Re:view: women’s graphic memoirs about World War II

The publication of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic memoir Maus (in book form in 1991) shook the literary and art world alike. Maus is an autobiographical story about the artist’s father before the war and during the Holocaust, his time in Auschwitz, and Spiegelman’s own attempts to come to terms with this tale of survival.

With its stark but evocative portrayal of Jewish people as mice, Nazis as cats, and Polish people as pigs, Maus represents the first attempt to marry the comic book, with its connotations of cheap and low-brow entertainment, to the deadly serious subject of the Holocaust. With post-traumatic stress disorder being recognized as a serious psychological condition in the 1980s, more and more memoirs began to appear in which Holocaust victims came to terms with their traumatic past. If they suffered because the Nazis thought them to be all alike – all subhuman – their revenge is visible in the hundreds of personal memoirs that have flooded the book market after the war, each an outcry to remember this individual, this story of survival, this particular form of rebellion against the Nazi extermination machine.

Graphic novels are an ever-growing genre, and it’s easy to see why artists would turn to  visual storytelling when it comes to depicting the Second World War, and the Holocaust especially. Images go a long way in helping us not simply to imagine the conditions in camps and ghettos, but the emotional impact of such an environment on an artist, in ways that text often cannot do. There is a surfeit of comic books and graphic novels about the big battles of the war, like the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day, as well as graphic adaptations of famous war books like Anne Frank’s diary. Personally, I am more interested in the graphic narratives that move away from battles and focus on the inner life of an artist during the Holocaust. As such, I have compiled a short list of works by female artists, narratives in which each artist approaches their art as a way of expressing their emotions about the war, moving beyond the objective recording of the events of the day. At the same time, the story being told is always larger than that of the individual writer or artist.

Nora Krug – Heimat (“Belonging”)

German artist Nora Krug (1977), who has lived in the US and the UK for nearly twenty years, has a forthcoming memoir about the war that is an excellent example of the ways in which the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors (also called second and third-generation Holocaust survivors) try to make sense of their family members’ past. Though she was born decades after the war, her childhood in Germany and family connections to the war – her grandparents lived through it, her uncle died while serving with the SS in Italy – prompted her to create a book that would help her understand her German identity. In an interview with The New Yorker, Krug explains what she as a German woman struggled with while creating the book. In recent years, the German population has begun to shift from feeling paralyzing guilt for their nation’s past to taking the responsibility to face up to it. Yet Germans still tend to reject any patriotic ideas about cultural belonging – the notion of identifying with a larger group whose values and ideas you share, which serves such an important purpose in American culture – because believing in an idea bigger than yourself is still too reminiscent of Nazi policy. In addition, there is the struggle to reclaim parts of German cultural heritage that were misappropriated by the Nazis, like traditional folk songs, that serve as an “emotional anchor” in her own life and that of other Germans.

Krug says she doesn’t believe in a “hierarchy” between visual art and writing; the two are all the more effective when combined. “[It] allowed me to jump between the present and the past, the factual and the poetic, the documentary and the imagined. My goal was not to translate the writing into images but to use pictures to give the reader a more emotional access into the narrative.”

Joyce Cairns – War Tourist

When I was in Edinburgh a few years ago, I picked up a picture book by Scottish artist Joyce Cairns (1947), entitled War Tourist. Though not a graphic novel, War Tourist is a book highlighting a series of paintings about the war and the artist’s father, who served as a major in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlander regiment in Tunisia and Normandy during the war. Cairns retraced her father’s steps and also visited several concentration camps, which proved vital for her to begin to address her own beliefs about the war. Her works show a concern to incorporate all the different facets about the war, not just her or her father’s experiences. They are incredibly detailed and full of small objects and mementoes, what Jennifer Melville in the foreword calls “the minutiae of war”. Cairns explains: “My only tangible links to that past are through inherited objects and how I wish that they would at least speak to me now.” These objects depict not just the conflict but also the various ways in which we remember it today, such as gravestones, poppy wreaths, information leaflets, souvenirs and toys. Together these “reveal the significance of the individual” in a global conflict. By zooming in on people’s belongings and reintroducing them in the environment they were removed from, Cairns stitches the past and the present together and reminds us of the ugliness and devastation of war.

“My own dominant figure,” Cairns says, who often paints herself wearing a sunhat and a camera, “is the ‘war tourist’ epitomising compassion, loneliness, despair, terror, pain or even death.” Her paintings often combine what she saw while visiting the sites and the events that took place there during the war, putting her own figure, sometimes accompanied by her father’s ghost, in the middle of battle. Painting her father, she says, “is my way of involving him, not only as a companion, but also as a witness in these other theatres of war.” She states that she never intended to depict the Holocaust, feeling she couldn’t “even begin to portray the suffering, torture, barbarity and genocide which the Nazis inflicted”, but that the belongings of prisoners on display in concentration camps made her feel that by painting them she could “perhaps made a contribution to the remembrance of their owners”. By emphasizing the individual versus the mass, an important theme in war memoirs, Cairns aims to preserve the memory of people with their own thoughts and experiences, not simply cogs in the war machine.

More information about War Tourist and the paintings can be found here on Cairns’ website.

Charlotte Salomon – Leben? Oder Theater? (“Life? Or Theatre?”)

The German Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) sought refuge with her grandparents in France in 1938, at which point she began the work that would take up the last years of her life until her death in Auschwitz. Leben? Oder Theater? comprises more than 800 gouache paintings in which the artists retells her life as a painted theatre play, with a cast of colourful characters, music cues and a third-person voiceover. With this work, Salomon tried to make sense of the Nazi threat that was spreading over Europe and of her own identity and family, focusing on her grandmother’s suicide at the outbreak of the war. With her own mother having committed suicide when Charlotte was a child, she panics at the thought that she herself must have suicidal tendencies just waiting to come to the surface.

Leben? Oder theater? is the first graphic memoir about the war I learned about. A few years ago a new book was published, worth more than 100 euros, showing her entire work from start to finish, and I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of all the gouaches at the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam earlier this year. Like Cairns, many of Salomon’s paintings show a collapsing of past and present, using skewed perspectives and a sensitivity to colour use to merge emotions, memories and thought processes with contemporary events. Salomon has painted in the storyline, sometimes covering whole pages in text, incorporating her own narrative, the thoughts of other people, music lyrics and quotations to weave herself into the fabric of history.

The entire work can be viewed online here.

Susan Goldman Robin – Fireflies in the dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin

Fireflies in the Dark tells the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an Austrian Jewish avant-garde artist who attended the famous Bauhaus art school in Weimar. In 1934, after a right-wing putsch, she moved to the Czech countryside, where she married and taught art to Austrian refugee children as a form of therapy. Upon discovery in 1942, she and her husband were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, which served as the Nazis’ model concentration camp and housed mostly Jewish intellectuals. Living in a small room at the top of the building that housed the young girls of the ghetto, she was permitted to give art classes and lectures as part of a clandestine education programme. One of her students recalled that “Her room was full of the most beautiful paintings of flowers on the wall. She had covered the wall with a blue sheet and over this, her paintings. This little room became a wonderland, something that made us feel we have the greatest teacher.” By teaching them to draw, she encouraged the children to embrace their individuality and express their emotions about their situation and their environment, using art as therapy. Evidently, what was most on the children’s minds was home: houses, rivers, trees, swimming pools, families and animals. Trains also make a frequent appearance, not surprising since they are such a powerful Holocaust symbol.

Friedl was deported to Birkenau in 1944, along with most of the children she taught, but left behind two suitcases in the ghetto containing some 4,500 drawings. After the war, the drawings became part of the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, where part of the collection can also be viewed onlineFireflies in the Dark tells Friedl’s story in text and photographs of the drawings she and the children made. It’s an uplifting story about the power of art in dealing with trauma.

Bernice Eisenstein – I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors

An addiction, Bernice Eisenstein calls her growing interest in the Holocaust and those who survived it, including her parents, which began when she was a child. “I will discover there is no end to the dealers I can find for one more hit.” In the unambiguously named I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, which in art style and title evokes 1950s pulp fiction, the Canadian writer and artist relates what it means to come to terms with being a second-generation Holocaust survivor, alternately using the fact to barter for sympathy or pity and trying to fathom the extent of the damage to her parents’ identities. Growing up in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, she feels an outsider among her parents and their European friends, knowing that she has missed out on something they all shared. “There is no centre to be found in memory,” Eisenstein concludes; she cannot pinpoint what lies at the heart of their trauma. She becomes possessed by a desire to fill in the blanks: “Knowing that the Holocaust happened wasn’t enough; I needed to know what it had done to my parents.” Her father’s figure looms larger in particular: she describes the angry moods he was prone to and his love of American western movies, picturing him as a sheriff who wears the star of David as a sheriff’s badge and returns to Auschwitz to bring vengeance upon the Germans and liberate the prisoners. At the same time, the book meditates on the trouble with memory, loss, and recovery of the past in a broader context.

A 15-minute animated version of the novel can be viewed here on Youtube.


Further reading

I have not yet read the following graphic memoirs, but they are on my list.

  •  Miriam Katin – We Are on Our Own
    Katin retells the story of her and her mother’s escape on foot from the Nazi invasion of Budapest, and her lifelong struggle to overcome her childhood traum and regain her faith in the humanity.
  • Amy Kurzweil – Flying Couch
    “What does it means to be part of a family, and how does each generation bear the imprint of the past, its traumas and its gifts?” A third-generation survivor’s perspective on the lives of her mother and her grandmother, who escaped the Warsaw ghetto disguised as a gentile.
  • Rutu Modan – The Property
    A graphic novel about history, Jewishness and the significance of places of memory/ A woman and her Polish refugee grandmother travel from Tel Aviv to Warsaw, where they witness the intertwining of past and present at Holocaust sites.

Do you have anything to add to this list? Let us know!

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