Discussing the Holocaust… at Comic-Con

The event, which originally aired last Thursday, July 23, and which can be viewed at any time via youtube, brought together four panelists, Miriam Katin, Sandra Scheller, Esther Finder, and Matt Dunford, along with Smith as moderator, to discuss art, comics, and education. Katin, a child survivor, opened with a captivating presentation about her 2006 comics memoir, We Are On Our Own, which documents the story of her and her mother’s “escape and life in hiding during the year 1944-1945.” The creator of two memoirs, Katin only turned to comics at sixty-three years old, and she explained how making that first book—admittedly, a “painful” experience—was a way of grappling with the words but especially the images that had haunted her throughout her life. One such visual, which found its way into her memoir, was of being pulled in a suitcase by her mother along a snowy countryside outside of Budapest.

“They couldn’t talk about it but they were able to draw it,” Sandra Scheller explained in her presentation, which included a look at art created by prisoners of concentration camps. Scheller is the daughter of survivor Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, and she has written a book about her mother’s experiences, as well as recently curated an exhibition documenting the lives of twelve survivors, her mother included. (The exhibition, RUTH: Remember Us, The Holocaust, is currently on display at the Chula Vista Heritage Museum.) The cover to that memoir about her mother, Try to Remember-Never Forget, includes the evocative image of a large, plain white chalk-marked ‘X’ with a line beneath it, which, Scheller described, was from the dress her grandmother had been given at Auschwitz and later wore at Oederan concentration camp. A stark reminder of how the Nazis weekly marked her grandmother, the image has now been repurposed as an invocation not to forget. 

Scheller’s presentation incorporated slides of Nazi propaganda alongside the art of Nazi victims, proof of the variety of ways images functioned, both to propel the Nazi mission and also as a means of endurance and resistance, by Jews and others. Esther Finder, another child of Holocaust survivors, and president and founder of the educational group, Generations of the Shoah, followed with a discussion of political cartoons by American Theodor Seuss Geisel, or, as he is more widely known, Dr. Seuss. As she explained, Dr. Seuss used the powers of political cartooning, circa World War II, in order to “educat[e] Americans about the dangers of isolationism, Nazism, and racism.” Finder’s presentation of Dr. Seuss’s cartoons—also discussed in Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe’s recent book, Cartoonists Against the Holocaust—exposed how comics and cartoons convey messaging through means of exaggeration, maneuvering of perspectives, and manipulation of size and scale. The very weapons cast, to create an atmosphere of hatred against Jews and others in the Weimar Republic, could thus be used to fight back. As with modern-day memes, intent, as well as context, matters.

The panel closed with World War II historian and Chairman of San Diego Comic Fest Matt Dunford’s discussion of Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America and the cover artist behind the first issue, which debuted on March 1, 1941, and featured an image of Captain America punching Hitler to the ground. “It’s hard to believe that one of the most defining figures in the world of comics was actually one of the first to witness the atrocity of the Germans, on the American side,” explained Dunford, describing Kirby’s experience as an Army Scout who “would draw what he saw.” Dunford’s presentation highlighted the ways that comics history and culture has been strongly shaped by the Holocaust and its aftermath, even well-before Art Spiegelman’s Maus became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer.

“Art and the Holocaust” expertly drew together these distinct threads—of propaganda, political cartooning, memoir, and comic books—to show their interrelated roles in a landscape that might help us come to a better understanding of the past. As the panel concluded, Esther Finder noted that she and Sandra Scheller had hoped that, in presenting at Comic-Con, they “might reach a different audience.” Perhaps, all along, that audience has not been so different after all.