Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust
Edited by Jeffrey Shandler
Yale, 437 pages, $35.
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Recently I visited a new synagogue in the overwhelmingly Orthodox Long Island suburb of Woodmere. In its entrance hall is a wall mural depicting East European Jewish life on the verge of Nazi destruction. The mural’s faces are gauzy and romanticized, drawn in part from Roman Vishniac’s famed pre-war photographs. What stands out immediately is that, as in the Vishniac originals, the faces are all of Jews draped in traditional garb, engaging in what the wall reassures us was a homogeneously traditional Jewish world cut short by catastrophe. There is no room for subtlety here, and the intention is clear: Be certain to live out your life as these Jews were unable to do because of their deaths at the hands of Nazis.
Stark as the example is, it is by no means unique in its usurpation of the pre-Holocaust Jewish world; ideologues of various stripes have airbrushed its complexities, remaking its history in various ways consistent with their specific priorities, or political or cultural inclinations, or what they felt was most lacking in their own milieus. As Janet Hadda has observed in a recent biography, even the innovative, Warsaw modernist Isaac Bashevis Singer has been remade — and managed to remake himself — so that he is for most American readers little more than a “chronicler of an ethnographically, informative, crude, colorful world.”
“Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust” should offer a jarring, deeply unsettling antidote to any and all simple evocations of Polish Jewry in the years immediately preceding the war. The book, superbly edited by cultural and literary historian and former Forward contributing editor Jeffrey Shandler (with an introduction by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Marcus Moseley and Michael Stanislawski) is culled from more than 300 extant autobiographies submitted by young Jews in Poland in the 1930s for a series of writing contests sponsored by Vilna’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (Winners of the last contest, in 1939, were to be announced — and, of course, never were — on the very day the Germans invaded Poland.) Along with hundreds more that have been lost, these documents were to constitute an archival basis for YIVO’s ongoing research into the socio-psychology of Jewish youth, a project initiated by the institute’s head, Max Weinreich, influenced by then-regnant Freudian ideas as well as contemporary anthropological work on Polish peasants and others. The ambitious plans were aborted, of course, by war and by YIVO’s move to New York; but now with this excellent volume, at least some of the archived material, used over the years by a handful of scholars, is rendered accessible to English readers.
Selected and translated are 15 essays, originally written mostly in Yiddish and Polish, with one in Hebrew. In a medley of voices — desperate, hopeful, fiercely politicized, mostly impoverished, boastful but also painfully shy — they relate life stories that would never fit onto the best-conceived and most imaginative of murals. They tell of young lives so destitute that, as a child, at least one female memoirist in the volume was hounded by classmates because of her unbearable, rank odor; they tell of almost inhumanly brutal parents and siblings; they tell of fervid, overnight political conversions and abiding class hatred; of parental love so deep and enduring that the death of a mother or father feels like a never-ending, open wound.
They also tell of wrestling with romance and sex — intimate, candid stories of battles involving desire and heresy — and also, unavoidably, books, the ever-present enticement and challenge of reading, which is among the volume’s most intriguing themes. The introductory essay quotes an estimate that the 450,000 Jewish youth of pre-war Poland read, “over the course of a year… fifteen million books in their entirety — that is, every library was, on average, read through in the course of fifteen years.”
The pervasiveness of sexuality in these accounts as an urgent, insistent preoccupation should come as no surprise — these are, on the whole, tales of adolescence — but a description such as the following from an impoverished shtetl Jew in the Kielce region in the 1930s is nonetheless striking:
Interestingly, A. Greyno, the author of this memoir, immediately cites French novelist Romain Rolland’s “Jean Christophe” and his 15-year-old protagonist: “Oh, how I recall the brilliant words of Romain Rolland.… ‘Go, go and live!’” Moseley, a noted expert on Jewish memoir and autobiography, observes in the introduction that Rolland’s 10-volume confessional was the most widely quoted work in the documents — celebrated, it would seem, because of how it spoke to their fierce strivings, their desire for escape and vindication and also to their terror that nothing, in the end, might succeed in extricating them from their grim, day-to-day existence.
Repeatedly, in cover letters that accompanied the memoirs or in the texts themselves, the authors admit that they hope that the earnings from a YIVO prize (first prize garnered the equivalent of $30; others paid about $5) might enable them to go to school or take up a new life in Palestine or elsewhere. Several had already subsisted as beggars, had gone days without food, had lived for months with fevers they could not afford to treat, or had engaged, with their parents or others, in risky, illegal work (liquor-making, for example) as a result of widespread poverty and mounting occupational restrictions in the increasingly antisemitic Poland of the late 1930s.
Class bitterness is a constant theme — resentment against the pretensions or insensitivities of the rich or, at least, the comfortable; not infrequently the Soviet Union and sometimes Palestine loom large as saviors. Greyno ends his memoir with the following plea that is also a political declamation:
To be sure, the range of cultural and religious sentiments expressed in these memoirs is skewed. At least one-third of Polish Jewry in the late 1930s was still emphatically Orthodox, while the vast majority of contest applicants were secular, socialist (of various sorts) and much in the image of the left-leaning intellectual stance of YIVO itself. Nearly all emphasize the central role in their lives of secular, mostly left-oriented Jewish youth movements. Even still-religious memoirists are, as they admit, treading water, hiding their secularist interests from preying eyes, devout out or respect for parents or because they fear what it means to make a painful break. Religion here is mostly an oppressive, at best a gray, lifeless presence; there is little evocation of its pleasures, little attention to its interwar leaders. The celebrated Hafetz Hayyim is described by the memoirist “Henekh” in the last years of his long life as a tottering figurehead at the Radun yeshiva, muttering incoherently about the coming of the messiah: “his rantings were murderously dull.”
The writing itself — although many of the applicants apologetically note in cover letters the strained, intrusive conditions under which the essays were composed — is frequently impressive, at times truly memorable. Here, once again, is Greyno on the years of World War I:
Only two of the essayists in this volume, as far as the editor can tell, survived the war. Both live in Israel. The book ends with a terse but very moving biographical sketch of the only one about whom it was possible to collect more than the sparsest information: The memoirist “Stockel” settled in Palestine in 1935, lived on a kibbutz, married and moved to Netanya, where he went into business, became active in local communal affairs and had two daughters, five granddaughters and one great-grandson. The life stories of the rest ended with little more joy than recorded on these pages; they ended soon after they sent off their memoirs, hopeful that they might, just possibly, win.
Steven J. Zipperstein is Koshland professor in Jewish culture and history at Stanford University and the Shapiro senior scholar in residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the author, most recently, of “Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity” (University of Washington).