Much Discussed: Comic about the Holocaust Given Try-Out in History Lessons
Does this medium, just like other art forms, have the potential to promote a culture of memory, or are comics about the Holocaust taboo?
Like almost any other classic comic, Die Suche starts off quite innocently. “Jeroen is on the way to his grandmother’s”, is the caption over the first set of pictures, which shows the boy going by bike and ending up at his grandmother’s coffee table. “It’s great that I was allowed to come along”, says Jeroen happily. Esther, an old friend of his grandmother, is visiting and is planning to take the entire family – Jeroen included – on a day out.
Journey into the pastBut then things start to change, and the idyllic scene begins to collapse. The day out in the present becomes a journey into the past. In a series of flashbacks, Esther tells the story of her Jewish family during the Nazi era. In 1938, the Hechts had fled to Holland with their daughter Esther. In the wake of the Nazi invasion in 1940, they were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Esther managed to escape. Die Suche describes the process of self-discovery that the main character undergoes, and tells about life and death in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Their “graphic novel”, which was published in 2007, brought the Dutch authors Eric Heuvel and Ruud van der Rol fame in the contemporary comic world, though this is not only thanks to their comic’s dramatic contents, clear and realistic style and fast-paced image sequences which are reminiscent of the works of Albert Uderzo and Hergé.
Successful pilot projectAt the same time, this fictitious comic drama has become a test case in Germany: because the latest studies – probably the most exhaustive survey having been conducted by the University of Oldenburg – reveal that more than 20 percent of German schoolchildren know little or nothing about the Holocaust, the comic was given a try-out in history lessons in 2008, with the support of the Anne Frank Centre in Berlin and Amsterdam. Around 1,400 students from years 9 to 13 took part in the pilot project in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia, which used the comic to raise the subject of the Nazi period and the Holocaust.
It comes as no surprise that Die Suche was popular among the young students thanks to its format. “Comics, thanks to their familiar form and sequential narrative structure, are virtually unrivalled. Comics grab the reader’s attention. Contents that are transported via this medium have a strong impact on young people”, is the verdict of Thomas Grumke, who assessed the project on behalf of the Ministry of the Interior in North Rhine-Westphalia. Die Suche, he says, is an effective means of preventing the memories of the Holocaust from being lost.
Taboo or opportunity?In addition, Die Suche has resurrected the debate about whether the horror of the Holocaust can in fact be depicted in art at all and, if so, whether this should be allowed. “Holocaust in a Comic – Taboo or Opportunity?”, asked a symposium in October 2008, for instance, with a view to reassessing the limits of and potential for aesthetic and educational work with graphic novels.
The question as to whether the lunacy of the Holocaust can and should be portrayed in art has been answered many times: with yes – and no. In Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (USA, 1993), for example, the attempt is successful because the film not only finds images for the Holocaust, but also imposes limits on itself – it does not permit the audience to see inside the gas chamber.
“The images portraying that which is beyond our imagination are left in the film to the viewer’s imagination”, as Jens Birkmeyer, an academic in German and media studies at the University of Münster, puts it.
Comic literature and the HolocaustFor artists it is obvious that comics, alongside films and fine art, are increasingly picking up on the theme of the Nazis, persecution and the extermination of the Jews. Comics increase the many possibilities – including the commercial potential – of reflecting on a theme aesthetically.
Art Spiegelman’s comic parable Maus (1986) is regarded as a milestone and a shining example of how the subject of the Holocaust can be dealt with in terms of contents and art in comic literature. Digne M. Marcovicz’s project Massel (2006) and Heuvel’s/van der Rol’s Die Suche follow much the same approach, using narrative and fast-paced, sequential and collage-based structures coupled with comic language like “Bang!”, “Woof, woof” and “Gulp!” to make history accessible to the reader.
“Comics dealing with the Holocaust have long stopped breaking with taboos in the way people felt they did right up to the 1980s”, believes Berlin-based journalist Jutta Harms.
Brought to the level of popular cultureAs far as Jens Birkmeyer is concerned, the character of comics is irrelevant in this context. “It cannot be a question of whether a comic correctly portrays the Holocaust. The Holocaust can never be portrayed either correctly and incorrectly.” It is rather a matter of accepting this specific narrative form. “The comic has not simply violated a ban on images, but has succeeded in bringing the culture of memory to the level of popular culture.” As such, the spectrum in which art can undertake a critical examination of the Holocaust has been expanded.
Die Suche reflects all this. It is a well-written story in pictures with high educational value and artistic merit. It approaches the horror but, like Spielberg, succeeds in maintaining a balance when dealing with the actual extermination of the Jews. There is no sense of voyeurism. The picture that accompanies the words “They were on the way to Auschwitz, a death camp in occupied Poland. It only became clear after the war what had happened in Eastern Europe”. remains black. We can imagine the scene.
is an art historian, journalist and cultural policy editor at the German daily newspaper “taz”.
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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