When Art Spiegelman first proposed Maus, his two-volume graphic novel about the Holocaust, people asked how he could tackle a subject so dark, weighty and personal with comics. I think a more important question is: What happens if we don’t? How many stories will be lost? How many young people will lose the opportunity to comprehend this period of history without an accessible visual medium?
Many survivors and their children have turned their stories into written narratives, films and visual art. Moderated by Stephen Smith, Director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, a panel of artists and writers took on these questions.
Miriam Katin is an artist and a survivor. When the Nazis occupied her hometown of Budapest, her family was ordered into a ghetto. But her mother wisely got them out of the city with false papers. In her book, We Are on Our Own, her drawings are black & white with the red of the Nazi flag as the only splash of color.
Dina Babbitt survived through her artwork. Color photography was not easily available in those days, and so the infamous Dr. Mengele commissioned Babbitt to paint the skin tones and physiognomies of various kinds of people in order to categorize them.
Sandy Scheller is the daughter of a local survivor, Ruth Sax z’’l. She is the author of her mother’s memoir, Try to Remember; Never Forget and the curator of RUTH (Remember Us, The Holocaust) a permanent exhibit at the Chula Vista Library. Scheller spoke about Nazi propaganda. The Poisonous Mushroom was a children’s picture book teaching them to fear and hate the Jews. The book asserts that just as it is difficult to tell an edible mushroom from a poisonous toadstool, it can be difficult to tell a safe Aryan from a conniving Jew.
Esther Finder elucidated how art was also used to motivate Americans to support the war effort. The beloved Dr. Seuss used his pen to speak out against isolation and racism. He did not pull punches comparing then presidential candidate Charles Lindbergh, a known Nazi sympathizer, to Joseph Goebbels. It’s also worth noting that Dr. Seuss was particularly critical of the phrase “America First.”
Matt Dunford spoke at length about Jack Kirby (aka Jacob Kurtzman), the comic book pioneer who created Captain America. The cover of the very first issue of Captain America features the hero socking Hitler in the jaw. And this came out before the US was even directly engaged in the war. Once we were in it, Jack Kirby signed up. Failing miserably as a rifleman, Kirby was sent behind enemy lines as a scout to draw what he saw there.
You can watch the whole panel discussion via this website.
There are numerous resources available through the USC Shoah Foundation. And you don’t have to be a fan of comics to appreciate the invaluable gifts of insight and personal experience that these many artists and storytellers have to offer.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World