Off the Shelf: Yiddish in pictures and words

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The interest in Yiddish literature seems to be increasing. Books – from newly discovered works to writings ignored for decades – have been translated for an English speaking audience. These translations include two recent books: the historical graphic novel “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers” by Ken Krimstein (Bloombury Publishing) and Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky’s short story collection “From a Distant Relation” edited and translated by James Adam Redfield (Syracuse University Press). 

“When I Grow Up” is a fascinating book, which not only tells the story of how these autobiographies were recovered, but the thoughts and interests of the six European Jewish teenaged writers featured. The impetus for these works was a contest sponsored by YIVO in the mid-1930s: writers 13-21 years old living in Europe were asked to tell the true stories of their lives. A grant prize of 150 zlotys (which Krimstein says was worth about $1,000 in 2021) would be awarded. The autobiographies would be published anonymously, which was done to encourage the teens to be honest about their lives. Unfortunately, the day the prize was to be announced was the day the Nazis invaded Poland, which was the start of World War II. Fortunately, a group of librarians managed to hide the autobiographies, first from the Nazis and then from Stalin years later during his anti-Jewish crusades. It wasn’t until decades later that they became available again.

Krimstein illustrates the story of how the works were hidden, but uses a graphic novel format for the six autobiographies. Although he features the words of the young writers, he does add his own clever touches, for example, stamps that discuss whether letters to the U.S. would be answered. The beauty of these autobiographies is that the teens wrote about everyday life, which offers readers a glimpse of a world that vanished during World War II. For example, some of the teens unselfconsciously discussed arguments with their parents about religion, school and clothing. Some of the writers were interested in politics; others preferred the arts. Readers learn about Zionist youth groups and life in a yeshiva, going to dances and parents who separate and divorce. A few writers were aware that the world was becoming more dangerous for Jews, but none contemplated the horrors their communities would face during the war. The stories contain surprises, so it would be unfair to reveal too many details, but they are moving and absorbing, and feel as if the writers were truly revealing their deepest thoughts and secrets.

While the identity of only one teen in “When I Grow Up” is known, scholars are far more aware of Berdichevsky’s work, at least that which appeared in Hebrew. According to Redfield, the works the author published in Yiddish were not as appreciated. Although it’s impossible for me to compare the two types of writing (I’d never heard of Berdichevsky before reading “From a Distant Relation”), I found his Yiddish stories engaging, interesting and, at times, moving. Most are vignettes; many of these are monologues where a character talks to the writer, asking for money or trying to explain his/her life. While the characters verge on the edge of stereotype, they also feel real, as if Berdichevsky was writing about the people he knew from his hometown. As befits a scholarly work, Redfield includes notes after each story, placing events into context and commenting on allusions to biblical and talmudic texts. 

Among the stories that stood out were “The Fife,” which is a variation of my favorite High Holiday tale, one that shows how purity of heart can lift prayers to heaven; the surprising “The Nest Egg,” where the narrator learns how first impressions can be misleading; and the moving “The Broken String” about the power of music. There are too many stories – more than 65 tales are included – to comment on, but many feature general themes. For example, the difficulties of making a living is the focus of many of them. Also of great concern are the differences between the generations: the younger generation wants to expand their world, rather than conform to the mores of the Jewish community. Anyone interested in Yiddish literature will definitely want to read “From a Distant Relation.”