Mémoire | Publication

"When I grow up" - the lost autobiographies of six Yiddish teens by Ken Krimstein

After discovering autobiographies of teenagers written in Yiddish on school notebooks in Lithuania between 1932 and 1939, the American illustrator Kim Krimstein turned them into a book published in 2021, now translated into French. It tells lives without embelishment, direct towards a future they would never have, as almost all of these teenagers disappeared in the Holocaust, along with their families, and the Yiddish culture with them.

Published in english

The Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (YIVO) was created in 1925 in Berlin but established in Wilno (Vilnius), then in Poland, now in Lithuania, as a center for studying the history, culture, and language of Yiddish. In 1932, the Youth Research Department of the YIVO launched a contest for writing autobiographies for youth between 13 and 21 years old. The rules encouraged participants to look at their everyday life with a curious eye: 'Do not believe that only an individual who has experienced extraordinary events can participate; do not believe that small things are unimportant, and above all, do not try to make your autobiographies 'more interesting' by inventing events or using flowery language."

The award ceremony was sheduled for September the first 1939, the very day of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. The YIVO documentarians, compelled by the Nazis to surrender all narratives, resisted, and the archives were hidden by the Nazis and later by the Soviets.

In 2017, Ken Krimstein, illustrater of the  New Yorker, discovers at the National Library of Vilnius these autobiographies written by the teenagers between 1932 and 1939 on schoolbooks. He then decides to illustrate some of them, in an album edited in english under the title When I Grow Up : Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers : "Stories of unembellished life, narrated by anonymous Yiddish teenagers with their eyes set on the future, a future that no one could have predicted, and that no one can yet fully grasp: the complete and irrevocable annihilation of Yiddishkeit, its cities, its stories, its treasures, its language, and its people".

This album is today edited in french, with a preface of the historian Annette Wieviorka :

"The work of Ken Krimstein is part of a triple narrative: that of the Yiddishland engulfed by the Nazis, that of the YIVO, the Jewish historical institute founded in Vilnius in 1925, and that of history, of which a portion of the archives has reached us"

Upon the release of the original album in 2021, the son of one of the teenagers who had participated in the contest has contacted Kim Krimstein to inform him that his mother, Bebe Epstein, had survived.

Vivre - Ken Krimstein

Ken Krimstein is illustrator for the New Yorker, Punch and at the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is also the author of "The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt", winner of the Bernard J. Brommel Award for Biography and Memory, and finalist for the Jewish Book Award.

Translated from English by Gaïa Maniquant-Rogozyk.
Preface of d'Annette Wieviorka.

To be published on Thursday, October 5th, 2023, by Éditions Christian Bourgois, this work has been supported by the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah.