Book Review: Comic books and the Holocaust

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

With so many books about the Holocaust being published each year, it can be difficult to remember that, at one time, discussing the subject in public was almost taboo. Yet, during this period, one art format – the comic book – managed to produce works about the event, even if the victims’ Jewish identities were often not emphasized. In “We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust” (Yoe Books/IDW Publishing), Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe discuss how comic books from the 1950s-‘80s spoke about the Nazi war against the Jews. The book also includes 18 comic book stories that illustrate the range of these works, with the tales featuring everything from soldiers to survivors to superheroes.
In his introductory essay, Medoff, the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, notes that, after World War II, American Jews looked to downplay their religious identities. That included not discussing the Holocaust: “For American Jews to have spoken loudly about the Holocaust in those days thus would have run counter to the national prevailing mood. It would have focused on a narrow ethnic concern and emphasized the most somber of topics, at a time when the path to speedy Americanization required embracing a positive, upbeat approach of going along and getting along. Certainly within the narrow confines of the Jewish community, there was ample recognition and discussion of the Holocaust during the first decades after the war. But when Jewish organizations and spokesmen articulated the Jewish community’s concerns to the wider public arena, they did not focus on the Holocaust.”
Medoff believes that comic books were one media that educated American teenagers about the Holocaust during this time. Comic books were very popular and reached a wide audience: “More than 175,000 copies of Captain America were sold each month during the 1970s, and tales of Batman were often twice that number. Even the less popular comics represented in this volume enjoyed a substantial readership; War Is Hell, for example, sold an estimated 73,000 monthly.” Medoff notes that these numbers do not take into account that comic books were often shared among friends and siblings, which would have greatly increased the number of readers.
“We Spoke Out” offers an introductory essay for each of the 18 stories featured. In addition to information about the writers and artists (when available), the works are placed in historical context. For example, the essay about “Master Race” notes artist Bernie Krigstein’s new drawing style, which uses a cinematic technique to create a greater sense of drama. This six-page comic, which tells of a post-war meeting between a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal, contains a surprising amount of suspense, even for those who’ve read many stories about the Holocaust. When it first appeared in 1955, its impact must have been even greater.
While most readers would not connect Batman to the Holocaust, the story “Night of the Reaper!” is a bit prophetic in showing how Nazi criminals found homes in the United States. The plot line also portrays how survivors relived events even decades after the war ended. The story’s dramatic and abrupt ending proved gripping and moving. Plots featuring Nazis who found haven in the U.S. also appear in the two Captain America comics featured: “From the Ashes...” and “The Calypso Connection.” Cap’s landlady Anna Kappleman, a concentration camp survivor, plays a role in both.
Other comics take place during World War II. “Mark Our Graves!” tells the little known story of the Jewish Brigade, a group of Jewish soldiers from British Mandatory Palestine, who fought with the Allies, They are not the main characters in the tale, but do play a major role in helping American troops fight the Nazis in North Africa. “Wall of Blood” offers a rare look at the Nazis’ destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto from the point of view of a German soldier. Even when the Jews fight back, the soldiers consider them less than human. The final image in the story is powerful and haunting at the same time.
Some works are less convincing. Those unfamiliar with the complex storylines of the X-Men series may have difficulty understanding the relationships between the different characters in “Gold Rush!” However, the plot line showing Nazi sympathizers who want to resurrect the Third Reich will still resonate. While “Thou Shalt Not Kill” shows how the Nazis herded Jews into synagogues and set them on fire, its use of the mystical Golem detracted from the story. Readers may question why the Golem only came to life in this particular instance, rather than helping during the entire war. Plus, those who already know about the Golem may dislike the comics’ deviations from the original legend.
The book concludes with the only comic from the 21st century, “The Last Outrage,” which features the real life story of Dina Babbitt. Babbit survived the Auschwitz concentration camp due to her artistic skill. Forced to make drawings for Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed horrific experiments on the camp inmates, Babbitt thought her works were destroyed during the war. However, some survived and are now on display at the Auschwitz Museum. Before her death, Babbitt tried to reclaim her work, but the museum refused. This real-life story serves as a reminder not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of one woman’s courage and determination.
Adams, Medoff and Yoe are to be commended for showing how attitudes toward the Holocaust have changed over the generations. The artists and writers who produced these works sought to educate readers about important issues of the day. Although it’s not the focus of their work, the authors note that the Holocaust is not the only social concern to appear in the pages of comic books. They applaud those who continue to use this format to tackle serious and difficult subjects.