A blog a day for a month challenge: Day 25
So I cannot let 'blog month' pass without at least one comic book review and I have to say that this is a very fine specimen indeed. From UK independent publishing house Self Made Hero comes 'We Won't See Auschwitz'. I have always had a penchant for Holocaust literature since studying it in a module as part of my degree. However, it was Art Spiegleman’s ‘Maus’ that had always had the greatest impact on me. So I was extremely excited by the opportunity to read something that revisits the effects of the holocaust in modern day Poland and the unrelinquishing grip it still has over Polish society today.
We Won’t See Auschwitz. Written and illustrated by Jeremie Dres. Translated by Edward Gauvin. Published by Selfmadehero 2012.
‘Auschwitz: five years of annihilation for more than a thousand years of life and history of the Jewish people of Poland. A trauma still so real it threatens to make us forget everything else. It’s the everything else that I went looking for' (from back cover)
This is the true account of 2 Parisian brothers of Jewish heritage, set in present day, who decide to retrace their Grandmother’s Yiddish roots by visiting her pre holocaust home in Warsaw. Their aim is not only to try and rediscover her family, but also the history of Jews in Poland after the holocaust, but without the obligatory trip to Polish Jewish history's tragic focal point: Auschwitz.
The story begins with the writer, after the death of his grandmother Therese, debating whether to make this journey. His family urge him to go on a trip that appears to be on all their unfulfilled agendas, although he is given a stark warning to beware of the Poles and their deep rooted anti semitism. His older brother Martin also decides to join him.
We quickly discover some eye opening facts about Poland since the war. As result of Nazi destruction, just 15% of Warsaw retained it’s original buildings by the end of the war and was rebuilt in 1949, based on the 18th century paintings by Canaletto. However the ghetto, considered a poorer area, was not rebuilt and nothing was put in place to commemorate what happened.
‘Before the holocaust, Poland ranked second among countries in terms of a Jewish population (three and a half million). It was the cradle of Yiddish culture, which spread throughout Europe’. After the war there were 300,000 and currently as few as 5,000 Jews living in Poland.
The two brothers talk to as many Polish Jews from a variety of organisations and different levels of faith. These include Zoom, for Jews under the age of 35 and the TSKZ, one of the oldest and, at one point, the only Jewish organisation in Poland. There is no doubt that, even 60 years after the end of the second world war, Judaeo-Polish relations are still strained and of course, it’s complicated. They touch on historian Dariusz Libionka, who compared the collaboration in Poland to the Vichy regime.
They also talk about the effects of the 6 day War in March 1968, between then Communist Egypt and Israel. Poland was allied with Egypt and as a result of Polish anti semitism, a further 25,000 Jews fled Poland.
There are a selection of beautiful light bulb and brick wall hitting moments as Martin and Jeremie slowly but surely find traces of their Jewish family in the now derelict cemeteries, registry offices and interviews conducted with leading figures of numerous grass roots organisations that have sprung up to assist those still searching for their families in the aftermath of the holocaust.
We hear some heartbreaking conversations where Jews living in Poland today describe the volume of people returning to there on a daily basis in pursuit of their lost relatives.
The story overall is a stimulating and surprisingly uplifting read with many themes running throughout: a brotherhood rediscovered and restored in the ubiquitous 'road trip’, a family history veiled by the tragic events of the holocaust rediscovered and a factual report of the effects of the anti semitic ethnic cleansing, that seemed to come from all angles even after the fall of the Nazis.
The artwork is plain, black and white, fine-line drawing, in pen and ink. It’s rough, childishly simple yet accomplished in it’s style and structure. Sometimes I had difficulty distinguishing the characters, however this was more down to the sheer volume of people you meet throughout the story, rather than the artists inability to create strong characters figuratively. The lettering is also the same, written in charmingly sloping freehand. At the end there is a delightfully gratifying portfolio of black and white family portraits of the Dres family, showing the real faces of the people the 2 brothers rediscovered on their journey.
Ultimately this is yet another stunning piece of journalistic comic art. The style harks beautifully to Marjane Sartrapi or the leader in this field (in my view), artist and graphic novelist Joe Sacco. Like Sacco's analysis of Palestine and Gaza, this book raises some uncomfortable questions about modern day anti semitism and xenophobia. After reading the book I realised how naive I was about the lasting impact from the sheer destruction of families during the holocaust. I had always thought that even those who perished were at least accounted for, their place of rest identified and their family tree re constructed, if only on paper. However, there is still a harrowing magnitude of unanswered questions that will always remain in the ashes of the holocaust. Yet the splinters of Jewish faith and race that remain in Poland will continue to slowly but surely piece themselves back together.
If you like this….
Pyongyang: A journey in North Korea - Guy Delisle
Joe Sacco: Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, Journalism, most recently The Great War.
Marjane Satrapi ‘Persepolis’, 'Chicken with Plums'