Biography 26.4 (2003) 766-768
[Access article in PDF]
A collection of personal documents as sociological material was first employed in a classic published in 1918-1920, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, by Florian Znaniecki and William I. Thomas. Later, in the 1930s, YIVO scholars in Vilna held competitions for autobiographies, aimed at strengthening the identity of Polish Jews. Since the end of the 1960s, there has been a revival of interest in the person as subject and interpreter of society. Now, for contemporary scholars and general readers, these personal stories of the awakening lives of Jewish adolescents, published for the first time half a century after they were written and sent in to the YIVO competitions, give insight into the Jewish life, religious and secular, of rich and poor families before the outbreak of World War II, in big cities, towns, and villages. Written before the atrocities of the Holocaust, these life stories often do not reflect anticipation of the impending threat. Instead, shedding light on Jewish identity, they provide detailed accounts of family, friends, and school experience from prewar Poland. They also depict the economic crisis of the early 1930s, and the growing unemployment and impoverishment of the mostly rural Polish population.
Young Jews between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two submitted 627 autobiographies for three YIVO contests in 1932, 1934, and 1939. From the approximately three hundred recovered after World War II, which are now in the YIVO Archives in New York, fifteen were chosen for publication in the volume Awakening Lives. Submissions to the contest came from more than a dozen countries, but the majority were submitted from Poland. The autobiographies published in this volume, edited by Jeffrey Shandler, and with an introduction by the eminent contemporary scholars Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Marcus Moseley, and Michael Stanislawski, present a view of the historical and social reality of the Polish Republic in the interwar period as seen by adolescents. Apart from the autobiographies, the book contains a useful chronology of historical facts from 1914-1939, a map of interwar [End Page 766] Poland, endnotes, descriptions of personalities and organizations in appendices, and a glossary.
Constituting Europe's largest Jewish Diaspora, Jews were the second largest ethnic minority in multiethnic and multireligious Poland before World War II—about 10 percent of the total population, and up to 70 percent of the population in some southeastern and eastern towns. These self-told life stories of youth—Orthodox, Bundists, Zionists and Communists (members of a party illegal from 1919, who often suffered persecution, including torture and imprisonment)—show various aspects of individual fates intermingled with larger intergroup relations. They also break stereotyped ideas held by Poles and others that Jews in prewar Eastern Europe were either poor shtetl inhabitants or rich, assimilated merchants, doctors, or lawyers. The authors of the submissions to the YIVO contest were from all strata of society. They attended cheders, progressive shules, yeshivas, or public high schools. Awakening Lives gives evidence that Jewish youth also experienced the challenges of a multilingual world (studying Esperanto, for example, which was popular in interwar Poland). The majority of submissions were in Yiddish (73.8 percent), almost 24 percent in Polish and a few in Hebrew. More boys (78 percent) responded to the contest, which called for descriptions of family, school, friends, youth organizations, professional life, motivations, and crucial life events. Narratives dealing not so much with ethnographic details as with inner life were encouraged. The texts reflect the adolescents' dreams, anxieties, and responses to the challenges of economic and intellectual life.
As noted in the introduction, Jewish youth often crossed political or religious borders, switching organizational affiliations in a search for their own social identity. This is not surprising, since political attitudes, like other attitudes, become stable and increasingly consistent in adolescence but are not...