Filmmaker Rachel Kastner with her grandfather Karl Shapiro, 88, of...

Filmmaker Rachel Kastner with her grandfather Karl Shapiro, 88, of Queens, the subject of her 2019 documentary about hiding from the Nazis underground in Poland during World War II.  Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Kastner

For 18 months, 7-year-old Karl Shapiro's life was limited to a five-foot underground bunker in Kalusz, Poland, where he was instructed not to speak, slept on a dirt floor and spent his days and nights petrified about being captured by the Nazis.

Shapiro, his parents, and 15 other Jews took refuge in the bunker, which was hidden under a haystack inside a small barn, in 1943. The group, who would not see daylight until the end of the war, survived with the help of the barn owners and Paulina Plaksej, a Polish teenager who visited periodically to bring the persecuted Jews food and medicine.

More than seven decades later, Shapiro's granddaughter, Rachel Kastner, who was raised in Valley Stream, persuaded her grandfather, now 88 and living in Queens, to return to the bunker and reunite with Plaksej for a documentary film, "The Barn." The film, which Kastner coproduced with Matthew Hiltzik and Phil Berger, was released in 2019 and has been screened to thousands across the country. 

The day before remembrance

On Thursday, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, more than 2,600 students from across Long Island, New York City and as far as Wisconsin, participated in a Zoom discussion with Kastner and a screening of "The Barn." More than 100 others from groups around the country also participated in the event, which was sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women Peninsula Section in Lawrence.

What to know

  • On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2,600 students, including from four Long Island school districts, watched a screening of a film about Karl Shapiro, who survived 18 months during World War II living with his parents in a small underground bunker in Poland.
  • "The Barn," which was coproduced by Shapiro's granddaughter, Valley Stream native Rachel Kastner, tracks his return to the bunker and a reunion with the Polish teenager who risked her life to bring his family food and medicine.
  • Despite Holocaust education efforts, a new poll the American Jewish Committee poll found that only a slight majority of Americans can answer basic questions about Nazi extremism

In an interview Thursday from her home in Tel Aviv, Kastner said it's critical for younger generations to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust and what it took for survivors to make it out alive.

"These are the last few years that we'll be able to hear directly from Holocaust survivors," said Kastner, who was born in Mineola. "And it's crucial that anyone who has the opportunity to speak with a Holocaust survivor and learn their story does so."

As Kastner attempts to increase awareness of the Holocaust, a survey released this week showed that only a slight majority of Americans can answer basic questions about Nazi extremism.

An American Jewish Committee poll found that only 53% of Americans over the age of 18 answered correctly that approximately six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Just 39% correctly knew that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic process.

“Lacking knowledge can open pathways to trivialization and denial of the Holocaust that can also contribute to rising antisemitism,” said Ted Deutch, chief executive of the Manhattan-based American Jewish Committee.

In August, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation, sponsored by former State Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hills), requiring the state Education Department to conduct an audit of whether schools are in compliance with standards about teaching the Holocaust to students.

Kastner, who attended the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, grew up hearing stories of the Holocaust from three of her grandparents, who were each survivors.

But Shapiro, who immigrated to Queens in 1948, and would become a successful engineer — despite little formal education — remained emotionally detached from his time in the barn, Kastner said.

Revisiting his past

The film takes Kastner and Shapiro from New York, where she convinces her grandfather to revisit his past, to an emotional reunion in what is now Ukraine with Plaksej, who died in 2018, at 93.

"She's my missing link to the past," Shapiro says in the documentary, as he gives Plaksej handwritten cards from his grandchildren thanking her for saving his life.

The film shows the duo visiting the Auschwitz concentration camps as well as Shapiro's childhood home, a cemetery where members of his family are buried, before they eventually find the barn. In the film's climactic scene, Kastner asks her grandfather, standing in the darkness of the bunker, how he survived there for a year and a half.

"There's no way for you to understand," Shapiro replies. "If your life is in mortal danger you do anything you have to do."

Kastner told the students Thursday that a critical message of the film is standing up to authority in the face of abject wrongs.

"It wasn't to be expected that somebody would stand up to the Nazis and save the Jews," she said. "But it was the right thing to do. And because of a certain family's heroic actions, I'm here with you today."

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