Drawing Jewish teens back to life

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with writer, cartoonist, and educator Ken Krimstein, an Evanston native whose cartoons--wry observations on the eccentricities of daily life--run in The New Yorker.  

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An early sketch of the six teens. (Image courtesy of by Ken Krimstein)

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with writer, cartoonist, and educator Ken Krimstein, an Evanston native whose cartoons--wry observations on the eccentricities of daily life--run in The New Yorker .  

In my role at Spertus Institute, I worked with Krimstein--who recently taught a course on Jewish comics for Spertus Institute graduate students--das we presented an exhibition of the drawings for his acclaimed graphic biography of Hannah Arendt. In the middle of our work together, Krimstein left on a mysterious trip to Vilnius. 

What was he doing there? I'll let Krimstein tell you in the words that open his mesmerizing new book, When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers . He writes: "In the late summer of 2018, I held a miracle in my hands." 

What he held was a student notebook, which he said looked as crisp as if it had been written that afternoon. But it hadn't. In fact, its 80-year journey was a story almost as riveting as the words within. Krimstein asked the archivist assisting him at the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, "how many people have flipped through this notebook since 1939?"

"Two," she said. "You. And me."

The notebook was one of 700 entries received by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna (Vilnius) in response to a memoir-writing contest they held for Yiddish-speaking teens. The monetary award for the best of the essays was substantial, but it was never given out. The prize was to be awarded on September 1, 1939; the day Hitler invaded Poland.

 

Long thought lost to the Nazis, the teens' essays were in fact heroically smuggled into hiding, to be rediscovered in 2017. In When I Grow Up , Krimstein illustrates six of the entries, drawing us (literally, in this case) into the teens' passions, challenges, hopes, and dreams.

"These were vibrant, complicated, candid, self-aware teenagers; unapologetic, ornery, and know-it-all like all teenagers everywhere; resolute young men and women with stories to tell," Krimstein writes.

The essays were submitted anonymously so the teens could be candid about their lives. In most cases, we don't know who they were, so Krimstein needed to create visual identities for them. To give us a glimpse of the process, he shared this early sketch, in which you can see him working out the characteristics that made each teen unique. To represent their worlds, he walked the streets they had walked and immersed himself in the time they lived. 

In a recent podcast interview with Krimstein, Spertus Director of Jewish Studies Dr. David Gottlieb described When I Grow Up as "taking us into the hearts and minds of teenagers on the precipice of World War II, in a Yiddish world that would soon be destroyed." Krimstein sums up his work more succinctly. He calls himself a "graphic chronicler." In this case, his chronicling brings lost lives back to life. 

In addition to The New Yorker, Krimstein's work appears in The Wall Street JournalBarron's , and the  Chicago Tribune . His 2018 book  The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt  was named Best Graphic Novel of the Year by  Forbes  and was a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist . When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers was named an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year. He teaches at DePaul University and recently taught a course on Jewish comics for Spertus Institute graduate students.  

On June 13, join Spertus Institute for Voices: Rescued Stories Brought to Life, A Conversation with Ken Krimstein , which will be broadcast live for viewing online. The program is free thanks to donor support. Reservations are required. Reserve your spot at spertus.edu. 

Find David Gottlieb's podcast interview with Krimstein on the New Books Network at newbooksnetwork.com/When-I-Grow-Up.

Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes about) Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing & Communications.

"Long thought lost to the Nazis, the teens' essays were in fact heroically smuggled into hiding"


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