Yulian I. Rafes
The Way We Were Before Our Destruction
Lives of Jewish students from Vilna who perished during the Holocaust
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
In this book, Dr. Rafes has compiled the school
compositions of his high-school classmates in Vilna and added his own narration. Rather than
memoirs, the use of compositions written at the time by these young people gives the spirit of the
youth, their hopes for the future that too many of them would not live to see. And there is no better
way to recreate the atmosphere of the 1930's than to read these.
After the war, the author, himself a former student at this high school, found the legacy of his
classmates in Vilnius archives: compositions written in school papers, essays, photos, report cards, and
many other very interesting materials. Thus, he decided to let them tell about themselves. They present
themselves to us to any young people all over the world: inquisitive, restless, romantic, mischievous. They
behaved like any other youngsters in school. Those youths who perished did not differ from the rest. Why
did they perish? They were Jews, and for this reason alone, they were denied by the Nazis the right to
live. In this book, they are alive, they study, play tricks, debate, get A's and C's, join fraternities, travel, fall in
love, publish journals and newspapers unique even for their time.
Every student, teacher, principal, pedagogue can find in these documents and papers things that are revealing of our school
life, can find something interesting and instructive for them. But most important for all students is that after reading this book, they
will understand that those innocent youngsters who perished were the same as them. Those horrible events could happen again if
we do not fight human hatred, anti–Semitism and terrorism, which in the atomic age could be devastating to the human race. That
is why this book could serve as a textbook for students and teachers for extracurricular activities, which could have a tremendous
influence in bringing up the younger generation and could benefit all of us.
It is important to remember that while the story of the Holocaust is relatively well known, the life of
Jews in pre–war Eastern Europe has rarely been told. These school compositions give the flavor of a facet
of this life. In many ways, this life was ordinary, but as someone wise has said, as long as we speak of the
number of 6 million, we are speaking of zeroes. The only way to grasp what happened to express it
intelligibly, is to talk about specific, real human beings. And this is what the author has accomplished.
"YIVO is committed to documenting, teaching and reconstructing the civilization of "Ashkenaz" - the
languages, literature, history and culture of our forebears. Our very purpose is to breathe life into the
vanished world that preceded the destruction. Dr. Rafes's work is an unusually poignant and human
contribution to that effort." (Dr. Allan Nadler, Director of Research, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)
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