graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein

I should never be trusted in the library alone.

I ran my son over there this week; he had lost his wallet earlier this year and hadn’t yet replaced his library card, plus there was a book he wanted to check out, so we stopped in. “I don’t need anything,” I told him. “Don’t let me look at books. I have two library books to read right now, plus two from NetGalley waiting for me. I don’t need to bring home another book.”

Friends, I brought home another book.

But how could I not??? I’d heard of When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). I hadn’t added it to my TBR, but it remained lodged in my brain, and as soon as I saw it standing on top of a shelf in the New Books section, I gasped and grabbed it (and then mentally yelled at myself, and then yelled at myself for yelling at myself). And then I checked it out and took it home, being sure to keep my eyes off all the other tempting books before we left the library.

I didn’t realize until I was at home that Mr. Krimstein is the same author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which I read and enjoyed right before the beginning of the pandemic (I’m going to assume the stress of that time erased his name from my brain, because I’ve thought of that book often since reading it). Always nice to spend more time with an author I’d previously enjoyed!

Just before Poland was invaded, writing competitions were held for Yiddish-speaking young adults in eastern Europe. Because of the invasion, the winners were never announced, and the manuscripts were hidden away from the book-burning bonfires of the Nazis. They were discovered again in 2017, painting a vivid picture of what life was like for young people standing on the edge of likely destruction.

As the competitions required anonymity, only one of the author’s identities has been discovered (and fortunately, she survived), lending the book a haunting feel when you read with the hindsight and clarity of knowing what was to come for these optimistic teenagers. The illustrations add to this feel, and the overall book is at once tragic and wistful, optimistic and with an overarching sense of doom. It’s a miracle that these writings survived at all; that they’ve been illustrated and published is an amazing testament to our strength and our ongoing fascination with this subject and our determination to not let these voices be silenced.

Because of the nature of this book- it’s graphic nonfiction- it’s a quick read, but the wonder and the unanswered questions will stay with you.

Visit Ken Krimstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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