What Did It Mean to Be a Jewish Teen in the 1930s? Graphic Novelist Ken Krimstein Illustrates

In "When I Grow Up," Krimstein takes entries into a Yiddish autobiography competition for teens moments before World War II, and gives us a glimpse into their lives

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Excerpt of “When I Grow Up,” a graphic novel based on short stories entered in a 1930s writing competition.
Excerpt of “When I Grow Up,” a graphic novel based on short stories entered in a 1930s writing competition.Credit: Illustration: Ken Krimstein
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

In the late summer of 2018, Ken Krimstein held a miracle in his hands. It was a student’s notebook. The paper was untarnished, and the handwriting, even though he was unable to decipher it, was written with an ink that looked as fresh as if it had been written that same afternoon. These pages, which he’d flown halfway across the world to see, were written over 80 years earlier. The sole testimony to the actual age of the composition book and to the journey it had taken – in the course of which it had been hidden twice, lost once, and eventually discovered only one year before he himself came across it – were the remnants of three rusty staples, Krimstein wrote in the introduction to his book “When I Grow Up.”

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With the notebook in his hand, Krimstein turned to the archive employee standing alongside him in the National Library of Lithuania, and asked: “How many people have flipped through this notebook since 1939?” She looked him in the eyes and said: “Two. You and me.”

Ken Krimstein’s illustration of the autobiography of a young Jewish woman from Eastern Europe.Credit: Illustrations: Ken Krimstein

That was the moment that Krimstein understood that this miracle was going to be the focal point of his next book. Although his previous book took up the subject of Hannah Arendt, and he was planning on writing another book that would focus on an important historic figure, that plan was scrapped immediately. The serendipitous discovery of these manuscripts after decades in their hiding place, the long and winding journey that the notebook took and the story written in it – along with hundreds more, submitted by Jewish youth to a writing competition just before the outbreak of World War II – were so amazing that there was practically no other choice. It was clear to Krimstein that these anonymous young people from another age were his new heroes.

The meandering zigzag of events began in 1932, when the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna invited Jewish young people from Eastern Europe between the ages of 13 and 20 to take part in a short story competition. All entries would be autobiographical stories, written in Yiddish, which would enable the Institute’s scholars to gain a glimpse of the lifestyle of the young writers. A prize of 150 Zloty would be awarded to the writer of the winning story, and in order to ensure authenticity and unconstrained honesty, the authors would be required to submit their stories anonymously. Over 700 stories were entered in the competition and were collected at the YIVO offices in Vilna. The young writers eagerly awaited the results.

But, with the irony of fate, the announcement of the winning story was scheduled for September 1, 1939, the same day that the Nazis invaded Poland and World War II began. Needless to say, the competition never reached the finish line, and the young writers were compelled to go out and fight for their lives in place of engaging in such trifles as contests and stories.

When the Germans conquered Vilna and broke into the YIVO offices, the manuscripts were saved by members of the Paper Brigade, who risked their lives in order to conceal the contents of the Jewish archive in the ghetto. They were removed from their hiding place only in 1944, after the Soviets conquered the city from the Nazis; the documents were then transferred to the Jewish museum in Vilna. But five years later they were once again in danger, when the Stalin regime ordered that they be destroyed. This time, a non-Jewish librarian came to the rescue, who took the pains of hiding them in a local church. He stuffed some of the documents into the pipes of the church organ, and others he concealed in various hiding spots in the building. They remained there for about 70 years, until they were found quite accidentally while cleaning in 2017.

“I heard of the story quite coincidentally,” Krimstein relates from his home in Chicago in a Zoom interview. “It was in March 2018. It was a cold, boring and a miserable day and I noticed a little sign at the bagel store near my home, that there will be a talk given this afternoon about these discoveries of lost archives from Lithuania. I did not have anything to do that day, so I went to this thing. I was looking for a new project. I thought I was going to do a more traditional biography of one person, but when he started to talk about all these lost, anonymous autobiographies of teenagers from this moment before the war, a huge light bulb went off in my head,” he says.

“I did some research, I made some calls. When I found out about these stories, I felt this was incredible, because they were anonymous, because they were teenagers, and because it was from this moment before the war. The whole idea of this lost civilization that I did not know anything about. I love to learn and to explore. I also thought there was a lot of visual potential.”

The result is “When I Grow Up,” a graphic novel released last November by the American publishing house Bloomsbury. It brings readers back in time into the Eastern Europe of the 1930s, into the heart of the diverse Jewish community that flourished there. With a simple and clean but at times unkempt line, the sort that draws a fragile, temporal and tremulous reality, and a touch of monochromatic watercolor and occasional humor, Krimstein brings to life six Jewish teens who were living there at the time, and rebuilds their destroyed world. Each of the book’s six chapters is based on an autobiographical story written by a different young person. Krimstein’s illustrations immortalize their hopes, dreams, thoughts and passions, as well as the torment and the challenges that then, like today, were part of this package deal called youth.

Excerpt of “When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers."Credit: Illustrations: Ken Krimstein

Where’s Clark Gable?

The first story, for example, was written by a woman of 19, the daughter of a kosher butcher, a young feminist who did not know that that is what she was. She didn’t understand why her father would laugh when she would tell him that she wanted to be a slaughterer like him when she grows up, or why he dismissed her by saying that she would be better off finding herself some Clark Gable who would take care of her. Following his death, when she wants to say the mourner’s Kaddish prayer for him and the religious establishment dismisses her request out of hand, her contract with God begins to fall apart.

The writer of the second story, a 20-year-old man, relates how he was forced to end his studies due to his Jewishness. After that, he began to send letters all over the world – including to then-Mayor of Tel Aviv Meir Dizengoff and the U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt – to ask for help. The third story was written by a 19-year-old who explains how over the years her beloved father became an uninhibited alcoholic, of the sort that strikes terror in the heart of his family, and how she herself became a singer who would pour all of her grief into music.

Excerpt of the graphic novel “When I Grow Up.”Credit: Illustrations: Ken Krimstein

The six young people whose stories are found in the book had no idea, of course, that within a short period of time a war that was to crush Europe – and their entire world – would break out. Aside from one of the writers, Beba Epstein, who survived the Holocaust, it is unclear what fate befell the five others.

“I felt that these stories were giving me a sort of fascinating window with which I could glance into the inner workings of the Holocaust, a subject that I never thought I would be able to touch, because it is simply too enormous,” Krimstein says. “I remember being in New York on September 10th, 2001, and it was an entirely normal day, a normal morning. I went to work and, of course, I did not know what was about to happen the following day. Somebody once wrote that history is something that happens to people on some rainy Tuesday afternoon.”

All of the stories in the competition were written in a language that he himself does not speak. “I do not know Yiddish, I can barely read Hebrew, but every one of these stories was written in such a unique handwriting – some were in ordinary pencil, some were in beautiful ink, some were in colored pencil – that I felt that I was really in the presence of these writers.

“Each of them also wrote on a different material: one in a blue notebook like the sort in which we used to write exams in school, another in a beautiful, leather-bound notepad, another story was found with a map of 1939 Poland attached to it … Over and over again, the multitude of walls that stood between me and these moments came crashing down. Part of my work was to go to these places, to see the light, to feel the air, to see the buildings, to look for the little details – it was then that I was able to hold these stories in my hand, to thumb through them. It was an astounding experience,” he says.

Excerpt of “When I Grow Up,” a graphic novel based on short stories entered in a 1930s writing competition.Credit: Illustration: Ken Krimstein

Krimstein – a cartoonist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and in Forbes, and who recently published a graphic biography of Hannah Arendt – was aided by a translator. Krimstein selected seven of the stories that touched him most – the sort whose writers came from diverse backgrounds and that had suitable visual potential. Then he began to illustrate. In the course of the work, he says, he grew closer and closer to the world of these young people. “I connected with them, I felt that their world was somewhat similar to the American Jewish civilization that I know so well,” he says. “At the start, I had a very limited inventory of images related to this world, ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ on one side and the horrific photographs of the Holocaust on the other side. But I was especially interested in knowing what happened there in the middle, between the two extremes.”

In the end, only six of the stories made it into the book. “I learned that people are people, that teens are teens. The author Isaac Leib Peretz may have died 30 years earlier, but he said, ‘We don’t want your pity,’ and I felt that that was exactly the case: These people who met horrible fates, they were not saints, they were people, but ordinary people. Teenagers are a combination of complete ignorance and incredible wisdom at the same time.

“At a deep personal level, it made me think about the waste: who would have been the next Samuel Tepler?” he asks, referring to a Polish Holocaust survivor who went on to become a gifted artist in Israel. “Or the next Berthold Brecht? We don’t want to forget, but what is it that we don’t want to forget? And to me it was people. I fell in love with these kids.”

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