The Double Voice Structuring of Content and Form of Polish-Jewish Women's Autobiographies of the 1930s

Toby W. Clyman, State University of New York, Albany

In the 1930s IVO (The Jewish Historical Society) in Wilno sent out invitations to East European Jewish Youth urging them to submit their life stories for competition. Explaining the reasons behind this competition IVO's flyers read: "The youth of today is different from the generation that came before them. Their place in society is also different. To determine what these differences are, to understand it all, we need to hear from the youth themselves." More than nine hundred young men and women, ages of 15 to 21, submitted their autobiographies in response to IVO's invitations. Three hundred of these, written in Yiddish, Polish and a few in Hebrew were recovered in the 1970s.

Since these youth autobiographies became available to the public, scholars have made considerable use of these valuable texts. However, none to my knowledge has examined these narratives through the lance of gender. Yet, all self-reflexive writing is gendered.

Focusing on the women's autobiographies, I show the extent to which these female autobiographers are conscious of how the public reads them as women and how this awareness shapes their autobiographical project. That is, in the process of constructing a self, these young Polish-Jewish women reflect themselves in the public mirror, and the engendered negative self they see reflected in it competes with the culturally idealized image of self they try to inscribe in their autobiography; the tension between these two competing self-presentations (how they see themselves and how they wish to be perceived) marks and shapes the content and form of their autobiography.