Holocaust Graphic Novels Give Israelis a Way To Connect to a Past Not Quite Theirs
New publications from Rutu Modan and Michel Kichka offer bittersweet depictions of the complicated history of 20th-century Jews
The words Holocaust and graphic novel generally bring to mind Art Spiegelman and his trailblazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning work Maus, which got its start as a three-page comic in 1971. Fifteen years later it was published in book form, paving the way for an unlikely new genre. In the more than two decades since the publication of the granddaddy of Holocaust graphic novels, Anne Frank’s diary has been published in comics form; the story of the Warsaw Ghetto has been turned into a graphic novel, and other children of survivors have embraced the genre to recount their families’ histories—pointing to the fact that, tragically, Spiegelman’s father wasn’t the only one to “bleed history” (to borrow a phrase from the subtitle of Maus).
With two recent publications, Israel has further embraced the form of the Holocaust-related graphic novel: The first is Michel Kichka’s memoir Second Generation: Things I Never Told My Father, which was originally released in French and, like Maus, recounts growing up in the shadow of a Holocaust survivor. The second is Rutu Modan’s The Property, a fictional account of a young Israeli woman and her grandmother who travel to Poland to reclaim an apartment belonging to the family before the war, published simultaneously in Hebrew and English.
At first, these two works appear to be united solely by the fact that they both fall into the “Holocaust graphic novel” category—one is autobiographical, the other is fictional; one is drawn in stark black and white, the other bursts with vibrant color. Yet while profoundly different in narrative and graphic style, Second Generation and The Property have more in common than meets the eye: Both center on family bonds, secrets, and intrigue; both feature journeys to reclaim something tangible or intangible that was lost; both are characterized by a bittersweet intensity and off-kilter humor.
Kichka opens Second Generation with the line, “My father almost never spoke about his family.” The panel underneath it shows the author, as a child, looking at the tattoo on his father’s arm and wondering, “Who wrote a number under his arm hair?” The book’s first two chapters focus on Kichka’s early curiosity about his father’s wartime experiences, blending well-known Holocaust imagery with his father’s personal story of survival.
Kichka’s father, Henri, made only passing references to his life during the war—whether joking about how his wife’s soup reminded him of Auschwitz because he never ate soup like that there, or lamenting how the Nazis destroyed his feet by forcing him to march in the snow.
As a child, Kichka searched for his father, to no avail, in the haunting photograph of emaciated survivors lining barracks in Buchenwald on the day the camp was liberated. He writes how he felt like “that boy,” drawing himself as the Jewish youth holding his hands up in the iconic photo from the Warsaw Ghetto. He depicts his childhood nightmares using a combination of his father’s gaunt, naked corpse, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, railroad tracks, and a crematorium scattering his family’s ashes to the wind. At the top left corner, Kichka appears as a crying, frightened child hiding under the covers.
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