Long-Lost Essays Penned by Jewish Teens on Brink of Holocaust Inspires New Book
by Shiryn Ghermezian
A graphic nonfiction book set to be published next month is based on six autobiographies written by Jewish teenagers in Eastern Europe right before the start of World War II.
The illustrative narrative “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens” was created by graphic artist, writer and New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research discovered the six never-before-published autobiographies in 2017 among hundreds of other Jewish documents that were hidden in a Lithuanian church cellar.
The essays were originally submitted to three autobiography writing competitions held by YIVO in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before the start of the Holocaust. Prizes for the final competition were never awarded because on the same day that they were set to be handed out in 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. The autobiographies were long thought to have been destroyed by the Nazis.
Each of the autobiographies are filled with the aspirations, observations and beliefs of the young writers, whose lives were about to be drastically altered by the horrors of the Holocaust.
“These were young people we would recognize today, with wry assessments of those around them and questions about authority and love that are the special language of teenagers,” said the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. “These teens tell all, revealing the angst, the humor, and the ambitions they were mapping out in a world soon to disappear.”
Krimstein was one of the first people to physically hold the long-hidden autobiographies. When working on the book, he also discovered that the youngest writer, who broke the rules to participate in the writing competition, survived World War II and was among those who helped keep the essays, as well as contents of a library, from being destroyed by the Nazis and later the Soviets.
Krimstein told The Algemeiner on Tuesday that he had “an incredible feeling of personal connection” to the autobiographies because of his family’s own roots in Eastern Europe. Reading the autobiographies also gave him a glimpse into life in Eastern Europe pre-World War II, he said, something he had always hoped to explore.
The author added that when he learned about the essays, he was intrigued to explore the writings of “just normal teenagers” and their “vantage point” on the eve of World War II.
“When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers” will be published on Nov. 16, 2021.