Killing Them Softly (Extract)

Political cartoonist Michel Kichka shows restraint when going after his targets, even Holocaust deniers

23kichka88 (photo credit: )
23kichka88
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Holocaust denier and arch foe of Israel, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struggles unsuccessfully to erase the concentration camp number tattooed on the forearm of an elderly man, who tells him simply, "It's indelible." In this pen-and-ink drawing by Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka, published last year, the elderly Jewish man depicted is the artist's father, a Holocaust survivor who thwarts the Iranian leader's attempts to deny the existence of the Holocaust. "My caricatures are usually softer, more forgiving, but in this case I just had to act," says Kichka, who was prompted to make the drawing in the wake of a 2006 Holocaust cartoon contest, organized by the Iranian government and its largest daily Tehran newspaper, Hamshahri, in which 204 entries were hung to deride Jews and mock the Holocaust. First prize was $12,000. "Do you see all the sweat pouring off Ahmadinejad's face? This shows how it is impossible to wipe out the truth of the Holocaust," says Kichka, whose father, Henri, was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, while his mother, Lucia, was a refugee in Switzerland during the war. The cartoon is one of a myriad of stinging drawings penned by the 54-year-old Belgian-born artist, who immigrated to Israel in 1974 and, in January, received the Dosh Family Award for lifetime achievement in comic art. His works - which cover a wide range of topics from politics to ecology to sports and entertainment - have been published in a slew of Hebrew-, French- and English-language newspapers and periodicals around the world through syndication. The artist's name (pronounced kish-ka) brings to mind the Yiddish kishkes, meaning intestines or "guts." This suits him well, he says, because he sees himself as one who gets to the kishkes of his viewers. One of the ways the primarily freelance cartoonist reaches his viewers is through his Holocaust-related drawings. To mark the 64th anniversary of Auschwitz Liberation Day (January 27, 1945) last month, he exhibited a work at the Cartoon Conference in Nantes, France. "I drew my father and me walking in the naked forests with snow upon the ground and silhouettes of trees in the background. In this imaginary conversation, I say to my father, 'What made you survive the death march?' He answers, 'The possibility of a life march.'" Henri Kichka, 82, is a widower who presently lives in Brussels, Belgium. Like his son, the elder Kichka has produced works on the Holocaust. In 2004, he published his memoirs, " My Teenage Years Lost in the Night of the Camps" (Broché), in which he discusses the "daily horrors of his life," according to his son. "When I was growing up, we didn't speak about his camp experiences," says Michel, "but now that the work has come out, he is more open about the subject." Henri is well known in Brussels, says Michel. "Practically once a week, he goes to schools to talk about his life in Auschwitz and visits there with groups three or four times per year." In another cartoon, Kichka shows discredited British revisionist historian David Irving who launched an unsuccessful libel suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt, and was found by an English court to be an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semite and racist. "I did a cartoon showing him in England telling the judge, 'I deny that I deny.' Kichka was already hooked on the comic book tradition of his native Belgium by the time he arrived in Israel as a young man of 20, and he was determined to make it his career. "My style is based on the Western European tradition, influenced more by French and Belgian than by English cartoons. Belgium was a superpower of comic strip art," he says, pointing out some of the great characters of that comic tradition including Tin-Tin, Lucky Luc and later, the Smurfs. "The comics that are today considered classics were all being born when I was a kid in Liege in the mid-1950s. I was reading them in real time, when they were hot off the press. I knew then that I wanted to do this." Arriving in Jerusalem, he enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. In 1974, teaching cartooning at Bezalel was in its rudimentary stages, a situation that began to change when Kichka himself, shortly after his graduation, started to teach there. "I've been a teacher at Bezalel 27 years now, a veteran," he says with a certain sense of fulfillment. Kichka is a very affable fellow who looks far younger than his 54 years with his dark hair, smooth complexion and lively brown eyes that work in tandem with his easy smile. He is a cornucopia of Gallic charm. Fluent in French, English and Hebrew, he speaks softly in short sentences. "When you shout, no one listens," he says, uttering what could be the maxim for much of his work. "Michel hugs everybody, even terrorists [in his drawings]. He shows sympathy and is slow to anger. He can be bitter, sad and ironic, but never hostile," says his colleague, Jerusalem Report staff artist Avi Katz, referring to the gentle manner of Kichka. Kichka states he showed restraint in his criticisms of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Even though the people who lead us should be our targets, we should refrain from too-easy targets," he says. "Michel is full of good spirits with or without a cartoon," adds Israeli cartoon historian Dan Pattir, who curated the recent exhibition, "2008 - the Year that Was," at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon, where Kichka's cartoons are currently on display. Kichka is probably best known for a series of drawings that came to be known as his "Crowded Pictures," which he started in 1978 to celebrate 30 years of Israeli statehood. Completed in 1981, they are large works (20in x 25in), which show the cityscapes of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem enlivened by the beehive activity of their residents, scurrying about, working, dawdling, arguing, littering, etc., "showing the bad in a funny way," Kichka says. (He admits a kinship to Pieter Breughel, a 16th-century Flemish artist who popularized the motif of small anonymous figures going on about their mischief in large public places like town squares or frozen canals.) His work attracted the attention of Rolnik Publishers in Israel who turned Kichka's crowded scenes, which also included metropolises like Athens, New York and London and one unforgettable scene aboard an El Al flight in 1981, into calendars, posters, puzzles and post cards, bringing him an international reputation as well as financial success. One of his own favorites is "A Clean Beach," playfully revealing, he says, "how Israelis act against nature." He has depicted them littering, shouting, gorging, smoking and infringing on each other's space. Those works were created via many preliminary sketches, in which Kichka shuffled figures around the paper as on a chessboard until he was satisfied with the placement. "This method works well for the methodical artist," he says, "but I was looking for greater spontaneity." From 1997 through 2005, Kichka had the opportunity to indulge his passion for spontaneity when he appeared on a morning TV news show on Israel's Channel 2. At the beginning of the show, he was assigned a topical issue on which to base a cartoon. Throughout the hour-long program, he stood at his easel, absorbed in his work. At the end of the program, he would reveal his completed drawing to the viewers. "I had to depend a lot on inspiration because I never knew beforehand what they would ask me to draw," he says. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.