When I Grow Up: The Lost Auto­bi­ogra­phies of Six Yid­dish Teenagers

September 1, 2020

A stun­ning graph­ic nar­ra­tive of new­ly dis­cov­ered sto­ries from Jew­ish teens on the cusp of WWII. When I Grow Up is New York­er car­toon­ist Ken Krim­stein’s new graph­ic non­fic­tion book, based on six of hun­dreds of new­ly dis­cov­ered, nev­er-before-pub­lished auto­bi­ogra­phies of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish teens on the brink of WWII‚ found in 2017 hid­den in a Lithuan­ian church cellar.

These auto­bi­ogra­phies, long thought destroyed by the Nazis, were writ­ten as entries for three com­pe­ti­tions held in East­ern Europe in the 1930s, just before the hor­ror of the Holo­caust for­ev­er altered the lives of the young peo­ple who wrote them.

In When I Grow Up, Krim­stein shows us the sto­ries of these six young men and women in riv­et­ing, almost cin­e­mat­ic nar­ra­tives, full of humor, yearn­ing, ambi­tion, and all the angst of the teenage years. It’s as if half a dozen new Anne Frank sto­ries have sud­den­ly come to light.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ken Krimstein

  1. Did any­one in your fam­i­ly speak Yiddish?

  2. What did they say? How did they use it?

  3. What do you think of the rela­tion­ship of Yid­dish and Hebrew? Of Yid­dish and English?

  4. Could you imag­ine a Unit­ed States where Jews spoke two lan­guages, Yid­dish and English?

  5. What were your par­ents or grand­par­ents doing between WWI and WWII — 1918 and 1939?

  6. Do you think that all of the var­i­ous polit­i­cal groups that the teens in the book belonged to were pri­mar­i­ly for get­ting involved in pol­i­tics? Or do you think they had oth­er rea­sons, as teens will do — like meet­ing oth­er kids, boys, girls?

  7. These teens had no idea what was in store for their world, or for them­selves. Or do you think they might have?

  8. Can you think of oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, oth­er groups, that are per­haps going through sim­i­lar kinds of stress­es today? Or who, if there was an anony­mous auto­bi­og­ra­phy con­test like the one YIVO did, who would reveal the same kinds of long­ings, hopes, fears?

  9. Which char­ac­ter do you most iden­ti­fy with? Why?

  10. Does the world that the author describes as Yid­dishua­nia” come as a sur­prise to you? How would you describe it? If it was a sur­prise, why?

  11. If you could say some­thing to any of the char­ac­ters in the book, at the time, what would you say to them?

  12. If you were in that kind of sit­u­a­tion, how would you have acted?

  13. What kinds of things can we learn from these stories?


Ques­tions for young adults:

  1. What sim­i­lar­i­ties do you see between your life and the lives of these Yid­dish teenagers from the 1930’s?

  2. What is most dif­fer­ent about the way these teenagers lived from the way you live?

  3. Many of them spoke about how impor­tant read­ing and writ­ing was to them — does this ring true for you today?

  4. Which of the six teenagers whose sto­ries are brought to life in the book do you think would most like­ly be a friend of yours?