World War II Graphic Novels
These days it’s not uncommon for history to be brought vividly to life in a novelized comic book format called graphic novels. Recently Sid Jacobson, the author of one such title with teen appeal, spoke as part of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series at the University of Mary Washington.
His book, “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography,” co-written with Ernie Colon, provides insight into Anne’s life before and after her famous diary. When Hitler came to power, her father moved his family from Germany to the Netherlands hoping for safety. After the Nazi’s invade and begin restricting Jewish activity, Anne and Margot wonder how they will stay cool with the local swimming pool now forbidden. At the same time, their father desperately attempts to get his family out of the country and when that fails, finds a hiding place in the now famous secret annex. The most difficult and compelling parts of this tale occur after their betrayal. We follow the family to the concentration camp, where they are first separated by gender and then the mother from her daughters. Thanks to information from camp survivors, we learn that Margot perished first, shortly followed by Anne. Fans of Anne Frank’s diary will enjoy these new details in this heroic young woman’s life.
Art Spiegelman’s biographical, Pulitzer Prize winning “Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale” and its sequel “Maus II,” flash back and forth between his father, Vladek’s experiences during World War II, and his own as the child of Holocaust survivors. The illustrations portray Jews as mice and Germans as cats, but there is nothing simplistic about this realistically disturbing graphic novel. Book I focuses primarily on their early life and the dangers they faced under Nazi power. As the noose tightens, so does their struggle to survive and Spiegelman’s parents begin to wonder if there will be a future. Fearful for their first-born, they send him away with tragic consequences. The first book ends with a drawing of the gates of Auschwitz and the second begins immediately inside when their possessions are stolen and they are tattooed with a number. Vladek fights to stay alive never knowing of his wife’s fate in the nearby women’s barracks. They were reunited when the war ends, but never reconciled, forever haunted by their past. These books provide eye-opening insight into what it was like to be one of the few who survived. I recommend both titles for high school students.
“Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima” by Keiji Nakazawa is another multi-volume autobiography. Volume 1 describes six-year old Gen’s life in war-torn Japan. Older students were forced to quit school to make weapons, there was never enough to eat and indoctrination was Gen’s main school lesson. We know the facts behind the atomic bomb’s impact, but this is personal. It was “like an eruption from the pit of HELL,” time stopped and then started again. Gen was less than a mile away from the epicenter, his house instantly demolished, devastating almost his entire family and sending his pregnant mother into labor. The first book ends with his mother’s invocation to her newborn daughter, war takes everything and must never happen again. Knowing this history and the personal toll it took is a big first step in that direction.
Originally published in the 4/16/12 Free Lance-Star newspaper.