- 'Vos vayter?' Graduating from Elementary School in Interwar PolandFrom Personal Crisis to Cultural Turning Point
In 1932 YIVO announced its first autobiography competition for young east European Jews with the goal of learning about the problems they faced. Two years later YIVO established a special department for youth research in order to develop and deepen knowledge of the lives of young Jews, which held two additional competitions in 1934 and 1939:
Through these autobiographies we want to learn about the lives of young Jews in these painful days. We want to understand what are the obstacles that stand in the way of young people who wish to establish their status in life, what kind of conflicts they have with their immediate and remote surroundings and amongst themselves.1
Around 370 autobiographies survived the Second World War, affording a rich and rewarding resource for this period, especially the experience of growing up as a Jew in Poland.2
The autobiographies have been the subject of several important studies, starting with that of Max Weinreich, one of YIVO's founders and head of its youth department. His book,3 published before the third competition, stands out for its psychosocial approach that emphasized the cultural context in which the autobiographies were written. Sociological and statistical methods were also employed by Moshe Kligsberg, who focused on the cultural and political mentality of the young [End Page 283] writers.4 Gershon Bacon used the autobiographies alongside additional sources to examine gender issues.5 Ido Bassok and Alina Cała both made use of the autobiographies to map political and ideological consciousness.6 Bassok's latest book sought to evaluate the 'truth' and 'falsehood' in these writings—a rather old-fashioned approach—and to assess their literary value—despite the fact that the official contest announcements by YIVO specifically stressed that the participants should not try to write 'literature'.7 An interesting perspective is provided by Marcus Moseley, who describes the development of these youngsters from young enthusiastic readers through nascent authors to their emergence as autobiographers.8
This chapter analyses the experience of growing up as a Jew in interwar Poland.9 I have tried to penetrate the inner, emotional lives of the autobiographers, concentrating on their emotional reactions to the events, circumstances, and institutions encountered during childhood and adolescence. This provides new understandings of the institutions and activities at the centre of their lives, as emotional spheres that channel feelings and actions in new directions. Thus, on a broader level, the chapter seeks to demonstrate how an emotional experience can have a transformative effect by focusing on one such moment in the world of interwar Polish Jews: graduation from elementary school.
The first section analyses how the novelty of access to education and its abrupt and painful discontinuation (for economic, familial, or other reasons) provoked a deep crisis for young Jews, who found their hopes for a future as participants in a modern Polish state cut short by the needs of their family and by political, social, and economic reality. The second section outlines their responses: from writing personal diaries to continuing the quest for education in political Jewish youth movements. The last section places these findings in the context of ideology and examines how their personal crises transformed their political orientation. [End Page 284]
In reading the autobiographies of young Jews in interwar Poland, one special occasion emerges almost immediately as one of existential crisis, the day they graduated from elementary school and left its desks, never to return:
Vos vayter? [What next?] The question burst out of my chest with the strength of thunder. I'm not the only one who shouts. A whole camp like me: Mendele, Moishale, Avremale, and more and more, everyone shouts in one voice: What next?10
The end of elementary school was also the end of formal education for the majority of these writers. Research has revealed that only 8 to 10 per cent of Jewish children continued their studies in either high schools or vocational schools, while the rest were forced to enter the job market at the ages of 13 to 15, primarily in order to contribute...