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German exhibition explores Holocaust education through comics

The "Holocaust in Comic" exhibit, Frankfurt
Felix Schmitt
Such comics are controversial, with accusations that they belittle the memory of the Holocaust

Can a medium used to depict the adventures of Superman and Mickey Mouse also tackle the delicate topic of the Holocaust? A new exhibition which opened in Frankfurt, Germany explores this very question, presenting the works of artists from Israel, Germany, the United States, and the Netherlands, dating back to the mid 1980's.

“Addressing the Holocaust or Nazism is always a challenge, also for film and literature,” admits Jakob Hoffmann, curator of the exhibit at the Anne Frank educational center, “but perhaps the specific characteristics of the comics allow for a unique discussion.”

There is no shortage of “bad Holocaust comics,” notes the curator -- works that use the crimes committed by the Nazis merely as a dramatic backdrop and exploit the sensationalism to boost sales -- but the comics featured in this exhibit attempt to go further, exploring new representations and new points of view.

Among them is the ground-breaking work of American cartoonist Art Spiegelman from 1980, “Maus,” depicting his interviews with his father the Holocaust survivor, and representing the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.

Deborah Krieg

Also in the exhibit is a graphic novel by Israeli Rutu Modan, “The Property,” telling about the journey of Mika and her grandmother Regina back to Poland, from which she escaped before WW2, to find the property that belonged to their family.

Only few of the displayed works were originally meant for children, like “The Search,”which describes the lives of Jews under Nazi rule in Germany and the Netherlands through the eyes of a young girl named Esther. The book was also used to educate middle school children in Germany about the Holocaust.

Most of these graphic novels were seen as extremely controversial when first published, evoking accusations of belittling the memory of the Holocaust through its depiction via comics. But public opinion changed in recent years, and comics have grown to be perceived as a respected genre.

“I too learned through this exhibition that comics is a lot more than superheroes,” notes Dr. Meron Mendel, director of the educational center. “It's a serious genre that also targets adults and deals with complex matters, and in this regard the Holocaust is no different. There is still criticism, but it revolves more around a specific work or artist, than the choice of genre.”

Felix Schmitt

Sometimes the use of comics even carries advantages, especially when trying to appeal to younger generations.

“'The Diary of Anne Frank', for example -- many teenagers all over the world are still interested in her history, but they are no longer accustomed to reading a book of several hundred pages,” says Mendel. “That's why in 2010 the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam published a graphic biography, that was very well received. I think it just opens the story to a wider audience.”

“Literature is very abstract and doesn't allow you to create your own picture, while a film is very defined and does not allow you to choose your own timing, when and how to read it,” added Hoffmann. “Comics are a mix of the two, and particularly for young people, it might be good to allow them to find their own point of view. They have a series of images, and it's up to them to bring them together.”

The illustrated depiction of the Holocaust also does not imply a softening of its difficult message. Two of the comics featured in the exhibit, “Auschwitz” by French illustrator Pascal Croci and “Yossel” by American Joe Kubert, caused an outcry among Jewish organization when first released in Germany, for presenting the horrors of the Holocaust in such an explicit manner.

“Auschwitz” depicts life in the death camps through the eyes of a Yugoslavian couple and includes graphic portrayal of prisoners' bodies and gas chambers. “Yossel” tells the story of the Warsaw ghetto and the uprising of its residents from the point of view of a child, through pencil drawings, some of them half-finished.

Deborah Krieg

Visitors to the exhibit are asked to write down which approach struck them the most - be it the unambiguous drawings of Croci or the humorous interpretation of comics like “Adolf” by German Walter Moers, which unapologetically pokes fun at the Nazi tyrant.

In recent years German-speaking artists have been pushing the envelope more and more, finding new ways to examine the memory of the Holocaust, despite criticism. Such is Barbra Yellin's “Irmina,” which examines the behavior of “ordinary” Germans during the Holocaust through the story of a young woman that, out of her own personal ambition, turned a blind eye to the events happening around her.

Also Ulli Lust's “Flughunde” tells of the final days of WW2 from the viewpoint of Joseph Goebbels's eldest daughter, that was killed by her parents before they committed suicide. The comic was presented at the opening of the exhibition and created a heated debate among visitors regarding the validity of such outlook.

But the exhibit's creators see positively this pursuit of new perspectives. “It is part of our job to shed light on aspects that so far have not been spoken of, to point out the unpleasant and to press where it hurts,” explains Mendel.

“The approach to the topic of the Holocaust should not become too stiff and too heavy. Also from an educational standpoint, we need to set clear borders regarding what is and isn't acceptable, but also avoid creating taboos.”

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS's correspondent in Germany.

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