The comic strip, once derided as literature’s perversion, has been a legitimate form of artistic expression for at least 40 years, ever since Will Eisner’s critically acclaimed A Contract with God told the stories of Jewish immigrants in New York’s tenements.
Norwegian illustrator and children’s writer Mikael Holmberg’s November 26th also uses this genre to tell Jewish history. Only his work is not about a contract with God, but with Satan, namely Nazi Germany, with which Norway’s fascist leader Vidkun Quisling struck a pact akin to Faust’s with Mephistopheles.
Despite the evolution of the comic strip, now widely respected as “the ninth art,” and even after Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir Maus won a Pulitzer, the Holocaust remains pretty much the last thing that comes to our minds when we think of Spiderman, Superwoman, Dilbert, or the rest of this genre’s minutely penciled protagonists.
Moreover, once fused by Spiegelman in the 1980s, the genre and its improbable theme proved a hypersensitive combination, sparking charges that Maus was fatalistic and the artist’s graphic choices – Jews depicted as mice, Poles as pigs – served the very racism he had set out to decry.
Holmberg stumbles into no such pitfalls. November 26th
has no pretensions of tackling issues as complex as the Holocaust’s historic roots or the troubled father-son relationship that underpins Maus, clouded by a survivor-father’s remarriage after his survivor-wife’s suicide.
Instead, Holmberg’s visitation of the Holocaust’s most forgotten corner is painfully realistic and compact. It sticks to the facts in a strictly documentary fashion based on four Norwegian survivors’ testimonies, replete with names of ordinary people and remote locations as well as dates, beginning with the one in the book’s title, the day when Norwegian police set out to arrest every Norwegian Jew.
The Holocaust’s northernmost extent was about a collaborationist government’s targeting of its Jewish citizens, a community smaller than 2,500 – hardly a fraction of a single shtetl like the hundreds that vanished in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.
Curiously, that marginality is what makes Norway’s story – and Holmberg’s depictions – telling: A detective in a trench coat and Borsalino, à la Clark Kent, leading nighttime arrests in Oslo while holding a detailed address list; a nondescript man in a colorless suit and red tie announcing on national radio his fascistic takeover of his country; Norwegian teenagers harassing Jewish kids in a schoolyard; and a chugging train carrying Jews to Oslo Fjord, where a tall, black cruiser awaits to ship them to Stettin, whence they will proceed to Auschwitz, where 742 Norwegian Jews died and fewer than three dozen survived. Added up, these scenes become a microcosm of how the Nazis industrialized murder.
The Norwegian Holocaust tested ordinary Norwegians’ conduct while their government hounded their Jewish neighbors. The test’s results were mixed.
On the one hand, the Norwegian underground smuggled to Sweden some 900 Jews, more than the number that perished. On the other, in nearby Denmark, the Nazis managed to lasso hardly 5% of its Jews, as more than 7,000 were smuggled to Sweden.
The book depicts both the Norwegians who risked their lives to save Jews and those who helped hunt them. That three of the book’s four witnesses escaped to Sweden, and only one takes the reader into Auschwitz and its inferno, reflects the statistical fact that most Norwegian Jews successfully fled to Sweden, thanks to Norwegian heroes.
Still, with current-day Scandinavia rattled by neo-fascists on the Right and anti-Zionists on the Left, November 26th is a priceless reminder of how misleading Nordic tranquility can be.
The need to familiarize young Norwegians, Swedes and also Danes with the Holocaust in general, and in their own region in particular – has never been more urgent.
Young Scandinavians exposed to Holocaust denial, BDS propaganda and anti-Israeli broadsides from Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom cannot be realistically expected to ever read Yehuda Bauer’s History of the Holocaust, or take the time to watch Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.
A work like Holmberg’s, which charts in graphic detail and factual precision the path that led from Nordic suburbia to Hell’s pit, is built to reach, and remain etched, not only in a young Scandinavian’s mind, but in any young millennial’s.
Yes, this book is not about the invention of a genre nor is it about unearthing unknown facts; it is not meant to be such. Rather, it presents facts to an under-informed audience through a medium that is a thousand times more vivid and intelligible than the voluminous research the Holocaust has produced.
As such, November 26th
is not only a timely reminder of an increasingly restless Scandinavia’s traumatic past, but also a useful antidote to Holocaust ignorance worldwide.