The Holocaust in Graphic Novel

It took a while for scholars to take Maus (a graphic novel of the Holocaust) seriously. After all, delving into Holocaust themes through the lens of a comic book may at first seem in bad taste. But Spiegelman established an important avenue of artistic expression.

This kind of expression is captured anew in I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. She uses a combination of illustrations and narrative to help move the story along. For those who wish to learn more about the Holocaust or for those who are marrying into a survivor’s family, this could be one way to enter the topic. It might be particularly relevant for those of other religious backgrounds whose new Jewish partner or spouse has lived with the Holocaust his or her entire life.


  1. How timely your post is.

    I was just thinking about Bernice and this book.

    Those of you who are in the Toronto area this upcoming Labour Day weekend can meet Bernie in person and hear her talk about her work. Cartoonist New Yorkers Ben Katchor and Stan Mack will also be here that weekend. The 3 of them are on the program of Ashkenaz : A Festival of New Yiddish Culture.

    2 of the events are free and the 3rd just costs $10.00 (Canadian dollars).

    For more details, please go to :


    Comment by Steven M. Bergson — August 18, 2006 @ 3:21 pm

  2. Thanks, Steve–and thanks for the link to your wonderful blog (click on his name, folks!).

    Graphic novels are a powerful and compelling way to learn about the Jewish experience–for non-Jews and for Jews alike. In a course last year (from Shtetl to Superheroes in Modern Jewish Literature) I taught not only Spiegelman’s Maus but also Will Eisner’s autobiographical To The Heart of the Storm, which takes us from his New York City childhood (and his parents’ immigrant sagas in flashback) to the eve of his being drafted to fight in WWII. Most of my students were not Jewish, and they were drawn in by both story and art.

    Both Maus and Eisner’s various stories of Jewish life in America also depict intermarriage, and the issues of boundaries and identity that can draw an inclusive circle that count non-Jews in or an exclusive one that counts the Jewish partner out. Two examples:

    In Maus, once Art has established his scheme of drawing Jews as mice and Germans as cats (plus Americans as dogs, etc.), we see him struggling with how to draw his French-born wife, Francoise: as a frog? a poodle? She’s incredulous: “A mouse of course!”–she converted to marry him, so in her eyes she’s as much as mouse as any other Jew. (She wins: the Francoise who speaks these words is indeed drawn as a mouse like her husband and father-in-law.)

    By contrast, in To the Heart of the Storm, young Willie is confused as to why his aunt Goldie is being told to hurry up for Mass with uncle Frank: isn’t she Jewish, like him? She may have converted to Catholicism to marry him, but even Frank doesn’t think that changes much. “Underneath, shes still a Jew…ycant change the stripes on a zebra! You and your folks are the good kind of Jews.

    In each case, the identity that the person has chosen for her partner’s sake (as Jew, as Catholic) never fully supplants her birth identity (as French non-Jew, as Jew)–at least in the eyes of others.

    The story of the Jewish community has always been one that is intertwined not only with that of their non-Jewish neighbors but of the non-Jews in their midst–the “stranger within your gates,” ha-ger asher b’shaarecha (Deut. 16:14). So it’s no surprise that Jewish graphic novels have plenty to say about love and family relationships between Jews and non-Jews, too.

    The surprise may be that even Jewish mothers just want their child to find a mensch to settle down with and to be happy–even if that partner isn’t always what they would have expected. In Michael Chabon’s fantastic novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, superhero-comic creator Sammy Clay unexpectedly brings his new friend Tracy Bacon to his mom’s for Shabbes dinner. Sammy has his doubts about “showing up for dinner at Ethel’s late,” dragging the all-American guy Bacon, “the world’s largest piece of trayf.” But his mother knows better than he does what really counts. When Sammy says he’d like to “meet someone nice” and settle down, his mother says “I’d like that, too”–and when Sammy then says, of Bacon’s performance at a radio rehearsal, that “he’ll do fine,” we know that his mother is talking about more than radio drama when she asks “Will he?” What she knows, and what the reader comes to know, is that he would do better than fine for her son–even though he’s a man, even though he’s not a Jew. My heart breaks for the way things turn out between Sammy and Bacon–but to know about that, go read the book!

    Comment by Becca — August 20, 2006 @ 9:56 am

  3. (Sorry, I clearly messed up the HTML tags above–looks like I failed to get the in after Maus–so please feel free to correct my mistake, in the absence of an edit function!)

    Comment by Becca — August 20, 2006 @ 9:59 am

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