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Hardship before horror

Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust, Edited by Jeffrey Shandler, Yale University Press/YIVO Institute for Jewish Research: 438 pp., $35

January 19, 2003|Abraham Brumberg | Abraham Brumberg is editor of "Poland: Genesis of a Revolution," among other books.

"I don't want to die!" -- in handwritten Yiddish, the words on the frontispiece of this remarkable book. To the left, their author, a man probably in his early 20s, dark-haired, looks wistfully at the camera, and below the photograph, also in Yiddish, the inscription "My Skeletal Autobiography for the YIVO Competition" (mayn skeletishe oytobiografye farn konkurs fun yivo).

We don't know the young man's name, but we soon learn who he is: one of several hundred Jewish young men and women, between the ages of 16 and 24, who submitted their autobiographies (averaging 7,000 words each) to that fortress of Yiddish language and culture, the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna, in response to competitions it announced in 1932, 1934 and 1938. The purpose of the autobiographies was twofold: First, to provide the YIVO (the institute's Yiddish acronym) with a greater understanding of the problems facing Jewish youth at that time, and second, to get young people to become more committed to the preservation of Yiddish culture at a time when assimilation posed a threat to its survival.

The architect of the project was the institute's head, Max Weinreich, a brilliant literary scholar, linguist and historian. About 1,000 essays came in, and one can only speculate how many more could have been written had it not been for the decimation of a culture and a people, including the authors of most of these autobiographies.

The Vilna ghetto was established in September 1941, less than two months after the Germans captured the city in their eastward march, but even before the establishment of the ghetto, the Jews were exposed to barbaric treatment. About 40,000 Jews were executed in the tiny village of Ponar near Vilna in 1942 and the remaining 40,000 were all crammed into a tiny space encompassing seven narrow streets. Less than two years later, the last Nazi Aktion, or military raid, left about 15,000 Jews still alive. In 1944, the Vilna ghetto was no more, its last inhabitants all deported to death camps in Estonia.

About half of the autobiographies went up in flames together with the Vilna ghetto in that 1944 Aktion. Of the 300 or so that survived, editor Jeffrey Shandler has selected 15 for this volume, and there is no doubt these autobiographies will serve as a source for understanding a whole interwar generation of Polish Jews.

Indeed, "Awakening Lives," with its valuable and trenchant introduction by Barbara Kirshenblatt- Gimblett, Marcus Moseley and Michael Stanislawski, should be obligatory reading for the many, here and in Europe, who concentrate on the period of death and destruction of European Jewry and tend to ignore the life that preceded it. (Think of the numerous Holocaust studies, Holocaust museums or the young men and women -- I have met quite a few of them -- who are intrigued by the feminist aspects of daily life in German concentration camps or how to arrange photographs of Nazi atrocities so as to create the maximum impact on the viewer, yet remain astonishingly uninformed about Yiddish or Hebrew literature of the 20th century, or the influence of the Enlightenment on Jewish institutions in the 18th and 19th centuries -- all rather like reading Martin Luther without ever having read the Gospels.)

"Awakening Lives" reveals a great deal about that prewar life, not only through the facts it conveys but also by the charming, candid and sometimes self-lacerating tone of the essays. The organizers of the competitions were not looking for "literary talent"; they did not want the writers to strive for "beautiful language." They wanted simplicity, sincerity and attention to detail from the entrants, who wrote in Polish, Hebrew, Russian or, for the vast majority, Yiddish.

Though the impassioned cry of "I don't want to die!" could be taken as a cry of despair, it was, I believe, not one of a man threatened with death but of somebody determined to defy it. This becomes clear in one essay after another. The common thread here, whatever their authors' backgrounds or levels of education, is an intense yearning for the rewards of a just social system (education, a decent standard of living, the pleasures of art, political freedom) of which they are deprived.

What are the most salient features of the lives depicted in this book? First (and bear in mind that this was the life before the Holocaust, not during the years of extinction), there was extreme, numbing poverty, both in the cities and in the shtetlach, or small towns, where the bulk of Jews resided. Most of the contestants were born just before or during World War I, as the traditional structures of the shtetl were crumbling and when conditions, already appalling, deteriorated further: Fresh produce was often unavailable, as were clothing, kerosene and even food. The descriptions of men, women and children going for two or three days without a piece of bread are heart-rending. A 21-year-old woman writes:

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