I honestly couldn’t believe it. Are they all waiting to get in? You’d think it was one of Amsterdam’s most popular clubs, with some moody, hipper-than-thou DJ spinning from his throne. But nope, it was the Anne Frank House, and apparently, it’s like this every day the museum is open, the line of visitors stretching from the door, along the canal, and through the cobblestone square, hoping to experience just a glimmer of Frank’s life, and death. Frank, of course, is no head-bopping DJ — but she is a celebrity, arguably the most famous victim of the Holocaust, if there can be something so bizarre, so tragic. She’s actually probably the only Holocaust victim most people can name. And when I think about that, with all due respect to Frank and her family and legacy, it’s kind of bullshit.
I didn’t wait in the line. Not because of any problem I have with Anne Frank or the museum (on my next visit, I was smart enough to get tickets in advance), but the truth is that Nazis murdered another 6 million people besides Frank, including millions of teenagers. And yes, Frank’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, is a perennial international best-seller that introduces younger audiences to the Holocaust, and her story is one of boundless courage and perseverance. In fact, back when I read it in middle school, she was my introduction to the lived experience of someone who had died at the hands of Nazis, and I found her resilience inspiring. But because Frank’s diary is so widely known, and because she wrote about circumstances that most of us will never have to endure, I found it hard to connect to her on a deeper level. And, more importantly, I knew there were so many other stories. Too many. What’s more, the people who wrote those stories didn’t just become people when they died. They had full lives before World War II, and those who were teenagers and young adults would have had their whole lives ahead of them. I wasn’t curious about how they died. (I, like you, had learned all about the atrocities of the ghettos and concentration camps, and I had the nightmares to match.) I was much more interested in how they lived.
That is why I became totally fascinated by a collection of hundreds of autobiographies written by Jewish youth in the 1930s. Most of them lived in Poland and wrote about their lives before the war with intimacy and candor as part of a contest sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. And yet, unlike Anne Frank’s diary, most people have never heard of these writings, let alone read them. While Frank self-censored and edited out her love for the teenage boy hiding with her, the authors in the contest were asked to be super honest and wrote using initials or under fake names that made me think of my own AOL Instant Messenger screen name from the late 1990s (daydreem12, in case anyone’s wondering!) or the handles of teens on TikTok and Instagram today: The Stormer, Forget-Me-Not, Fayvl the Wanderer, The Future, A Galician and Orchid.
Even though you’d think that everything they wrote about would be clouded by the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism and the chaos of the late 1930s, they mostly wrote about being teenagers — the same stuff my friends and I would stay up late whispering over the phone or messaging each other about feverishly. They planned when they would finally do it, and giggled over how they’d dreamt about the most romantic makeout sesh EVER. They were absolutely, completely, irreversibly in love, until wait, no, that person sucks, never mind, NEXT! They wanted to join political movements, chant at the top of their lungs at protests, and make the world a much better, more just place. They had BFFs they loved and frenemies they hated, and everything in between (we’ve all had those friends who were actually kind of bitchy and those who tried so damn hard to be cool that they became unrecognizable assholes in the process). And their parents always managed to exhaust and totally and utterly embaaaaaaaarrass the heck out of them.
Unlike a diary, these teens weren’t writing their life story just because they wanted to. YIVO’s research director Max Weinreich came up with the idea for the contest after seeing a similar survey among Black youth in the southern United States. Weinreich was interested in what it meant to be Jewish, and especially what a changing generation of young Jews thought about themselves and the world they lived in. So, in 1932, YIVO put out its first call for autobiographies, asking young adults between 16 and 22 to write about “family, war years, teachers, schools … Boyfriends, girlfriends. Youth organizations … ” and more. They ran announcements around the world and received responses from Jewish teens across Europe, and from as far away as Argentina and Palestine. And they ran another contest in 1934, and a final one in 1939.
As amazing as the autobiographies are, they are also inherently tragic. None of the young people who submitted their entries to the last contest ever found out if they’d won. On the very day four months later when YIVO planned to announce the winner, Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Six years later, around 90 percent of Jewish people living in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis.
What the young people created with their writings are more than just a remarkable historical record. They are an unvarnished window into the vibrant, colorful lives of everyday teens that we assume should have had experiences very different from our own. But what they write feels like it could have been written today — from the catty girls who make fun of you for wearing the wrong thing to that friend who just gets you to, sadly, the hate and anti-Semitism they saw and experienced.
So here’s another thing I can’t believe: Many of the narratives — which range from 25 pages to a whopping 800 (!!), many handwritten — have probably only been read a couple of times since they were submitted to the contest in the 1930s. And as close as some of the experiences feel to my own teenagerhood, I know I can’t separate them from the time when they were written. The stories these teenagers and young adults tell — some of which we’ve translated into English for the first time for this article, others that we’ve quoted and paraphrased below — feel like an important form of resistance. The rise of nationalism, anti-Semitism and hate couldn’t take away their eagerness about life, or stop them from dreaming endlessly about what might come next.
The room was dark and the Stormer had started drifting off. Sometimes, right in that moment before sleep, he felt his mom’s warm lips on his forehead. When you’re alone, that type of affection might be OK from a parent. He knew that his mom loved him so much, maybe even a little too much, and that she wanted him to succeed, do something for himself and make her proud. That was one of the reasons he was studying to become a rabbi at yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish school.
But on this night, the Stormer knew his mother wasn’t coming to kiss him goodnight. Two guys from yeshiva were sleeping over. They were sharing a bed, actually, which wasn’t a big deal — the house was small, they were all friends. The Stormer’s mom was happy to have them over; she probably thought they would be sweet religious boys, nothing but the best influences on her son. And I mean, why wouldn’t they be?
As the Stormer was falling asleep, he had a strange feeling his friends were still awake. They either thought the Stormer was asleep and wouldn’t notice, or maybe they actually wanted him to hear. I guess realizing they were awake gave him some FOMO, and when the Stormer opened his eyes, he caught his friends unfurling each other’s Torahs, if you will — or having “sexual relations,” as he delicately, even prudishly, put it in his dainty Yiddish handwriting. He was shocked, and his slumber buddies “were very embarrassed then.” But they seemed like they were only uncomfortable because the Stormer caught them and he seemed freaked out. Their way of trying to calm him down was to invite him to join in.
This sex scene, and how the Stormer felt about it, is kind of surprising and also sort of expected. The Stormer was in his early teens, and this was 1930s Poland, a devoutly Catholic country. His knowledge of sex was … almost nonexistent. It’s not like his teachers taught him proper condom-application techniques, like mine did in early-2000s Bethesda, Maryland, or like his ultra-religious Jewish mom was sitting him down for an awkward chat about what happens when a man loves a woman (or, heaven forbid, if a man wants to have sex with a man!). The Stormer did know that two men having sex was called homosexuality, and he knew it was a big no-no. Maybe because he didn’t want to ruin his mom’s nakhes, or the pride she derived from his being a good Jewish son, or possibly just because he felt it was inappropriate, the Stormer declined their invitation.
I never woke up to friends of mine making out, or more, during a sleepover, but if your pals are having fun doing something that feels illicit, and you’re really not confident in that department, then don’t you just become infinitely more curious? The Stormer was, for sure. “Who knows what I would have done had it not been just before Passover and they hadn’t gone home” for the holiday, he admitted in his nearly 100-page autobiography.
The guys who wrote into the contest weren’t afraid of admitting they thought about sex, a lot, even if they didn’t know that much about it yet. They were teenage boys, after all. Another writer, a guy everyone called the Poet — who does, in fact, write about his life in beautiful, poetic language — recounted the first time he had to admit he didn’t really know anything about sex.
Poet didn’t join the Communist Youth League, or KZM, because of a burning hatred for capitalism; he was just looking for friends and something new. Beyond supporting the Communist Party, the KZM also had meetings where members learned about life, which included sex ed. I can still hear the nervous giggles and obviously bullshit boasting during my sex ed classes — learning about sex is the topic that’s almost guaranteed to make teenagers squirm, especially if they don’t think they know as much as their friends. The Poet was one of those kids who wasn’t giggling and wasn’t boasting, but just sitting there kind of confused. He probably knew less than the Stormer, because no one had ever talked to him about the birds and the bees.
The instructor, who would have only been a little bit older than the Poet and the other kids, noticed how quiet the Poet was. Oh, poor kid, he does not get it, I can imagine the instructor thinking. After class, he took the time to break things down for the Poet, which was good — and bad. “I felt like a child and was ashamed that everyone except me was informed and could take part in the discussion,” the Poet admitted. Being in the KZM also meant being around girls, which was totally new to the Poet, and a little exposure therapy made him less nervous.
But after he left the KZM and wasn’t hanging out with the girls anymore, his sexual urges came back even stronger, which freaked him out. “I’m afraid that I’m an erotomaniac, because sex occupies a considerable part of my brain and can’t be driven out,” he wrote. I wish I could reach back in time, give him a massive hug and reassure him, “You’re perfectly normal, dude! We all thought about sex ALL. THE. TIME — welcome to the club.”
M.L.X, a teenager in Warsaw, also couldn’t get sex out of his head. He wanted a girlfriend, but he knew that even if he found one, they would have been expected to abstain until marriage. Unfortunately, he also thought masturbating was shameful rather than a completely normal way to deal with sexual urges.
Once, he wrote, “in order to suffocate these desires — and maybe out of curiosity — I went at night through the far away streets of Warsaw (without a penny in my pockets), known for their brothels.” He’d heard the stories of girls coming from the country to the city to make a living, and when they couldn’t get a job, they’d end up doing sex work. The idea of having sex with a prostitute “evoked a strong feeling of disgust” in M.L.X., but like the Stormer, he didn’t have enough knowledge or experience to know what he might have actually enjoyed. He had a perception of what the women would be like, based on what others had told him, but when he actually began talking to them, he realized they were “mothers of children, [and] wives of husbands.” In his writing, he insisted that he didn’t have sex with any of them and was just curious about their lives, which I guess we have to believe. And this was probably a much more interesting form of get sex ed than he’d have gotten in any classroom, and less shocking than waking up to your friends having sex with each other on the other side of the bed.
I can hear it now: He’s so into you! Followed by giggles. A girl who gave her initials as G.S. admitted that her friends had pointed out the obvious about her future boyfriend. The dude was not being subtle. He’d follow G. around their Betar Zionist youth group meetings, where he held the title of Commander, like a puppy dog. I have totally been that person who thought they were being subtle, only to be called out later and told that everyone knew exactly what was happening. So I can feel the Commander on this one. Maybe he was just finally trying to build up the courage to say hi, or perhaps just being around her was enough. When you’re crushing on someone, it’s really hard (IDK, impossible?!) to be subtle. But apparently the Commander wasn’t obvious enough, because it wasn’t until G.’s friends pointed out his infatuation that she actually noticed him.
If G. was being honest (and she was often just that, brutally so, in her autobiography!), the Commander was short and not very cute. But, she added, “there was something about him that I found attractive.” He was smart and always had interesting things to say. And also: “He loved me; I knew it,” G. wrote. Someone being obsessed with you is a good thing, right? This is undying, forever, end-game-type love, yes?
Unless it is the bad obsession, which is actually possession, and annoying and scary as hell. Over the summer, G.’s boyfriend started making “a fuss over every word I said to another man,” even when she was just platonically chatting with other members of the Betar group.
G. didn’t take crap from anyone, and she didn’t want to admit that talking to other guys was wrong. So when she was offered a slot to become an instructor in the Betar organization, she took it, even though it meant she’d have to move. It was a classic teenage, not-really-mature way of getting out. And it didn’t solve any of their problems. “We were angry with each other over this for a long time,” she wrote. Even though she knew she wasn’t in the wrong and wanted to be an instructor, she still cried, and he was upset.
I’m reminded of late-night calls with boyfriends in high school; the stakes in teenage love always feeling ridiculously high: Do you really love me? Followed by desperate tears regardless of the answer. You daydream about the wedding and your future kids’ names, even though you don’t have the next month of your life figured out.
After a little time apart, G.’s boyfriend got back in touch. She’d just found a job, and he was leaving for Palestine illegally. Even though she couldn’t go, he still wanted them to be together. “We came to realize that we truly loved each other and that our quarrels were silly,” she wrote. Again, the roller coaster of teenage love: When you’re together, you fight and bicker and privately debate whether the other person really loves you. And when distance threatens to tear you apart, you promise undying love forever and ever. “We promised to love and be loyal to each other,” G. wrote, and her boyfriend promised he would get her to Palestine as soon as he could. It’s nearly impossible to know if she ever made it out of Europe in time.
After chatting with the prostitutes on the streets of Warsaw and gaining a little confidence in the not-looking-like-a-fool-while-talking-to-women department, M.L.X. finally noticed a girl who hung out in his circle of friends. Miriam was pretty, M.L.X. couldn’t deny that, but “external attraction wasn’t enough for me,” he wrote. He wanted something deeper, a real connection and someone he could talk to. As he got closer to Miriam, he realized she could be his girlfriend. “We studied together, worked through various books, talked a lot,” which, he said, “tied us even closer together — and I truly fell in love with her.” This was not a crush, not an infatuation, but a serious and deep love, or so he thought. Miriam loved M.L.X. too, and they started talking about their future.
In his mind, this included living together (and probably sex, lots of sex) although he knew shacking up before marriage was not something Miriam’s family would accept. He had believed that Miriam “stood above the small-town morality and conventions,” but she actually didn’t. In a classic we’re-just-having-fun vs. I-thought-we’d-be-together-forever relationship conflict, M.L.X. didn’t want too much commitment, while Miriam wanted him to get her parents’ blessing and have a real wedding. M.L.X. was kind of brutal, TBH: “I told her as a joke: ‘You see, Miriam, I can be a man, a lover — but a groom I can’t be.” It wasn’t really a joke; he had no interest in getting married, and they drifted apart.
Getting assigned to work with the cute girl in biology; passing notes to the hot guy in history; or sitting with that dream crush during lunch: These are butterfly-inducing moments that teens in 1930s Poland didn’t have. Guys and girls often weren’t in class together, so youth organizations became the main place for them to meet and hang out. In the Tsukunft youth group in Warsaw, Poland, 17-year-old S. Freylich was trying to play the field. He wanted to ask out a girl named Esterke, who was “charming and smart” although not that pretty. Then there was Henia, who wasn’t beautiful either, but Freylich couldn’t say no when she wanted to go on walks together, which was what he considered a date. As if he didn’t have enough love interests, Freylich then got the brilliant idea that he should make himself aloof and mysterious, “believing that this way [the girls] would run after me.” In a really shocking turn of events (eye roll), this plan backfired. I mean, did I totally crush on the guy who painted his nails black? Yes, yes I did. But if he’s not going to respond to your IMs or texts, then what the heck is the point? When Freylich didn’t talk to the girls, they simply ignored him. Later, he “learned the art of flirting” and started picking up girls again.
He also wrote that he was for “free love,” although he didn’t define the term or explain how it would work in his life. Maybe he thought it meant he could be a player: have a girlfriend and flirt with other girls. But he also wrote about how he’d kissed a male classmate when he was younger, so maybe free love just meant he could make out with whomever the hell he wanted, no judgment.
I was shocked that so many of the writers were so open when they wrote about sex and relationships. I guess it just proves that even if the world seems like it’s ending, who you are going to screw or who is going to hold you close is still super important, perhaps even more so than during simpler times.
The teens seemed surprisingly open when talking about sex and relationships. Miglė Anušauskaitė, who has translated and read YIVO autobiographies in her work at Lithuania’s National Library, pointed out to me that the boys talk about sex and the girls wrote more bashfully about relationships and romance. Perhaps the girls couldn’t admit to anything more than kisses and hand-holding, even when writing anonymously. Or, of course, it could have been the other way around too, with the boys exaggerating … just a tad. 😜 With only the authors’ own words to rely on, Anušauskaitė adds, “It makes you wonder if they were really telling the truth,” or just saying something that would make them seem cool. Yup, I knew those guys in high school, too. Everyone’s favorite, right?
Esther didn’t even bother asking her dad if she could go to the movies. He would have said no, just like he said no to everything she wanted to do. The movies, he’d probably say, were indecent, blah, blah, blah. The posters outside the theaters in the 1930s probably made him avert his faux-virgin eyes: the actress Nora Ney thrusting her hip forward, wearing a see-through skirt, while actor Eugeniusz Bodo leaned in to kiss his Tahitian lover. Esther loved reading, the stage, and putting on her own theater performances, even if her conservative and religious father wanted her to have nothing to do with things like that. When Esther saw those posters, I can just imagine her wanting to be Nora Ney, who was born Zoscia Neyman, and leaving her Jewish identity for a spot in Polish cinema. That theater and those movies could transport Esther to the “faraway place, a dream world” that she wrote about finding in plays and the “enchanted worlds” of her books.
Let’s be real, teens cannot be stopped by the wishes of their parents. And Esther saved up enough for a ticket and just went. She felt her heart throbbing as she made her way there, her body filling with “joy and excitement.”
“What I actually saw was marvelous!” she wrote. “I cried and I laughed with the heroes and heroines on screen.”
Esther came home with the guilt of knowing she’d disobeyed her father. “I was terrified that my Father might find out,” Esther wrote. Girl, I know that feeling. You get home and you desperately avoid your parents because if they ask you where you were and you lie, they’ll just know. Hell, my mom could tell something was up simply by some otherwise invisible aura around me. Esther snuck off to bed, and after a few days, when her father hadn’t confronted her, she realized she’d gotten away with it. “I was overjoyed,” she recounted in the journal she kept hidden from her family.
That relief of not getting caught also comes with the excitement of knowing you can do it again. “[T]he way that I am misunderstood is unnerving,” she complained. “My soul aspires to distant horizons, yet I remain in this little world of narrow desires.” So she pushed back against everything her father said she couldn’t do: get a library card, go to school, become a teacher.
So many of the teens in the contest wrote about how their parents didn’t get it, how they were old-fashioned and out of touch. The Poet’s dad — who sewed baby shoes in their apartment for a living — expected the Poet and his brother to sit at their workbenches and sew late into the night, too. The Poet didn’t want to work, he just wanted to get lost in prose. But his father, he wrote, “can’t stand my reading or studying.” As a result, he felt his dad was “wretched” and “simple,” a man who “lacks a goal.” “He doesn’t understand me; he knows nothing about me,” the Poet declared.
In a fragment of an autobiography kept at the National Library of Lithuania, an anonymous writer in the contest wrote that he and a friend, Yankel, had become especially close because their “hearts got connected by a thread of longing and hopeful dreams of breaking free from the influence of our fathers and ignorant pious men.” Fast-forward 80 years and they are basically saying OK, Boomer and rolling their eyes (which I never have to do because my dad is honestly woke AF and very cool).
Even the way their parents’ generation dressed was old. On the streets in Warsaw you’d see men with beards wearing dark cloaks and hats, clothes that looked like they could be centuries old, while young hipsters dressed in the leather jackets of the Betar youth movement and trendy teenage girls wore finger wave bobs, fur-lined coats and high heels.
My generation (millennials) and Gen Z came of age with the internet, and this generation similarly had access to information their parents never could have dreamed of, through public schools, radio and movies, and revolutionary political ideas from Zionist, Communist and Socialist groups. They were so much more connected to Polish culture and identity than their parents ever were. Mame and Tatte absolutely didn’t get it, but their friends most certainly did.
By the time she was 16, there was no way Esther’s family was going to catch her sneaking out. Now, instead of escaping to the movies, she was hanging out with a new friend. The friend had appeared at exactly the right time, after Esther’s father had died and Esther’s depression had set in. Her other friends tried to help her feel better, but teenage girls aren’t always very comforting. In this case, instead of trying to help her get through her depression, they just criticized her for not wearing the latest styles (which is definitely not the advice you need when your dad has dropped dead and you feel utterly and hopelessly lost).
“This young woman whom I had just met was different” from all those other girls, Esther wrote. She was “a breath of fresh air from another, freer world.” This new friend, whom Esther never names in her writing, didn’t care if Esther was religious, what she wore, or that she loved books. This is like meeting the coolest girl in school — not the popular girl, but the girl that gives zero shits about what anyone else thinks. And there you are, kinda nerdy, kinda uncool, desperately wanting her to like you. And to your amazement, she does.
“We began by reading a book together, and before long she knew my innermost thoughts,” Esther wrote. On long summer nights, Esther read poems and sections of her diary to her friend. Was this the type of deep friendship where Esther thought, She is the only one who understands me? Or did it go even deeper than that, into a romantic love that wasn’t considered appropriate at the time and couldn’t be named? The Stormer could talk about the sex between his yeshiva friends perhaps because he said he didn’t want to participate. But Esther might not have known that being in love with her friend in that way was possible. Or maybe she just wanted to sneak out to talk on moonlit walks with someone who really understood her.
Whatever Esther’s real feelings were, when her family found out about the friendship, her older brother “demanded categorically that I break up with my friend.” Esther’s friend was Jewish, but she hadn’t gone to religious school and wasn’t in the young orthodox women’s organization, so Esther’s family (no surprise) didn’t like her. To admit that she needed her friend “would have meant confessing my desire for freedom, for something different, which was ‘forbidden,’” Esther wrote. So she had to at least pretend to give in. She promised her brother she wouldn’t see her friend, but they still met secretly. The thought makes me smile and applaud Esther for this minor but oh-so-important defiance.
As in any teenager’s life, friendships — particularly illicit ones — took on outsized significance. The anonymous writer who described connecting with his friend Yankel because they both wanted to break free from their fathers, wrote about how important it was that he had someone he could really trust. “I would tell him all of my problems, caused by my fanatically religious parents, about how my father used to tear up my books and would often beat me,” he wrote. The writer and Yankel went on walks together and saw their “future in the starlit sky.”
While these descriptions of friendships often sound romantic (and who knows, maybe they were), Anušauskaitė told me that because there wasn’t often an overlap in male and female spaces, these close friendships could take the place of the romantic partnership we would imagine today. In a kind of modern way, there didn’t have to be a binary between romance and friendship; guys could be super close, even touchy-feely, with their male friends, and the same was true among girls.
G.W. could easily see that his family didn’t have the money and luxuries that others had, and that sucked. His family lived in a basement apartment, a damp cellar that made it hard for him to breathe and with mold that got everyone sick. Why did they have to live there when “other people lived in beautiful houses”? He wanted to study and go to high school. But even public high school wasn’t free, and he didn’t have enough money for the tuition; he couldn’t even afford to buy a notebook for class. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t study and realize my aspirations,” he wrote in his autobiography. It was the brutal honesty of poverty and discrimination that remains an epidemic today: No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t drastically change his life.
Still a teenager, G.W. had to start working as a tailor. He knew it was a good job, but it was still shitty— his boss didn’t always pay him his wages, the boss’s wife picked on him and made him cry, and the other workers didn’t stand up for him.
When the Tsukunft youth group recruited G.W. and he started learning about socialism, he did not need any academic lessons about economic oppression. Oppression was his life. But now, he was finally able to describe “the evil that I’d had to endure in the workshop, about denouncing everything that is dark and bleak, bloodthirsty and exploitative.” Capitalism isn’t going to solve the problems of young people, he wrote, and I imagine him as a total Bernie Bro posting memes about eating the rich.
The youth groups like Tsukunft and Betar weren’t just about social life, they were about changing the world. Yes, these young people totally joined to make friends and maybe meet a romantic interest (see the Poet). But they also wrote about injustice and what they believed it meant. They sound like young Black Lives Matter and environmental activists today, whose passion reminds me of my own anger about the Iraq War and the invasion of Afghanistan during my high school years. They, and I, couldn’t ignore the “crooked old way” of the world, as G.W. called it. Esther wanted to know, “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” while the Poet, who had lost interest in the KZM and started becoming more drawn to Zionism, wrote his autobiography in Polish (not Yiddish) and declared, “You anti-Semites, I blame you for my inferiority complex and for the fact that I don’t know what I am: a Jew or a Pole.”
One of the reasons they didn’t connect with their parents was because they were so over discrimination and anti-Semitism. Couldn’t they be Jewish and Polish? They’d had enough of inequality and unemployment. Couldn’t they go to high school and university? Couldn’t they get a good job and have a nice apartment? These organizations promised to make their worlds better, if they were willing to do the work.
Zionism promised a Jewish identity, a homeland, a renaissance, and the training needed to achieve those goals. G.S., who grew up in a secular family and wrote in neat, cursive Polish, met her boyfriend, the Commander, in the Betar Zionist group, which she said had awoken a “strong feeling of Jewishness” in her.
A guy named Yudl wrote that he hated the Betar group that some guys tried to get him to join. All they talked about at the meetings were their outfits, brown uniforms with gold buttons, he wrote. He thought the leaders were immoral and they talked down to him: “They were nothing more than corrupters, criminals, in fact — blackmailers, Jewish Hitlerites, Jewish fascists!”
Instead, Yudl joined the Bundists, like G.W. had. The socialist Bund, or Jewish Worker’s Union, didn’t believe in Zionism but wanted improvements for the Jewish working class. There, Yudl was finally regarded as an equal, and he learned that ignoring injustice, anti-Semitic regulations and attacks clearly wasn’t working; he and his peers needed to do something new, bold and radical.
Now, when he felt like his boss’s widow wasn’t paying him enough, Yudl organized a weeklong strike, which was “victorious,” he proudly recalled.
“When I walked down the street, people patted me on the back: “You’re a good guy,” they told him, “‘a fine member of the proletariat.’”
“Life’s not worth living,” the Poet’s friend Moniek told him. “What’s the use? I’m not going to spend my life operating a sewing machine.”
Moniek wanted to go to Paris to become an actor, and had tried to sneak out of Poland twice but had been caught both times and spent a few months in jail. “I’m weak and ruined by masturbation,” Moniek continued. “I now see that nothing will come of me. Getting to France and then going from there to Hollywood is a childish fantasy.” Another friend told the Poet that sometime later, Moniek was showing off for a girl and jumped “from the public beach into the open river” and drowned. The despair in Moniek’s voice in that last conversation led the Poet to “assume that his death was a suicide.” The Poet didn’t write specifically about how he reacted to Moniek’s death, but he must have been shaken if he really thought that Moniek felt he had no other option.
The Poet wasn’t particularly thrilled with his life at that point either. He could earn money helping his father sew baby shoes, but like so many other Jewish youths who wrote into the YIVO contest, he struggled with the same question: What am I going to do with my life?
For my classmates and other American teens over the last few decades who were privileged enough to have the option, this kind of angst often revolves around picking a college and/or career path. But the young people writing these autobiographies had unique challenges as Jews living in Poland, where state-sanctioned anti-Semitism was growing. The religious school where Esther found a job was shut down because it didn’t meet government requirements, which was often just a cover for shutting down Jewish schools. When G.S. was looking for a job, someone straight-up told her, “I could help you if you weren’t Jewish.” They were living in a global depression and Jews were being denied jobs just because they were Jews. School also wasn’t an option for many of them. Not only did the Polish government limit admission to Jews in public high schools, in 1937 they capped the number of Jewish students allowed at universities. The proportion of Jews enrolled at university dropped from about 20 percent of all students in 1928 to only about 4 percent in 1938.
For many, including G.S. and the Stormer, Palestine felt like the answer. One journalist in the 1930s found a group of girls dancing the hora, the celebratory Jewish wedding dance, on a Krakow street. When he asked them why they were doing it, they told him that it was “a dance from Palestine and that they will certainly be going there someday.” Some of their friends thought the dance was crazy, but these girls felt it was one thing that would get them closer to Palestine, to a new identity.
Despite these hardships, it’s so easy to see that the young people who wrote these autobiographies weren’t living in constant fear. I know they wouldn’t have been so passionate about love and friendships and finding a job or going to school if they weren’t filled with that incredible hope that comes with being a young adult. They were at that age so many of us look back on with fondness and nostalgia, when we were old enough to say, Fuck yeah, that’s what I want, or Fuck you, I’ll do what I want. And also young enough to have a long future, without the need to commit to one thing or one person. You imagine having a lifetime to become yourself and achieve your dreams.
G.S. never got to meet up with her Commander boyfriend again; he was eventually killed in Palestine. Yet she didn’t grow hopeless. She wrote: “I hope God will give me strength and endurance so that I can stay here long enough to save money for the trip. Then I’ll leave for Palestine and start a new life.”
The Stormer also tried to emigrate illegally to Palestine but got caught and sent back home. Even though his immediate future felt bleak, he had “great hopes that the situation of all humanity will take another direction and that my own situation will change for the better along with it.”
M.L.X. didn’t buy that his life’s purpose was just to get a job and “earn a little money to survive,” while G.W. thought he was going to tear down the capitalist system. Esther was still teaching students, hoping to get a teaching degree, and confiding in her friend that she was writing her autobiography for the YIVO contest.
I love how hopeful they are, and yet I can’t read these sentences without being utterly devastated. We know what happens next.
While YIVO researcher Max Weinriech wanted the autobiographies for a contemporary understanding of Jewish youth culture, they ended up creating a treasure trove of sepia-toned teenage vitality. YIVO had more than 600 youth autobiographies when the Nazis arrived in Poland, and Yiddish speakers were forced to read and select which materials the Nazis would take. Some 300 of the contest entries were later found in Germany and transferred to YIVO’s new headquarters in New York. Fifteen autobiographies, including the writings of the Stormer, the Poet, G.S., G.W., Esther and Yudl, were translated into English and included in the book Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Others had been hidden from the Nazis and were found in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991 and in 2017, including the 1933 memoir of Beba Epstein, which YIVO used to create its first digital exhibit in the fall of 2020. But hundreds more, telling hundreds more stories of heartbreak and hope, live in archives, untranslated and mostly unknown.
In these writings, we feel the universal longing of young people who yearn to find their place. We cringe with them when their parents are shitty. We grab a hand, shout and sing along with them in the street. We lean in closer when they tell us about their secret friends and that special love interest. We chuckle when they share how they hooked up with allllllll of those girls. We’re inspired by their hopes for the future, their dreams and ambitions, and we understand their need to make the world better. And in today’s world, when we are still fighting tirelessly for justice, acceptance and opportunity for all, maybe now more than ever we should sit back and listen to these struggles and dreams, see real people rather than statistics, and embrace untold stories from those who’ve been oppressed simply because of how they look or what they believe.
I do have to admit that as much as I love the messy realness of these autobiographies, they still break my heart. Yes, partially because I know that so many of their dreams didn’t come true. But even more, because they never even had the time to figure out whether what they dreamed about at 18 was what they still wanted or needed at 28, 48 or 78. More than 80 years after these autobiographies were written, I feel like I’ve become Esther’s secret friend, the one to whom she’s divulged all her inner thoughts. But I’ll never know what happens to Esther, who was working so hard just to get by, who harbored such huge hopes, and desperately wanted her friends and family to accept her. She likely never had a chance to figure her life out … And yet! Esther, who emptied her beautiful heart and soul across 60 pages of neat Yiddish script, is so fucking hopeful it makes me want to march up alongside her and offer my own rallying cry.
“And when a sigh escapes from the depths of my heart,” she wrote, “when sparks of rebellion and protest ignite in my tired but youthful eyes, they vanish in the turbulence of life, which casts off the weak and battles the rebellious. Still from my lips comes an eternal ‘Why?’ Then my shoulders straighten and brace themselves, ready to endure anything, never to surrender, but with faith — onward!”
Editors’ Note: The memoirs of M.L.X. and S. Freylich were translated from Yiddish for this story by Nina Warnke, and Miglė Anušauskaitė shared some of her translations of the YIVO records recovered in Lithuania.