Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland
Scope and Content Note
This collection consists of material from the archive of the YIVO Division of Youth Research, also known as Yugfor (a portmanteau of Yugnt-forshung). Based on surviving records, the original Yugfor archive consisted of 645-650 folders, of which about 400 were partially or fully recovered and brought to YIVO in New York after the Holocaust. The bulk of the Yugfor archive consisted of autobiographies and supplementary material submitted to the 1932, 1934, and 1939 YIVO competitions for the best autobiography written by a Jewish youth.
Series I contains autobiographies, diaries, and other youth research materials sent to YIVO between 1932 and 1940. Most autobiographies are complete; however, a significant number of them are incomplete or fragmentary. Many folders contain additional material, such as literary compositions (short stories, poetry), photographs, correspondence, diaries, newspaper clippings, periodicals of youth organizations, and other supplementary items. A small portion of the folders contain material unconnected to the autobiography contests. These items include diaries, essays, journals, collected correspondence, and works of fiction.
Series II consists of administrative records pertaining to the competitions, reports by YIVO aspirantn on research projects using the autobiographies, discursive notes by Max Weinreich on his personal goals and ideas regarding youth research, drafts of works about Jewish youth, and plans for YIVO's youth research division. Also included are newspaper clippings, notes and lists pertaining to the autobiography competitions, as well as correspondence between the contestants and YIVO. A small amount of correspondence pertains to youth sports.
The addendum contains fragmentary and unidentified items.
- Majority of material found within 1932-1939
- Kligsberg, Moshe (Person)
Language of Materials
The collection is in Yiddish, with some Polish, German, Hebrew, English, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, French, and Czech.
The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.
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YIVO (Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut – Jewish Scientific Institute) held three contests in the 1930s for the best autobiography written by a Jewish youth. The original goal of these competitions was to gain a deeper understanding of the social and cultural processes at work in Jewish society, in the Jewish family, and in Jewish-Polish relations at a pivotal moment in time marked by a profound historical crisis.
YIVO’s first contest, held in the summer of 1932, sought participants between the ages of 16 and 22 in Vilna and the Vilna region. Cash prizes and YIVO publications were offered as incentives; 14 out of the 34 submissions were awarded prizes. Subsequent contests in 1934 and 1939 retained the age specification but dispensed with geographic limits and increased the prize offerings to attract more participants, with great success, bringing in 264 and 285 autobiographies respectively. All told, YIVO collected over 625 personal documents from Jewish teenagers and young adults. All three competitions were open to young men and women regardless of educational, religious, political, or socio-economic background or affiliation. As one of its competition stipulations, YIVO agreed to honor the anonymity of the autobiographers. Contestants were encouraged to write in whatever language was most comfortable to them.
The driving force behind the YIVO-sponsored competitions was Max Weinreich, a Yiddish philologist and founding director of YIVO. Weinreich was strongly influenced by the currents in the social sciences of his day. Pioneered by Florian Znaniecki in 1921, autobiography contest was the favored method among interbellum Polish sociologists for gathering source material. Weinreich met Znaniecki (and other social scientists, including W.I. Thomas, Znaniecki’s co-author of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America) at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations, where Weinreich was a participant in a year-long seminar on the impact of culture on personality led by Edward Sapir. There he began developing the theoretical and methodological framework for a study on the psychology Jewish youth. He continued to pursue this line of research in the fall of 1933 in Vienna, where he studied under developmental psychology and befriended Siegfried Bernfeld, a psychoanalyst and activist for Jewish youth. Weinreich returned to Vilna that winter with a significant portion of Bernfeld’s archive and plans for several new initiatives for youth research at YIVO.
In the spring of 1934 YIVO created the Division for Youth Research (yugntforshung), known as Yugfor, and announced a second autobiography contest. The response was so strong that YIVO pushed back the deadline two months to give entrants more time. The combined 298 autobiographies received in the 1932 and 1934 contests were utilized as source material for Weinreich’s 1935 book Der veg tsu undzer yugnt (The Way to Our Youth), a study of the elements, methods, and problems of Jewish youth research. In addition to the announced contest prizes, free copies were distributed to the 75 autobiographers cited in the book. Many participants also submitted diaries or literary compositions. Yugfor encouraged their young correspondents to stay in touch – they continued to send autobiographies after the competition ended, as well as collected correspondences, literary works, and essays. Other sources of material included Chaim Ormian, a scholar of education and psychology in Łódź who executed a parallel collecting effort, and the collection of personal documents in the Siegfried Bernfeld archive.
Yugfor’s activity was not limited to soliciting autobiographies. They also conducted interviews and distributed questionnaires, focusing particularly on school libraries and sports movements. But autobiography contest was their most potent tool, so in December 1938 they announced a third competition. In the intervening years YIVO had established the Aspirantur, a type of graduate program to train new scholars in the social sciences and humanities in Yiddish. One of the students, Chana Piszczacer Mann, an aspirant since the first class in 1935, was tasked with administering the contest. She had experience with collecting personal documents; for her research she had enlisted several mothers to keep detailed day-to-day journals of their child’s development.
The third competition was the most ambitious. YIVO sent letters to Jewish schools and youth organizations around the world, asking them to spread the word. This effort was somewhat successful, attracting autobiographies from 15 countries, though the vast majority of the 285 autobiographies accepted to the competition arrived from within Poland. The deadline for submission was July 1st, extended from May 1st due to public demand, but entries were accepted as late as November 10th, 1939. The outbreak of World War II prevented announcement of the official close of the contest or of the winners. Even so, YIVO received four more autobiographies in early 1940, from refugees recently arrived in Vilna, bringing the number of personal documents inventoried consecutively by Yugfor to 625. The total quantity of items was likely higher, Piszczacer Mann assigned previously overlooked material inventory numbers in the 700 range; there were at least 5 and may have been 20 or more additional texts.
Despite the outbreak of war and the separation of Max Weinreich from Vilna (he was in Copenhagen when Germany invaded Poland and subsequently made his way to New York), the work of youth research continued. Two aspirantn in the 1939-1940 session, Moshe Kligsberg and Emanuel Patt, drew on the new autobiographies for their research projects. Kligsberg would work with some of the autobiographies again much later, in New York. By then he was limited to the items which were salvaged from Germany and Vilnius in the aftermath of the war — only 355 autobiographies.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Marcus Moseley, and Michael Stanislawski, “Introduction,” in Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust, ed. Jeffrey Shandler, xi-xxvi. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press and YIVO, 2002.
Kijek, Kamil. “Max Weinreich, assimilation and the social politics of Jewish nation-building.” East European Jewish Affairs, 41:1-2 (2011): 25-55.
Kligsberg, Moses. Child and Adolescent Behavior under Stress: An Analytical Guide to a Collection of Autobiographies of Jewish Men and Women in Poland (1932-1939). New York: YIVO, 1965.
Kuznitz, Cecile Esther. YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Zenderland, Leila. "Social Science as a “Weapon of the Weak”: Max Weinreich, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, and the Study of Culture, Personality, and Prejudice." Isis 104, no. 4 (2013): 742-72.
12.5 Linear Feet
The collection consists of more than 300 autobiographies and supplementary biographical materials, such as correspondence, diaries, and documents collected by YIVO in the interest of Jewish youth research. The autobiographies were assembled through public competitions in 1932, 1934, and 1939 directed at Jewish youth aged 16-22. The collection also contains records of the contest, including lists of the contestants, correspondence with them, reports and clippings.
The arrangement of the Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland collection was established in the 1950s, when a Yiddish language inventory was created. The materials were arranged in two sub-groups: the first consists of autobiographies and other collected material, the second administrative records, research notes, reports and drafts. These sub-groups constitute Series I and Series II, respectively. The addendum consists of previously unprocessed material.
- Series I: Youth Research Materials, 1905-1940
- Subseries 1: Autobiographies, 1930-1940
- Subseries 2: Miscellaneous, 1905-1940
- Series II: Administrative Records, undated, 1931-1940
- Addendum, undated, 1915-1939
Existence and Location of Copies
This collection is available to view online by clicking on the folder titles.
The first to organize the collection and create an inventory was Moshe Kligsberg, who read and summarized many autobiographies. However, he never completed this project. Ezekiel Lifschutz arranged the collection in the 1950s, at which time he compiled a simplified inventory in Yiddish. In the 1980s Rachel Wizner surveyed and summarized more of the autobiographies — some of them quite extensively — with the support of an NEH grant. More recently, as part of the Gruss-Lipper Project, Rivka Schiller compiled the summaries done by Moshe Kligsberg, Rachel Wizner, and additional summaries by herself into English language inventory.
In 2019 the collection underwent additional processing as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project. At that time the materials were transferred to new acid-free folders, and an addendum was arranged. In addition, the following changes were made:
- - Newspaper clippings moved from folder 3529 to folder 3532
- - Notebook containing essays inserted into folder 3542
- - Notebook dated May 1938 inserted into folder 3631
- - Folder 3686A created to house material separated from folder 3686
- - Pages 257-259, 270-272 added to folder 3686A
- - 3 notebooks moved from folder 3761 to folder 3726A
- - 1 notebook moved from folder 3761 to folder 3686
- - Folder 3763A created to house material separated from folder 3763
- - Folder 3820A created to house material separated from folder 3820
- - Notebook containing pp. 143-158 added to folder 3870
- Adolescent psychology
- Autobiographies (literary works)
- Galicia (Poland and Ukraine)
- Jewish families
- Jewish youth
- Jewish youth -- Religious life
- Palestine -- History -- 1917-1948
- Poland -- Economic conditions -- 1918-1945
- Socialism and youth
- World War, 1914-1918
- Youth -- Employment -- Poland
- Youth -- Political activity
- Youth development
- Youth movements
- Guide to the Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland 1932-1939 RG 4
- Arranged by Moshe Kligsberg, Ezekiel Lifschutz and Rachel Wizner. Inventory translated and edited by Rivka Schiller in 2006. Additional arrangement, processing and description by Jessica Podhorcer in 2019.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English and Hebrew.
- Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional work funded by the Nash Family Foundation (2019-2020) and the Alice Lawrence Foundation (2019-2020).