A Find Unlocks Comics Mystery
A drawing by an American, discovered in a Jerusalem junk shop, reveals German Jewry’s lost grandeur
This version at least is apocryphal; the “women’s synagogue” was built after Rashi’s time, and he was born in Troyes, France. But he did come to Worms to study at its renowned yeshiva, became its best-known graduate and teacher, and the synagogue’s semicircular study hall (its roof is visible above the wall on the drawing’s right side) was named for him, among other landmarks. The miracle, which was originally attributed to the mother of the earlier sage Rabbi Yehudah the Pious (he-Hasid), was gradually transferred to his illustrious successor’s.
The modern Hebrew poet Saul Tschernichowsky focused on the terrified mother rather than her unborn child when he adapted the folktale for one of his best-known ballads, The Wonder-Wall of Worms. Tschernichowsky had studied medicine at nearby Heidelberg (together with the subject of my and Isabella’s previous Tablet article, Dr. Max Eitingon) around the turn of the 20th century. But by the time he wrote the poem in 1924, its final stanzas were a prophecy soon to be fulfilled (my translation):
Thus was it in those days of yore
When evil bathed the town in gore
And human beasts did reign.
When arrant villains held their sway…
But had this happened in our day
Not even stones would budge.
So, Reinman could hardly have chosen a subject more evocative of German Jewry’s past—and its impending fate. The ancient Jewish cemetery, Heilige Sand (Holy Ground), in the shadow of the city’s Gothic cathedral, was already rather derelict. Martin Buber (whose forebears also hailed from Worms) described a visit there in a famous disputation with a Christian cleric in January 1933: “Death has befallen me … but the covenant has not been revoked. I’m lying on the ground, tumbled like these tombstones. But I have not been rejected.” Buber was referring to the covenant with God, but the attempt of many Jews to forge a covenant with their country as “Germans of Mosaic faith” was rejected within weeks after he spoke, when Hitler took power.
The Worms congregation had long since been split on its religious observance: As emancipated Reform progressed in the mid 19th century, a church-style organ was installed in the synagogue (to be played by Christians on Shabbat). In 1842, the partition between the men’s and women’s sections was removed entirely. Samuel Adler, the son of a Worms rabbi, led prayers there in German rather than Hebrew—a practice he continued as rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Those of Worms’ Orthodox worshippers whose sensibilities were offended set up a separate synagogue nearby, so that Rashi’s was now called the Old Synagogue, Alte Synagoge or Schul.
All Jews, however, were compelled by the Nazis to wear the yellow badge—reviving a medieval decree that required the Jews of Worms to display a yellow cloth in their garb. Then, on Kristallnacht, 74 years ago Friday, the Worms Schul was one of over 1,000 synagogues that were sacked and burned. Reinman’s sketch is then probably the last artist’s impression ever made of the venerated shrine.
It might have made a neater story if we were able to connect Reinman’s German past with his American career, but we can’t—or at least not conclusively. Expert opinion holds that “Holocaust comics” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) was a much later phenomenon. Although the comics industry was heavily Jewish, Marvel Comics—where Reinman did his best-known work—even came out with a completely unrelated character named “Holocaust.” But there were next to no genuine Shoah topics before Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus first appeared in 1972, when Reinman’s career was approaching its end. Comics scholar Michael Vassallo searched his vast collection and found only one exception with art attributed to Reinman. These two rather crude pages in a 1952 Atrocity Story tend to prove the rule: The Holocaust is presented as a prelude to “Red” war crimes in Korea, and the Jewish identity of most victims is never mentioned.
This does seem to be a generational matter: Spiegelman stressed his identity as the son of survivors; Reinman was almost one himself. He also penciled a story about a Serbian anti-Nazi guerrilla leader, but though one can hardly believe that his post-1933 Jewish experience left no mark on his psyche, overall he appears to have been one of his many contemporaries who suppressed the trauma. Likewise, I’d beware reading too much into his work on Bible Tales for Young Folk, a short-lived and Christian-oriented series in the early ’50s. In most cases, the artists didn’t originate the titles, plots, and texts anyway.
Also quite typically, Reinman appears to have been reticent if not reclusive overall. There are only a handful of grainy photos of the artist—the best appears here thanks to Bill Hillman of ERBzine.com—and a single known press interview, given at age 67 to the Palm Beach Post (and also located for us by Hoppe). Either Reinman mentioned his background only in passing, or the reporter cut any detail (and referred, erroneously, to “Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1930’s”).
That reporter also missed a better story: Reinman may have drawn imaginary superheroes, but he was a modest hero himself. A database of Worms Jews, painstakingly assembled by the city’s archive, shows that Joseph Paul Reinmann was the second of five children (and the oldest son) of a real-estate agent and farm-produce broker who lived in the Worms suburb of Pfiffligheim from 1908. He told the Florida interviewer that he began to draw at age 3. In a bio that he provided in 1961 for a typewritten Tarzan comics fan newsletter (unearthed by Vassallo), Reinman recalled that “before I went to school, I must have shown quite an interest and skill in drawing, because … my grandfather always bought crayons and paper for my artistic efforts.” His formal education was limited to high school, with little artistic training or none; then “I succeeded in getting a job in a department store as an apprentice for sign painting and show card writing.” By age 22 he had moved 200 miles away, for “commercial employment” in Germany’s industrial heartland. “I worked for many leading stores as a fashion artist and designer of window displays.” Reinman omitted any mention of his subsequent history until coming to America in 1934.
Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?