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  • Jewish Youth Movements in Poland between the Wars as Heirs of the Kehilah
  • Ido Bassok (bio)

This chapter is a part of a research project focusing on 150 autobiographies out of the collection of about 350 by young Jews, which are in the possession of YIVO.1 Of the 150, 93 were written in Yiddish, 46 in Polish, and 11 in Hebrew; 109 were composed by young men and 41 by young women. They were sent to YIVO, then in Vilna, as entries in three contests the institute organized in 1932, 1934, and 1939. The contests, as was made clear,2 limited the age of the contestants to between 16 and 22 years, but some writers a few years younger or older managed to 'infiltrate' them using various stratagems.3

The chapter proposes a new understanding of the mental characteristics4 of Jewish children and adolescents in Poland between the two world wars, especially their feelings regarding the future of the traditional Jewish world and their solidarity and identification with their 'ethnic' community. Though from a quantitative point of view the autobiographers cannot be regarded as 'representative' of their generation, they nevertheless express the views typical of broad sectors of young people at the time, rather than the more ideologically extreme ones, such as

This chapter is adapted from I. Bassok, 'Hebetim bah. inuch shel no'ar yehudi bepolin bein milḥamot ha'olam le'or otobiografiyot shel benei no'ar yehudiyim me'osef YIVO', Ph.D. thesis (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2009); an abridged version was published as Teḥiyat hane'urim: mishpaḥah veḥinukh beyahadut polin bein milḥamot ha'olam (Jerusalem, 2015). [End Page 299]

those of the radical assimilationists or the radical hasidic courts. The justification for such an argument stems primarily from the heterogeneity and variety of the autobiographers' backgrounds: they represent the three cultural-historical zones of Poland (Kresy, the former Congress Kingdom, and Galicia), although not in exact proportion to the size of the Jewish populations in each; they lived in large cities and small towns; they belonged to all classes of Jewish society (with a tendency towards the lower socioeconomic levels, who were the majority); they attended all sorts of educational systems, both Polish and Jewish, secular and religious, traditional and modern; they were affiliated with all sorts of youth movements—communist, Zionist, and Bundist—or none. However, many of the autobiographies conveyed similar information and led to similar conclusions, and therefore I selected 150 that provided a balanced representation of these factors. Literary criteria, such as richness of detail, length, and the quality of the writing, also influenced my decisions for inclusion. My aim is to examine—through these autobiographies—two significant and complementary topics: the means developed by the various youth movements to position themselves as leaders in the new Jewish public sphere and their attempt to supersede the kehilot (traditional communal structures) still operating in the Polish Jewish communities at the time. The members of the youth movements were seeking answers to an array of issues relating to lifestyle choices: interpersonal communication (relationships with friends, the opposite sex, and their elders); work and employment (in terms of a new value system which saw work as transforming Jews economically, socially, and psychologically); and various aspects of society (political allegiances, participation in public life and religious ritual, however this was expressed).

In the second part of the chapter I attempt to show that the efforts of youth movements to achieve public leadership found different expression in each of the three 'cultural zones' of interwar Poland: the east (Kresy), the centre (the former Congress Kingdom), and the south (Galicia). Against the background of long-term historic developments, there evolved different concepts of the connections between the Jewish past, present, and future, between religiosity and secularization, and between tradition and modernization in each of these zones. The typical attitude of the Jewish population of Kresy involved a strong sense of dialectic continuity; the Galician attitude was marked by a belief in 'synthesis', which was possible but difficult to attain; and Congress Poland was characterized by the widespread belief in a deep split between the processes of secularization and Polonization, on the...


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