My wife purchased this book, since we had both read and enjoyed Krimstein’s previous book, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt. This book, like his previous one, is a graphic nonfiction book. Essentially, the author/artist employs the graphic novel format to tell the stories of six Yiddish teenagers living in Lithuania prior to the onset of WWII. The stories are based upon essays that were submitted as a part of a contest. When the Nazis invaded Lithuania, the documents were hidden to prevent their destruction. They were eventually lost, and then rediscovered not long ago.
In the introduction, Krimstein describes how YIVO (the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) came up with the idea to gather anonymous essays from Yiddish youth to get a better understanding of the Jewish experience.
The plan? An ethnographic study in the guise of a meagerly funded autobiography contest. The grand prize: 150 zlotys (roughly a thousand U.S. dollars in 2021 money) for the best entry. Meaning the most TRUTHFUL entry. (Because what good would the autobiographies be if in the stories the “youth” submitted, they didn’t spill the beans on what was going on—not just the truth, but even more to the point, their unvarnished version of the truth as they lived it?)
Because the submissions needed to be anonymous, the youth were able to express themselves honestly, without fear. The result is a collection of compelling, insightful tales which resonate with truth.
In the Afterward section of the book (which I strongly urge you to read but will leave out the spoiler), Krimstein describes his impression upon first examining the memoirs.
In some sense, these were ordinary student notebooks. But each had details that made it seem to come alive. One, with delicate pages and tiny, precise letters in green between black, faux-leather covers. Another, with sloppy pencil scrawling outside the lines of a baby blue notebook, a map of Poland circa 1936 on its cover. Another, tight black lettering and intricate drawings, almost a graphic memoir.
And then I got it. What I was seeing and feeling weren’t notebooks at all. They were voices, garments, smiles, tears, laughter—each one a distinct individual, a survivor rescued (in a sense) by his or her own words from the lost nation of Yiddishuania, a person.
This is a really fascinating and quick read. I highly recommend it to all readers. I personally enjoyed it immensely.
Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!
4 responses to “Thoughts on “When I Grow Up” by Ken Krimstein”
Wow great back story Jeff about it being lost than found.
Yeah, it was really fascinating. I blew through the book in like a day. Couldn’t put it down.
Just wanted to leave a general thank you for all your posts Jeff. I always read them and appreciate your thoughts and about titles I might not hear about otherwise. This one sounds terrific. I don’t have much time for reading right now as I’m completing an MFA degree, but soon that will change and I look forward to find a copy of this book.
Hi Genna. Thanks for the kind words. I totally understand about not having time to read for enjoyment while in school. I’m sure your workload is demanding. But I am humbled and grateful that you find the time to read my musings. Wishing you the best in your studies.