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

By – November 15, 2021

Jew­ish his­to­ry is full of unbe­liev­able moments. In 2017, thou­sands of pages of pre­vi­ous­ly unknown doc­u­ments were dis­cov­ered in the base­ment of a Lithuan­ian church. Includ­ed among them were per­son­al essays sub­mit­ted to a con­test spon­sored by the Yid­dish schol­ar­ly and cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tion, YIVO. Author and car­toon­ist Ken Krim­stein, with the help of trans­la­tor Ellen Cassedy, has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed a graph­ic non­fic­tion nar­ra­tive based on six auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal reflec­tions of young Jews writ­ten on the verge of the Holo­caust. More than an adap­ta­tion, Krimstein’s book is a trans­for­ma­tion of these works into an utter­ly orig­i­nal form. Each author speaks from the past with the hon­esty and intro­spec­tion of ear­ly adult­hood, not know­ing that the world in which they have grown up is about to be destroyed.

Under­ly­ing Krimstein’s project is a com­mit­ment to con­vey­ing the rich­ness of East­ern Europe’s Yid­dish-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In his Pref­ace: Cross­ing the Abyss,” he describes this geo­graph­i­cal and cul­tur­al enti­ty as Yid­dishua­nia.” Not a nation, but an inter­sect­ing set of choic­es unit­ed by the Yid­dish lan­guage, this place and time includes reli­gious­ly obser­vant Jews, sec­u­lar Zion­ist, social­ists, and many oth­er con­flict­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ties. Krimstein’s aware­ness that this world is now lost, and prob­a­bly unfa­mil­iar to many read­ers, forms the frame­work of the book. His lan­guage and images acknowl­edge that world’s remote­ness, but ren­der its voic­es acces­si­ble and rel­e­vant today.

Each mem­oir rep­re­sents the unique voice of one indi­vid­ual, but also his or her place on the spec­trum of expe­ri­ences in Yid­dishua­nia. The Eighth Daugh­ter” recounts a nine­teen-year-old girl’s role with­in her large fam­i­ly, her lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions, and her emerg­ing fem­i­nism. For­bid­den by tra­di­tion­al Judaism to say kad­dish, the memo­r­i­al prayer, for her father, she begins to ques­tion the irra­tional basis for exclud­ing women from rit­u­al. Krim­stein demon­strates how the writer’s fem­i­nist con­scious­ness is her intrin­sic response to ortho­doxy, not a twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry idea import­ed into the past. The Let­ter Writer” offers a glimpse into the Yid­dish press, as well as the Kafkaesque ordeal of a twen­ty-year-old Jew fight­ing Amer­i­can legal restric­tions against immi­gra­tion. The author of The Boy Who Liked a Girl,” is tor­ment­ed by the con­flict between his roman­tic feel­ings and his spir­i­tu­al aspi­ra­tions, and by the irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences between sec­u­lar and reli­gious Jews. Krimstein’s foot­notes to each doc­u­ment are an inge­nious mech­a­nism. He delib­er­ate­ly steps out­side the nar­ra­tive, invit­ing the read­er, through his infor­ma­tive, iron­ic, and humor­ous com­ments, to a dia­logue with the past.

Stun­ning­ly imag­i­na­tive images add a new dimen­sion to the sto­ries. A huge hand tries to engulf the let­ter writer, dwarfed in size, as he strug­gles against an unjust sys­tem. The eighth daugh­ter becomes one can­dle on a Hanukkah meno­rah, light­ing her father’s cig­a­rette as he occu­pies the place of the shamash. A lone fig­ures skater, torn between com­pet­ing Zion­ist and social­ist move­ments, finds free­dom as a shad­owy sil­hou­ette freely mov­ing among scenes of dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties. Read­ers will leave this book with a sense of grat­i­tude for Krimstein’s inno­v­a­tive vision of a time and place, res­cued from oblivion.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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?