When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens (Bloomsbury)

232 pgs. B&W with red accents | $28 hardcover | W / A: Ken Krimstein

The World Wars loom so large in our modern view of the early 20th century that it’s easy to gloss over what life was like in the 21 years between wars. There are entire ways of life that never existed in quite the same way before or after the wars. That’s especially true in the area author Ken Krimstein dubs “Yiddishuania,” the sprawling area west of the Soviet Union that stretched north through the Baltic republics, west to Warsaw, and south to the Black Sea that was home to “the largest, most concentrated Jewish population the world has ever seen,” some nine million strong, with Yiddish as the unofficial language. Seeking to take the pulse of the Yiddish world, YIVO (the major Yiddish university in then-Vilna, now-Vilnius, Lithuania) held a writing contest for teenagers to anonymously tell stories from their life, with a hefty prize promised for the most truthful stories. The prize was to be announced on September 1st, 1939. Instead, Hitler invaded Poland that day and the life of Eastern European Jews would never be the same.

Long thought lost, hundreds of contest entries were discovered in a Lithuanian church in 2017, providing an invaluable window into Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the Wars. Krimstein selected six of these letters for adaptation in When I Grew Up, and while that’s obviously a tiny portion of the overall treasure trove, they offer an impressively full picture of life between wartimes. A wise-beyond-her-years 19-year-old recalls her relationship with her father, and how her desire to honor him ran into the sexist limitations that Jewish culture set for women. A boy recalls how being a Jew forced him to end his studies, and the letter-writing campaign he started to continue them that reached all the way to FDR. A girl deals with her parents splitting over arguments about Zionism and socialism and reveals how she found solace in music. An 11-year-old breaks the rules by entering the contest despite being too young with a tale of how a particularly silly bit of rule-breaking left her bedridden. A boy throws himself into his faith and his education in an ill-fated attempt to win the heart of a girl. And a girl escapes the stresses of class-based struggles by ice skating and hoping for a brighter future at a new school.

How much of the text is direct translation of the entries and how much is Krimstein’s own interpolation/adaptation isn’t clear, but what is crystal clear is the storytelling. Krimstein takes a very Harvey Pekar approach to these tales of everyday life, the storytellers each having a matter-of-fact dialogue with the reader about the little joys and agonies of their day-to-day lives and revealing their thoughts, beliefs, and hopes. These kids took the assignment of telling their truth seriously; these aren’t mere anecdotes, they’re honest attempts at summing up a life as only each of these kids experienced it, yet these deeply personal experiences still speak to universal truths. We don’t know what stories Krimstein didn’t use, but the six he chose certainly are richly told and evoke their setting. The stories are further fleshed out with the addition of ample footnotes that explain the Yiddish vocabulary and references not familiar to the average 21st century reader, as well as a lengthy, informative foreword and afterword.

Krimstein’s artwork has the rough, gestural quality of Jules Feiffer, like drawings dashed off in one’s journal to capture the moment before the moment is gone. Similarly, his ink line has the consistency one would see in a notebook page scribbled on in ballpoint pen, though he wisely fleshes out the artwork with gray and reddish-orange washes that add considerably to the book’s visual appeal. In another Pekar-esque touch, Krimstein mostly sticks to a simple six-panel grid, though he’s also prone to explode out of the panel borders for emphasis when the scene calls for it. It’s a trick that works well; the six-panel grid gives the book a brisk pace that the experimental switches interrupt, both preventing monotony and attracting the reader’s focus to where Krimstein feels it’s needed.

Krimstein’s artistic approach is very utilitarian, more storytelling driven than eye candy driven, and its simplicity and unfinished qualities may rub some readers the wrong way, but since the focus is on these kids’ stories, that style feels appropriate. It’s luck that these kids were asked to write down their stories before their world changed forever, and luckier still that the stories survived to the present day. Being able to experience them through Krimstein’s sharp prose and skillful storytelling feels like a mitzvah. | Jason Green

When I Grow Up will be published by Bloomsbury on Tuesday, November 16th. As luck would have it, author Ken Krimstein is also appearing that same day at 10:30AM at the Performing Arts Center of the Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Dr. in Creve Coeur, as part of the 43rd Annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Krimstein appears alongside New York Times bestselling author E. Lockhart, who will be discussing her new Batman-adjacent graphic novel Whistle. Tickets are $20. Read our complete preview of the festival here.

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