Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Awakening Lives

I came across Awakening Lives, edited by Jeffrey Shandler, while searching for books on Amazon. It came up in the "Customer Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section and the description caught my attention immediately. I knew this one was different.

Back in the 1930s, the YIVO Institute based in Vilna, Lithuania, held writing contests. They asked for autobiographies from young Jews so they could gain some insight into their lives during the interwar years. The contest deadlines were in 1932, 1934, and 1939. Of the more than 600 autobiographies submitted mainly by Polish Jews, about half were saved by YIVO employees when they had to evacuate their offices ahead of the German invasion. This book presents 15 of those autobiographies, translated from Polish, Hebrew, or Yiddish into English. What distinguishes this collection from other stories from Jews about their lives in Poland during this period is that these autobiographies were written before WWII. The stories wouldn't have been the same if they were told after the war, reflecting back to the years before the Holocaust.

Some of these young writers are of the same generation as my grandparents. My paternal grandparents were born in America but my maternal grandparents were born in Europe and didn't come to America until they were young adults. My grandmother was Bessie Schneider, born Peshe Bergzon in Lazdijai, Lithuania, in 1910. My grandfather was Saul Schneider, born Shlomo Sznajder, in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (now Brest, Belarus), in 1910. They came to America is 1929 and 1928, respectively. I also had many cousins/relatives who were growing up in Poland at this time. I don't even need all 10 fingers to count the names of the few who escaped the fate that the rest of their families suffered. Since I never thought to ask my grandparents about their lives when they were young, this book gave me a little insight into what their daily lives might have been like.

Peshe, #27 in the picture above and her older brother David, #26, were close in age with maybe little more than one year separating them. This is a school photo but I have no idea what type of school they attended. I believe their father, Jeruchim Bergzon, a tailor, made a pretty good living because Peshe and David still had time for school into their teens (versus having to work to earn money for the family). I don't know if they graduated but if they didn't, they must have come close. They also had time for Zionist activities including a sports club and I have many photos of David and his friends after performances by a drama club. In Awakening Lives, most of the writers attended school and did belong to Zionist or other political and labor groups. These groups sponsored camp activities during school vacations and there is mention of theatrical performances. I have no memory of my grandmother being political but her brother David, after coming to America for a few years, traveled back through Poland and Lithuania, eventually settling in Palestine in 1934. He was one of the founders of Ein Hashofet kibbutz.

My grandpa Saul, pictured here (standing, center) is a little more of a mystery. While I do have professional photos of him and his friends, they don't appear to be related to school or political organizations. I think they are simply remembrance photos as they began to leave Poland is search of better opportunities. Again, I have no memory of him being political but he died when I was 13 so I don't expect to have those types of memories.

One topic I expected to appear in these writings, especially in the ones submitted in the 1939 contest, was the mention of the tough times for Jews in Germany and possibly fear that similar problems might spread into Poland. I was surprised that the authors wrote nothing of these issues. I think there were one or two passing references to Germany or Hitler or the Nazis but that was it. Most of the writers didn't seem to think the anti-semitism in Poland had much of an impact on their daily lives. As someone who was born long after WWII, was raised in America, and has never once come face-to-face with anti-semitism I find this hard to believe but I wasn't there. Portions of these stories could have taken place just about anywhere...relationships with friends, experiences at school, sibling rivalry.

I recommend this book to anyone who had family members living in Poland during the interwar years. Some stories are difficult to read...parental abuse, extreme financial difficulties. Other stories, mainly by the young men, mention their sexual activities. We like to think that our ancestors waited until the wedding night...not true! Some of the stories end on a hopeful note which almost made me cry. According to the epilogue, of these 15 authors, only 2 are known to have survived. 2 were known to still be in Poland during the war, 1 last heard from in 1939 and another in 1943. 1 other appears in the Yizkor book for his town. That leaves 10 whose fates are not known and we can only assume the worst. Awakening Lives is definitely worth reading.

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