These forgotten essays reveal the secrets and dreams of Jewish teens as Hitler drew near

A 1930s writing contest celebrates the inspiring endurance of the teenage spirit — in the form of heart-bursting crushes, angsty soul-searching and secret sexcapades.

These+forgotten+essays+reveal+the+secrets+and+dreams+of+Jewish+teens+as+Hitler+drew+near

Kristina Gaddy and Edited by Brendan Spiegel & Noah Rosenberg

This amazing piece of writing originally appeared on Narratively.com. The editors have graciously allowed the St. Louis Jewish Light to publish an excerpt. Please enjoy.

I honestly couldn’t believe it. Are they all waiting to get in? You’d think it was one of Amsterdam’s most popular clubs, with some moody, hipper-than-thou DJ spinning from his throne. But nope, it was the Anne Frank House, and apparently, it’s like this every day the museum is open, the line of visitors stretching from the door, along the canal, and through the cobblestone square, hoping to experience just a glimmer of Frank’s life, and death. Frank, of course, is no head-bopping DJ — but she is a celebrity, arguably the most famous victim of the Holocaust, if there can be something so bizarre, so tragic. She’s actually probably the only Holocaust victim most people can name. And when I think about that, with all due respect to Frank and her family and legacy, it’s kind of bullshit.

I didn’t wait in the line. Not because of any problem I have with Anne Frank or the museum (on my next visit, I was smart enough to get tickets in advance), but the truth is that Nazis murdered another 6 million people besides Frank, including millions of teenagers. And yes, Frank’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, is a perennial international best-seller that introduces younger audiences to the Holocaust, and her story is one of boundless courage and perseverance. In fact, back when I read it in middle school, she was my introduction to the lived experience of someone who had died at the hands of Nazis, and I found her resilience inspiring. But because Frank’s diary is so widely known, and because she wrote about circumstances that most of us will never have to endure, I found it hard to connect to her on a deeper level. And, more importantly, I knew there were so many other stories. Too many. What’s more, the people who wrote those stories didn’t just become people when they died. They had full lives before World War II, and those who were teenagers and young adults would have had their whole lives ahead of them. I wasn’t curious about how they died. (I, like you, had learned all about the atrocities of the ghettos and concentration camps, and I had the nightmares to match.) I was much more interested in how they lived.

That is why I became totally fascinated by a collection of hundreds of autobiographies written by Jewish youth in the 1930s. Most of them lived in Poland and wrote about their lives before the war with intimacy and candor as part of a contest sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. And yet, unlike Anne Frank’s diary, most people have never heard of these writings, let alone read them. While Frank self-censored and edited out her love for the teenage boy hiding with her, the authors in the contest were asked to be super honest and wrote using initials or under fake names that made me think of my own AOL Instant Messenger screen name from the late 1990s (daydreem12, in case anyone’s wondering!) or the handles of teens on TikTok and Instagram today: The Stormer, Forget-Me-Not, Fayvl the Wanderer, The Future, A Galician and Orchid.

One of the handwritten essays submitted for the contest sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (Image courtesy of the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research New York)

Even though you’d think that everything they wrote about would be clouded by the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism and the chaos of the late 1930s, they mostly wrote about being teenagers — the same stuff my friends and I would stay up late whispering over the phone or messaging each other about feverishly. They planned when they would finally do it, and giggled over how they’d dreamt about the most romantic makeout sesh EVER. They were absolutely, completely, irreversibly in love, until wait, no, that person sucks, never mind, NEXT! They wanted to join political movements, chant at the top of their lungs at protests, and make the world a much better, more just place. They had BFFs they loved and frenemies they hated, and everything in between (we’ve all had those friends who were actually kind of bitchy and those who tried so damn hard to be cool that they became unrecognizable assholes in the process). And their parents always managed to exhaust and totally and utterly embaaaaaaaarrass the heck out of them.

Unlike a diary, these teens weren’t writing their life story just because they wanted to. YIVO’s research director Max Weinreich came up with the idea for the contest after seeing a similar survey among Black youth in the southern United States. Weinreich was interested in what it meant to be Jewish, and especially what a changing generation of young Jews thought about themselves and the world they lived in. So, in 1932, YIVO put out its first call for autobiographies, asking young adults between 16 and 22 to write about “family, war years, teachers, schools … Boyfriends, girlfriends. Youth organizations … ” and more. They ran announcements around the world and received responses from Jewish teens across Europe, and from as far away as Argentina and Palestine. And they ran another contest in 1934, and a final one in 1939.

As amazing as the autobiographies are, they are also inherently tragic. None of the young people who submitted their entries to the last contest ever found out if they’d won. On the very day four months later when YIVO planned to announce the winner, Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Six years later, around 90 percent of Jewish people living in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis.

What the young people created with their writings are more than just a remarkable historical record. They are an unvarnished window into the vibrant, colorful lives of everyday teens that we assume should have had experiences very different from our own. But what they write feels like it could have been written today — from the catty girls who make fun of you for wearing the wrong thing to that friend who just gets you to, sadly, the hate and anti-Semitism they saw and experienced.

So here’s another thing I can’t believe: Many of the narratives — which range from 25 pages to a whopping 800 (!!), many handwritten — have probably only been read a couple of times since they were submitted to the contest in the 1930s. And as close as some of the experiences feel to my own teenagerhood, I know I can’t separate them from the time when they were written. The stories these teenagers and young adults tell — some of which we’ve translated into English for the first time for this article, others that we’ve quoted and paraphrased below — feel like an important form of resistance. The rise of nationalism, anti-Semitism and hate couldn’t take away their eagerness about life, or stop them from dreaming endlessly about what might come next.

Part One

The room was dark and the Stormer had started drifting off. Sometimes, right in that moment before sleep, he felt his mom’s warm lips on his forehead. When you’re alone, that type of affection might be OK from a parent. He knew that his mom loved him so much, maybe even a little too much, and that she wanted him to succeed, do something for himself and make her proud. That was one of the reasons he was studying to become a rabbi at yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish school.

But on this night, the Stormer knew his mother wasn’t coming to kiss him goodnight. Two guys from yeshiva were sleeping over. They were sharing a bed, actually, which wasn’t a big deal — the house was small, they were all friends. The Stormer’s mom was happy to have them over; she probably thought they would be sweet religious boys, nothing but the best influences on her son. And I mean, why wouldn’t they be?

As the Stormer was falling asleep, he had a strange feeling his friends were still awake. They either thought the Stormer was asleep and wouldn’t notice, or maybe they actually wanted him to hear. I guess realizing they were awake gave him some FOMO, and when the Stormer opened his eyes, he caught his friends unfurling each other’s Torahs, if you will — or having “sexual relations,” as he delicately, even prudishly, put it in his dainty Yiddish handwriting. He was shocked, and his slumber buddies “were very embarrassed then.” But they seemed like they were only uncomfortable because the Stormer caught them and he seemed freaked out. Their way of trying to calm him down was to invite him to join in.

This sex scene, and how the Stormer felt about it, is kind of surprising and also sort of expected. The Stormer was in his early teens, and this was 1930s Poland, a devoutly Catholic country. His knowledge of sex was … almost nonexistent. It’s not like his teachers taught him proper condom-application techniques, like mine did in early-2000s Bethesda, Maryland, or like his ultra-religious Jewish mom was sitting him down for an awkward chat about what happens when a man loves a woman (or, heaven forbid, if a man wants to have sex with a man!). The Stormer did know that two men having sex was called homosexuality, and he knew it was a big no-no. Maybe because he didn’t want to ruin his mom’s nakhes, or the pride she derived from his being a good Jewish son, or possibly just because he felt it was inappropriate, the Stormer declined their invitation.

I never woke up to friends of mine making out, or more, during a sleepover, but if your pals are having fun doing something that feels illicit, and you’re really not confident in that department, then don’t you just become infinitely more curious? The Stormer was, for sure. “Who knows what I would have done had it not been just before Passover and they hadn’t gone home” for the holiday, he admitted in his nearly 100-page autobiography.

The guys who wrote into the contest weren’t afraid of admitting they thought about sex, a lot, even if they didn’t know that much about it yet. They were teenage boys, after all. Another writer, a guy everyone called the Poet — who does, in fact, write about his life in beautiful, poetic language — recounted the first time he had to admit he didn’t really know anything about sex.

Poet didn’t join the Communist Youth League, or KZM, because of a burning hatred for capitalism; he was just looking for friends and something new. Beyond supporting the Communist Party, the KZM also had meetings where members learned about life, which included sex ed. I can still hear the nervous giggles and obviously bullshit boasting during my sex ed classes — learning about sex is the topic that’s almost guaranteed to make teenagers squirm, especially if they don’t think they know as much as their friends. The Poet was one of those kids who wasn’t giggling and wasn’t boasting, but just sitting there kind of confused. He probably knew less than the Stormer, because no one had ever talked to him about the birds and the bees.

Five young members of a Ze’irei Zion youth group hang outdoors in Grodno, Poland, in 1925. Zionist, socialist, and other youth groups were one of the main ways for young people of the era to hang out and meet others. (Photo courtesy the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research New York. Photo illustrations by Yunuen Bonaparte.)

The instructor, who would have only been a little bit older than the Poet and the other kids, noticed how quiet the Poet was. Oh, poor kid, he does not get it, I can imagine the instructor thinking. After class, he took the time to break things down for the Poet, which was good — and bad. “I felt like a child and was ashamed that everyone except me was informed and could take part in the discussion,” the Poet admitted. Being in the KZM also meant being around girls, which was totally new to the Poet, and a little exposure therapy made him less nervous.

But after he left the KZM and wasn’t hanging out with the girls anymore, his sexual urges came back even stronger, which freaked him out. “I’m afraid that I’m an erotomaniac, because sex occupies a considerable part of my brain and can’t be driven out,” he wrote. I wish I could reach back in time, give him a massive hug and reassure him, “You’re perfectly normal, dude! We all thought about sex ALL. THE. TIME — welcome to the club.”

M.L.X, a teenager in Warsaw, also couldn’t get sex out of his head. He wanted a girlfriend, but he knew that even if he found one, they would have been expected to abstain until marriage. Unfortunately, he also thought masturbating was shameful rather than a completely normal way to deal with sexual urges.

Once, he wrote, “in order to suffocate these desires — and maybe out of curiosity — I went at night through the far away streets of Warsaw (without a penny in my pockets), known for their brothels.” He’d heard the stories of girls coming from the country to the city to make a living, and when they couldn’t get a job, they’d end up doing sex work. The idea of having sex with a prostitute “evoked a strong feeling of disgust” in M.L.X., but like the Stormer, he didn’t have enough knowledge or experience to know what he might have actually enjoyed. He had a perception of what the women would be like, based on what others had told him, but when he actually began talking to them, he realized they were “mothers of children, [and] wives of husbands.” In his writing, he insisted that he didn’t have sex with any of them and was just curious about their lives, which I guess we have to believe. And this was probably a much more interesting form of get sex ed than he’d have gotten in any classroom, and less shocking than waking up to your friends having sex with each other on the other side of the bed.

Please click here parts 2 through 6. 

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