Sunday, February 12, 2006

YIVO's Autobiography Contest of 1942

The autobiographies in My Future Is in America were chosen for inclusion out of over 200 manuscripts in the American Autobiographies Collection (RG 104) at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In 1942, under the direction of Max Weinreich, YIVO's director of research and its guiding intellectual light, the institute sponsored a contest for the best autobiography by a Jewish immigrant on the theme, "Why I Left the Old Country and What I Have Accomplished in America." Twenty-five contestants won prizes based on their percision, clarity, and attention to detail.

Written mostly in Yiddish (90%), and mostly by men (80%), the collection nonetheless includes voices from across the social spectrum of immigrant life. The writers came to the U.S. in every decade from the 1880s through the 1940s, from all parts of eastern Europe (and beyond) to settle throughout the United States. They are workers and housewives, professionals and business men, and, yes, even a few writers. One important reason for the presence of workers' and women's stories in the collection is the endorsement of the national Jewish labor organization, Arbeter Ring/Workmen's Circle, which enthusiastically encouraged its members to submit their autobiographies. Dr. Weinreich also corresponded extensively with prospective writers, to convince them of the historical importance of their stories.

In the late 1990s, YIVO received a grant from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture to create a finding aid for the American Autobiographies Collection and to create this anthology.

YIVO conducted three autobiography contests for Jewish youth in the 1920s and 30s, when it was based in Vilna, Lithuania. Some of these stories are included in Awakening Lives, edited by Jeffrey Shandler and published by Yale University Press, 2002.