the University of Michigan and Northeastern University.

At one point, she used her Polish language skills to translate testimonials of those who had survived concentration camps or who stayed alive by hiding in the countryside during the war. “It was very difficult for me to read and retype these stories without weeping over the horrors that the children had endured,” she wrote in her memoir.

“As my ordinary life went on, I still couldn’t bring myself to write my story,” she added. “Why bring to others what I was trying to get away from myself?”

Then she began to see movies about the Holocaust, such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Ultimately, she realized that her own family’s stories might be lost unless she wrote them down. “My children would never know what they have inherited,” she wrote in her book, in which she titled the introduction “Coming to Terms with Memories.”

In addition to her son Richard, Dr. Keese leaves a daughter, Lisa Rosenthal of Hatfield; a son, Jeff of Los Angles; her three stepchildren, Eileen of Wareham, Bob of Harwich, and Andy of Monument Beach; and six grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

A celebration of Dr. Keese’s life will be announced.

“She liked to experience things,” Jeff said. “And she taught me that money was well-spent on travel and experience because those are the things you take with you all your life.”

From her years in the Warsaw ghetto onward, Dr. Keese had seen many pieces of her life slip away — people she had known, places she had lived, her early childhood diary. Material items often end up lost or broken, she told her son, “but a memory was always worthwhile.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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