Comic appeal

One of the first comic strips to feature a child’s perspective on the Holocaust appeared in 1980 with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus.”

A page from ‘Hummaus’ by cartoonist Uri Fink (photo credit: URI FINK)
A page from ‘Hummaus’ by cartoonist Uri Fink
(photo credit: URI FINK)
Comics is hardly the format that springs to mind when one thinks of the Holocaust. Comics are too superficial, too much fun, too gross to relay such an atrocity. And yet, since the turn of the century, more and more Holocaust comics are appearing around the globe.
An exhibition displaying and explaining this trend is currently on show at the Israel Museum of Caricatures and Comics in Holon. Entitled “A Million and A Half – Childhood in the Holocaust Through the Prism of Comics,” the exhibition is curated by Michal Paz-Klapp, who herself has a family connection to the period.
“My grandfather fled Europe just before the rise of the Nazis,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “Just after the war, he returned to Europe to bring children here (Israel). So this exhibition is a sort of extension of that process. The stories he brought back with him have stayed with me all my life.” 
Indeed, the decision to emphasize the role of children in the Holocaust is not happenstance. “In Israel, except for some small circles who knew about the murder of one and a  half million children during the course of the war, this did not register much,” says Paz-Klapp. “I wanted to focus on this population, in part, of course, to attract young people. Comics are, perhaps, the best means to realize this.
“Not that the exhibition is only for young people, but there is a strong need to bring the younger generation closer to this dark passage of our history. Comics can stimulate their interest more than other media. They tell the story of the period not through abstractions but rather through individuals. It is easier for young people to identify with the characters and to understand better the challenges they faced.”
One of the first comic strips to feature a child’s perspective on the Holocaust appeared in 1980 with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus.” Prior to this, there had been few attempts to describe the Holocaust, or the role of children in it, in comic terms. “Maus” focused on the author’s relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor. The novel showed the connection between childhood and the Holocaust. Not only does his father experience the war as a child but his son, Art, is deeply traumatized by the war that his parents experienced. 
The Israeli Zionist establishment was highly ambivalent about the Holocaust, at times claiming that Jews had not attempted to defend themselves and had been passive victims. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Israelis started producing comic books on this period. By the year 2000, there was a major trend of comic books around the world, including Israel, which comprised autobiographical stories, comics for a Christian audience and works for the Orthodox Jewish community.
As Dr. Ben Baruch Blich describes this phenomenon in one of the accompanying catalogue booklets: “Comics dealing with the Holocaust oscillate between three poles: historical testimony, biographical and confessional.” Examples of all these trends are manifest on the exhibition walls.
Space is given to “Maus” as well as to “Hummaus,” which was a sort of homage and borrowing of the “Maus” saga, by Israeli artist Uri Fink. In both, the heroes of the plot are metamorphosed into animals, which gives a wide span for the artists to tell their stories in ways that are both attractive graphically as well as powerful retellings of the Holocaust history in personal terms.
In “Maus,” for example, the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs and the Russians bears. Though this may seem a little schematic, it does work in discussing sensitive issues such as trauma, family and the place of the individual in society.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, there are many comics that tell the stories of children before, during and after the Holocaust. Some are realistic and relate the murders of young people, some are adventure stories telling of daring escapes or of children involved in fighting the Nazis. Others are fantasies, telling of life “if only.” Most of these stories do not show corpses, which was the standard practice, until the late Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah,” in which survivors were interviewed without recourse to archival footage of the atrocities. Similarly here, the comics show the life of the children even as they undergo the exigencies of the period without too many graphic references to the concentration camps.
Special mention should be made of Ivan Polak, a boy from Czechoslovakia who commandeered a number of youngsters like himself between the ages of 12-14 to edit a handmade comic while they were incarcerated in the Teresienstadt Ghetto. Their comic, “Comrade,” had 22 issues, with Polak both editing and illustrating.  Incredibly, it did not deal with the obvious deprivations they were suffering, but in it they sought to entertain each other with stories of courage and even of race car competitions.
A catalog translating the original Czech into Hebrew is a fitting memorial to these brave children who remained children, despite the appalling situation that ended in their deaths. What makes the “Comrade” series particularly poignant is the juxtaposition of the children’s innocent and playful writing and drawing with the excruciating end they were about to face. 
The most famous young person’s story from this period is that of Anne Frank. Her story gained international recognition in 1947, when some of her diary was published and became a world bestseller. It was turned into a comic as early as 1959, and between 1962 and 1972, three different versions of her story were published in comic form. Frank became a symbol of the victims of the Second World War and even the Japanese (who were on the side of the Nazis) identified with her against the background of the horrors of Hiroshima. In 2017, Ari Folman and David Polonsky published Anne Frank: The Graphic Diary, which was faithful to the original diary.
Other survivors’ stories came to the fore in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, where a new attitude toward them became apparent. Comic artists recognized the possibility of focusing on tales of heroism, rescue and survival, rather than on the more obvious narrative of victimization. Contemporary survivors were once children who had displayed remarkable courage as they fought, resisted, and hid, and thus triumphed over the Nazi enemies. 
It is, perhaps, this aspect that brought religious artists to deal with the metaphysical issues raised by the Holocaust. In these heroic stories, they could depict wondrous deeds of salvation, even divine intervention. Some of these tales highlight the stories of heroism at the expense of the bigger picture. A graphic novel by Joe Kubert called Yossel, published in 2003, confronts this issue in that the hero is eventually killed, despite the show of courage in the Warsaw ghetto (where much of the action takes place).
Here is a recreation of what might have happened had the author’s parents not escaped from Europe before the war and allowed the author/artist to grow up in the relative comfort of America. His feelings of guilt, however, are palpable. His graphic novel is a compilation of all the rumors and fairy tales he heard growing up. To an extent, Yossel is an attempt to expunge this history, or, at least, to present a way of coping with the stories from his childhood.
Distance from the period also allowed artists to look at more problematic issues of the period, such as the nature of the perpetrators themselves. Thus Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell in their 1989 comic, The New Adventures of Hitler, depict Hitler’s youth as one of extreme deprivation, and him as the victim of paternal violence, who transfers his traumas onto others as an adult. Without absolving Hitler from his sins, the comic raises the central question of how we can avoid the recurrence of such a series of events.
This historical perspective is further underlined by the number of comics now written by or about the second and third generation of survivors. These often tell of the reluctance of the survivors to speak about their experiences, and how they finally revealed something of their terrifying times.
Among the more prominent of these stories is that told by Michel Kichka. His book, Deuxieme Generation (2012), tells of his family’s history in Belgium before, during and after the war. These and similar comics produced by both Jews and non-Jews are particularly relevant nowadays, when similar atrocities are being carried out in many countries and for similar reasons. They stand as a reminder of the courage that human beings possess and can use when confronted with radical evil. The supposedly juvenile format of the comic book, it turns out, can be used for a deeply serious purpose.
The Holon exhibition runs until the beginning of May, a day after the International Free Comic Book Day.