Graphic novel rescues part of Holocaust history from oblivion

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“Yiddishuania” is a neologism that New York cartoonist and graphic novelist Ken Krimstein coined in service of his new book, “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers.” Krimstein recently told JewishBoston, “’Yiddishuania’ is a physical space encompassing the geographic and cultural expanse of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. He went from Riga to Odessa and Crimea on the Black Sea. The borders were constantly changing, but the Yiddish-speaking world before World War II grew steadily and approached 11 million people. Krimstein rescues the stories of six teenagers in pre-Holocaust Europe and illustrates their stories with deceptively simple black-and-white drawings accented sparingly with oranges and reds.

Krimstein’s innovative project started by chance. A few years ago, the Evanston, Illinois resident saw a notice about a conference about the discovery of thousands of pages from the archives of YIVO, the world’s largest repository of Jewish civilization records from Eastern Europe. The pages had recently been discovered in the basement of a Lithuanian church, and among them were essays submitted to a competition sponsored in the 1930s by YIVO, then based in Vilna. Krimstein grew up in a Jewish family in Chicago and recalls, “I first heard about these autobiographies in a social hall in Skokie. When I was a child, many Holocaust survivors lived in Skokie, and the National Socialist Party of America tried to hold a march there in the 1970s. I was looking for another project, and when these autobiographies are arrived, it was like a thunderclap. I knew I had to investigate further.

(Courtesy image)

  • In the summer of 2017, Krimstein traveled to the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, the country’s national library, to examine the source material which became “When I Grow Up”. He encountered a pile of notebooks that looked like the ordinary blue exam notebooks once used in American universities. Krimstein didn’t understand Yiddish, but he knew he had come across material that captured the moments just before the Holocaust engulfed Yiddishuania. Going through the stories with a translator, he discovered a modern 20th century world in which Jews were unaware of their genocidal fate.

    “As I was leafing through these books, I asked the researcher helping me at the National State Library, ‘How many people have looked at these notebooks since 1939?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Two. You and me.’ And as I went through the notebooks, I saw that the writing brought out the personality of each child,” he said.

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    “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers” by Ken Krimstein (courtesy image)

    YIVO launched the competition in 1932, opening it to boys and girls aged 13 to 21. Participants were anonymous to protect privacy and encourage unvarnished truthfulness. Krimstein noted that the contest judges were more likely to be won over by the directness than by the “sophisticated writing”. The generous prize of 150 zlotys – enough money at the time to live in Warsaw for a year – was another incentive to enter the competition. Krimstein writes that “over 700 entries arrived from all over Yiddishuania”. Unfortunately, the winners were to be announced on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland and the start of World War II. Krimstein informs readers that the winner was never announced and the prize has not been claimed.

    Although many entries have been destroyed, the surviving essays are part of an amazing story of rescuing history from oblivion. After the Nazis conquered Vilna in June 1941, they stole YIVO’s assets to establish an Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. Jewish residents of the Vilna Ghetto, responsible for sorting the materials, smuggled and hid as many materials as possible. This group of heroes became known as the Paper Brigade. When the Soviets recaptured Vilna in 1944, the surviving members of the brigade dug up the documents they had buried to create the Vilna Jewish Museum. Five years later, Stalin “ordered that the entire contents of the museum be smashed to a pulp in retaliation” for Israeli policy. A sympathetic communist party official defied the order and hid the treasure trove of Yiddish materials in a church until they were discovered in 2017.

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    “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers” by Ken Krimstein (courtesy image)

    Krimstein chose a dozen stories to translate and published six of them. Among his criteria for publication, there was “to show the diversity of the Yiddishuanian civilization. This civilization reflected very well the diversity of the Jewish culture that existed there. He said that several poignant essays were rejected “because they were fragmented or incomplete. Some were too internal and had no visual elements. A story had to have incidents that made up a narrative arc from which I could draw pictures. In some of these entries, the young people talked about Zionism or politics. A yeshiva the boy longed to date girls and go to parties. Some lived in the city, others in the countryside. I was also adamant about having an equal number of boys and girls in the book.

    A tribute to gender equality, Krimstein presents a story called “The Eighth Daughter”, which shows how Jewish women’s roles were blocked in religious life. A 19-year-old woman writes that her father encouraged her literary aspirations and that when he died she felt compelled to say the Kaddish of mourning for him in the synagogue. She openly wonders why women weren’t allowed to say Kaddish publicly at services. She shocks the congregation when she stands up to say the prayer, and a man stops her mid-sentence. It’s a brilliant moment when Krimstein shows that woman’s feminism is her innate response to orthodoxy.

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    “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers” by Ken Krimstein (courtesy image)

    “The Letter Writer” is the only story that specifically discusses the Holocaust. A young man of 20 feels the first tremors of anti-Semitism when his studies are interrupted because he is Jewish. He gets caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare trying to immigrate to America or Israel. He writes a series of desperate letters to an American relative, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Abraham Cahan, the editor of Yiddish Forverts in America, and traces the chain to the President of the United States.

    “When I Grow Up” is a unique Holocaust book that will appeal to older children and adults alike. By writing it, Krimstein saved Yiddishuania from oblivion. “We are in a historic moment,” Krimstein said, “where a lot of people who had direct experiences of surviving the Holocaust are leaving. The story goes from a report to a story that looks like an impossible fairy tale. These stories are so deep for me because they show that these were ordinary people who could have been you or me or our children.

    Ken Krimstein will appear virtually at the North Shore Jewish Community Center on Tuesday, February 8 at 7 p.m. Register here.

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