Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland. Collection.
These autobiographies were submitted to the YIVO in Vilna as entries to three contests (1932, 1934, 1939) sponsored by YIVO's Youth Research Division (Yugntforshung). Originally, there were over 600 autobiographies of which about 300-350 were recovered after World War II.
The original goal of these competitions was to gain a deeper understanding of the social and cultural processes at work in Jewish society, in the Jewish family, and in Jewish-Polish relations. The driving force behind the YIVO-sponsored competitions was Max Weinreich, a philologist of the Yiddish language and founding director of YIVO. Weinreich was strongly influenced by contemporary currents in the social sciences and he turned increasingly toward personal documents as source-material in the study of the condition of the interwar generation of Jewish youth Extremely concerned for the future of Jewish youth in Eastern Europe, Weinreich proposed the creation of the Yugntforshung project (in English, "Research on Youth") in 1934, which became one of YIVO's leading activities under its Psychology and Pedagogy Research Section. The autobiography competitions were organized as part of the Yugntforshung The requested age range for the autobiography contestants was 16-22. All three competitions were open to young men and women regardless of educational, religious, political, or socio-economic background or affiliation. As one of its competition stipulations, YIVO agreed to honor the anonymity of the autobiographers. Contestants were encouraged to write in whatever language was most comfortable to them.
Most of these autobiographies came from towns and cities located throughout Poland and Lithuania, though a handful of autobiographies also came from countries as far away as England, Palestine, Syria, and the United States. In all three competitions, monetary awards were to be granted, with the first place winner being awarded a sum total of 150 zlotys. Awards were granted in the cases of the first two competitions (1932, 1934), but in the case of the third competition, World War II interrupted the competition's final outcome. Indeed, on the very day that YIVO intended to announce the winners of the third autobiography competition, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II.
The third competition was the most international in scope, since announcements for it went out to Jewish youth-not only throughout Europe-but also, throughout parts of North and South America, Australia, South Africa, and Palestine. Weinreich eventually published a work in 1935 entitled Der veg tsu undzer yugnt, which drew from the findings of the first two autobiography competitions and outlined the methodology that YIVO had chosen to use for its Yugntforshung project.
These documents were looted by the Nazis and sent to Germany in 1942. They were among the YIVO archival materials recovered after World War II from the premises of the NSDAP Institut zur Erforshung die Judenfrage in Frankfurt a/M, and sent to the YIVO in New York City in 1947.
About 17 of these autobiographies were translated into English and published as: Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Ed. Jeffrey Shandler. (New Haven: Yale University Press in cooperation with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2002).
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The collection consists of more than 300 autobiographies and supplementary biographical materials, such as correspondence, diaries, documents, as well as records of the contest, including lists of the contestants, correspondence with them, reports and clippings.
The autobiographies relate primarily to the autobiographers' childhood years during the World War I period and to their experiences as Jews growing up in inter- war Poland.
The collection consists of two series. The first series contains the autobiographies proper and additional materials sent by the contestants to YIVO (folders #3501-#3875). The second series (folders #3876-#3893) is much smaller and consists of administrative records pertaining to the competitions, notes by Moyshe Kligsberg on his personal goals and ideas in regard to youth research, and plans for YIVO's youth research division compiled by Max Weinreich and Moyshe Kligsberg. Also included are newspaper clippings, notes and lists pertaining to the autobiography competitions, as well as correspondence between the contestants and YIVO.
The bulk of materials contained within this collection are the autobiographies of Jewish youth, primarily from the 1930s and from Poland and Lithuania. The majority of autobiographies are complete; however, a significant number of them are incomplete or fragmentary in nature. Out of a total of 627 submitted autobiographies, about 375 autobiographies were recovered from Germany in 1947. Of those autobiographies that were recovered, 302 were ultimately summarized. The highest percentage and number of recovered autobiographies were from the competition of 1934. The primary languages represented among these autobiographies are: Yiddish (223), Polish (71), and Hebrew (8), though other languages including Czech, English, German, and Russian are also used. A number of major and often interrelated themes appear throughout the autobiographies. These include :
1. The problems and horrors of World War I; the Polish-Soviet war; the Polish-Ukrainian war and the effect of these wars on Jewish youth and their familes.
2. Descriptions of Shtetl life with focus on the economic and social situation in the small towns and villages.
3. Family LIfe. Living conditions, povery, family relations, early childhood experiences,
4. Early education, including life in the classic kheder (heder) and later educational experiences, Yiddish and Tarbut schools, Polish public schools, trade schools, secondary schools, teachers' seminaries.
5. Youth movements, political parties, including the Bund, Zionist parties, Agudas Israel.
6. Modern literature and intellectual movements and their influence on Polish Jewish youth.
7. Work and search for work, reflecting economic hardships experienced by Jewish youth prior to World War II, including experiences of antisemitism.