cover image When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers

When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers

Ken Krimstein. Bloomsbury, $28 (240) ISBN 978-1-63557-370-1

As Krimstein (The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt) explains in his deeply affecting yet often joyful graphic narrative, the question of “How can one live as a Jew?” undergirded daily life in what he calls “Yiddishuania”—a region in Eastern Europe that included nine million Jews in 1939. Linguist Max Weinreich launched “an ethnographic study in the guise of a meagerly funded autobiography contest” for Yiddish-speaking teens in 1932; these recovered works form the basis of Krimstein’s narrative, and the fact that almost all of the young writers perished at the hands of the Nazis casts an ominous shadow. Yet the six young people who come alive in pencil and watercolor are hopeful, defiant, lovelorn, and smart. They see their dreams deferred: “It was as if on a beautiful summer’s day a wind blew and rain fell and... destroyed... everything around,” remarks a 20-year-old forbidden from continuing his education because he’s Jewish, who goes on to pen missives to the likes of FDR and the mayor of Tel Aviv. Krimstein’s loose-lined drawings shift between sobriety and humor, while footnotes provide context, such as describing a Yeshiva “bokher” as “distinguished by their obsessive commitment to intellectual ‘cage-wrestling’... and a tendency to squint” (though some language choices may still be debated, such as where German is used instead of Yiddish). By depicting the personalities of youth lost—with easy beauty and a lack of preciosity—rather than how they died, Krimstein conveys the depth of human and cultural loss that much more profoundly. Agent: Jennifer Lyons, Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. (Nov.)