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Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust [Hardcover]

Jeffrey Shandler

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Book Description

1 Oct 2002
A collection of autobiographies written by young Polish Jews in the 1930s. The candid writings reveal not only the personal struggles, ambitions and dreams of 15 young authors, they also reveal with unprecedented intensity the nature of ordinary Jewish life in Poland in the years between the world wars. Unlike later writers for whom it became impossible to view this time except through lenses tinted by nostalgia or horror, these adolescent Jewish authors, unaware of the catastrophic future that awaited, tell their stories with a simple directness, describing their lives as they understood them at the time. The autobiographies presented in the volume are selected from hundreds that were written for contests in the 1930s sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, then based in Vilna. Nine male and six female authors write from a variety of circumstances that reflect the great diversity of Jewish life in interwar Poland; some of the writers are ardently secular and others, devoutly religious; some are impoverished and others come from the working class or middle class; some are highly-educated and others, self-taught. They come from big cities, small towns, and villages, and they are affiliated with Zionists, Bundists, communists, multiple political groups, or none. Often surprising in their opinions and feelings, the young people also display different personalities, writing styles, and views of life. Their voices speak now across the chasm of history, providing a moving testament from the vantage point of young Jews in the final years before the Holocaust.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st Edition edition (1 Oct 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300092776
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300092776
  • Product Dimensions: 3.7 x 16.4 x 23.7 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,060,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Perhaps this autobiography will change the course of my life. This is something new for me." -- from the autobiography of Esther.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreaking, fascinating introduction to the modern Jewish experience 12 Dec 2007
By Leyener - Published on Amazon.com
Awakening Lives consists of a dozen or so autobiographies written by Polish Jewish adolescents in the 1930s. These autobiographies, translated from Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew, are not only extraordinarily moving but also offer an incomparably rich, kaleidoscopic point of entry into the life of Europe's largest, most creative, and most bewilderingly divided Jewish community prior to the Holocaust. Selected from several hundred such autobiographies written for contests in 1934, 1936, and 1939, the essays here capture Polish Jewry in all its variety. Some writers hailed from the wealthy, urbane Polish-Jewish bourgeoisie, while others were raised in the grindingly poor, often broken families which crowded the Jewish slums of Warsaw and Lodz or Poland's increasingly depressed small towns(shtetlelkh). Some were steeped in religious tradition (though many rebelled against it) while other grew up in families which had already embraced an idealized secular European modernity. At the same time, however, the essays reveal the shared predicaments and dilemmas which make this period of Polish Jewish history so fascinating and so important for understanding both the modern Jewish experience and the modern European experience as a whole. In an environment of rising anti-semitism, spiralling economic breakdown, and intensifying political conflict across Europe, the autobiographers grappled with the great political questions of the era and the proper response on the part of Jews, the nature of Jewish identity and culture, and the question of their own future (and whether, indeed, they had one). At the same time, they wrestled with tremendous candor with the intimate questions of selfhood, sexuality, and worldview common to modern childhood and adolescence. The fact that almost all of these writers would be killed in the years that followed will no doubt haunt many readers and, perhaps, discourage others; the frankness of these autobiographies may disturb those who idealize Jewish life in the old world. But I know of no more moving, gripping, or honest way of encountering the real, complex individuals who made up that world.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Historical treasure 30 Aug 2011
By Oryx - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This compilation of autobiographical essays written by teenagers from all walks of Polish life in the 1930s is a rare glimpse into an era which has been largely eclipsed by the Holocaust. While the prose is not always poetic, most are written with stark honesty. The lives of many were very hard, poverty was rampant and survival far from assured. Yet the main thing that struck me was that most of these essays were written by young men and women in the throes of adolescence, struggling to find themselves, to find love, to fulfill their dreams, whether that meant writing or teaching or going into business or going to Palestine. They show a variety of personalities and a cross sample of backgrounds, from fairly well-to-do to the most dismal poverty. Some had great fortitude and endless inventiveness, others were depressed and despondent.
I actually used this book for research for a novel I wrote. It is very difficult to get first hand accounts of the 1930s in Poland. The recollections of survivors are often colored by nostalgia or simply too painful to recount. But these were written contemporaneous with the events they describe, and so present a more accurate picture.
They are, however,difficult to read in the sense that these young people were unaware of what was to come--but the reader is. Most of these young, vital people, did not survive.
5.0 out of 5 stars do not compare it to anything else. 24 July 2014
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
excellent. if you ever wondered how some of the jewish youth of Poland lived through their hardships between the two world wars, then this is the book to read. you have to try an imagine yourself in their position. being afraid of everything everyday. if you walked on the wrong side of the street you were punished. if you went to school you were punished. if you missed school you were punished. work didn't pay well at all. accommodation was almost non existent. living conditions were horrible. and through all that these youth managed to write biographies that will break your heart. poverty was the standard of living there. pogroms were a weekly happenings. police brutality was ignored, and at times was provoked. if you look for a book to make you think. this one is it. buy it!
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book 16 Mar 2014
By Lauren Garber - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Very interesting book. Highly recommended. Stories like these are usually overshadowed by Holocaust narratives, unfortunately. It provides a view of the world that came before that great tragedy.
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