Graphic Novels About Women

The notion of a graphic novel about the Holocaust dates back at least to 1980, when Art Spiegelman first published parts of MAUS in his magazine. Raw. His vivid line drawings depicting the Nazis as cats, the Jews as mice, and the Poles as pigs introduced people to the notion that “comics” could tell the story of the Holocaust, too, and set the stage for a recent spate of similar works, including three published this year alone.

Martin Lemelman’s Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir (Free Press, $19.95) is the most conventional of these attempts to use the graphic medium to bridge the aching chasm between the generations. Culled from a series of videotapes belonging to Gusta, the author’s mother, the story that unfolds is one of hardship and determination. Using the accented speech of a Polish survivor who learned English much later in life, and accompanying the narrative with shadowy, black-and-white drawings and the occasional photograph, Lemelman creates an “Old Country” mood. Although the pictures are life-like and engaging, and the idiosyncrasies of Gusta’s voice may be familiar, this story delves no deeper than the surface. As a story it is an engaging read, but it fails to capitalize fully on the immense creative potential of the genre.

In We Are On Our Own (Drawn & Quarterly, S19.95), Miriam Katin’s first graphic novel for adults, the author explores her flight from WWII Hungary as a young child with her mother. Both a character in the story and its author, Katin manages to find a way to create two parallel narratives, emphasizing her youth and emotional distance from the terrors that befall her family. As her mother battles to keep herself and her daughter safe while her father is off fighting, talcing odd jobs sewing for any family they find along the road—even stooping to prostitution in order to keep them fed and sheltered—the young Katin pines relentlessly for her dog, Rexy. Katin’s fixation on dogs throughout the dangerous journey reinforces the theme of loss that lies at the novel’s heart.

The younger Katin’s story is constantly interrupted by flashes to the present, where the author and her husband live in America, raising a young son—and debating the role that religion should play in his life. Having laid out the story of her youth in traditional comic fashion, with the wartime frames limned in smudged charcoal, Katin creates a vivid visual contrast with the later-day panels, which are filled with vibrant color. This technique, evocative of black-and-white film, adds to the strange distance between the little girl who wonders if “God is in a winebarrel” and the young mother playing hide-and-seek with her son years later. A staunch atheist, Katin in her title speaks not only to the constant trials she and her mother were forced to endure, but to her ultimate decisions about matters of faith.

I Was the Child of Holocaust Survivors (Riverhead Books, $23.95) is more of a memoir than a graphic novel. But it is a memoir of things that were not: the book follows author Bernice Eisenstein through the photonegative of her experiences with the Holocaust—her life with her two survivor parents, her survivor aunt and uncle, and The Group, a collection of her parents’ friends who made up a kind of surviving surrogate family. The journey is neither straightforward nor easy: “I am lost in memory. It is not a place that has been mapped, fixed by coordinates of longitude and latitude, whereby I can retrace a step and come to the same place again. Each time is different,” says Eisenstein, who always appears as a child despite the many years her story spans. The artwork is strangely stylized, with exaggerated heads and pictures of events that never took place. And the story, which does discuss her parents’ experiences, devolves into discussions of famous philosophers, the lyrics to popular Yiddish songs, and all the pleasures her father missed out on by dying relatively young (including his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, the opportunity to grow old with his wife, and the taste of corned beef on rye). Eisenstein wrestles deeply with a lifetime of conflict about her role in the story of her parents’ lives, a story that many of the descendants of survivors will experience as an echo of their own. 

Melanie Weiss lives and works in New York