Episodes from Auschwitz
The series of comic books ‘Episodes from Auschwitz’ are unique in their creation. They are researched and published in collaboration with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and have relied heavily on their archives and vast wealth of information concerning survivors. They feature extensively researched chains of events and their aim is to educate young adults on the horrors of the Holocaust whilst retaining their scholarly integrity. Further they all include a starting prose about the conditions of the war that the story is placed within and a further lengthy description of Auschwitz and its operation. Thus, providing the reader with context for the story that the Comic Book portrays.
Of further note about these Comic Books is that they are the only publication that I have come upon that feature an age restriction on readership, the youngest being 14 and the oldest Comic being aimed at 16 year olds. These age restrictions are of note as it has obviously been analysed by the publisher that the material contained within these Comic Books, is too sensitive for a younger audience. Does placing a warning on the age at which it is acceptable to read theses stories limit the age at which children should learn about the Holocaust? This is an interesting comparison that these factually researched historical comics feature a warning whereas those produced with entertainment perspectives on the Holocaust do not.
#1 – Love in the Shadow of Death
This is the Book which features the 16+ age restriction, it tells the story of Mala and Edek, two prisoners who fall in love within the camp. The story is well known within histories of the camp and features heavily in survivor testimony but this is the first time it has been translated into this medium. The story follows their love affair, showing how humanity and love can continue to flourish between two people of good, even as the Nazi mechanism of death seeks to destroy them. It also follows their escape, and when it succeeds to their joy, depicted through their running to freedom through the fields.
The reader shares in the joy of Mala and Edek, that they were able to escape their unjust imprisonment and that they may actually be free to live and love together. That love prevails. But, the hopes of both Mala and Edek are crushed when they are captured and returned to the camp. The pain is shared in their last reunion as you see their love ripped apart. However, what the comic does do is allow the agency of Mala to prevail as she slits her wrists, and slaps an SS man. She continued to retain her humanity, and the reader shares in that triumph.
#2 – Witold’s Report
This Comic Book’s focus is on Communism and the invasion of Poland by two totalitarian regimes. Detailing the Molotov Pact, and the split of Poland between Germany and Russia in the background prose. The action of the book itself focuses on Witold Pieleck and the report he smuggled out of the Concentration Camp about the conditions within the Auschwitz camp and the torture that prisoners underwent. Although extensive detail is given to his time within the camps, the book also deals with the aftermath of the war and life within Soviet ruled Poland. The comic book ends with the reader knowing that Witold was innocent of the charge of treason placed against him, and that he was used as a scapegoat by the Russians to condemn the old Polish government. Further detailing how Humanity continued to suffer after the trials of the camps had been endured and providing moral lessons on the suffering of the Poles.
#3 – Sacrifice
This Book deals with the issue of the Church and particularly the Martyrdom of Father Maximillian Kolbe whilst a prisoner at Auschwitz. The Comic Book emphasises the strength that Kolbe gave to the other prisoners around him, and his ideas of tolerance against the Nazis even as they sought to destroy him are a key feature of the Book. It shows the prevailing power of God and Catholicism within the Camp, which is still an important theme in Poland and represents another group persecuted by the Nazis. The ultimate moral martyrdom is shown through Kolbe self-sacrifice of his own life for another inmate which ultimately ends in his death in a starvation cell. The book also deals with the moral judgements about Nazism and the lack of violence conducted by prisoners against their oppressors.
#4- Bearers of Secrets
The pre- prose element of the book deals in extensive detail with the Sonderkommando and their role within Auschwitz, however the Comic Book itself is focussed on the Sonderkommando revolt. (Of note about the comic books is that they are in no way as graphically violent as some of the ones produced for entertainment purposes.) The Comic details the brutality of the regime and the mental trauma suffered by the inmates forced to work within the Sonderkommando. The revolt shows the bravery of the men as they try to preserve details of the destruction of European Jewry through the gas chambers. This attempt at documentation are the photographs in the Auschwitz Album held at the USHMM. The Comic ends with the end of the revolt and the destruction of the brave men who tried to end the extermination process and save their own lives.
The Comic Books deal in detail with key events in the lives of prisoners in the history of the Auschwitz Camp, imparting key stories of the people of Auschwitz and offering moral lessons for the reader. The fact that this is based on real events makes it all the clearer that these are stories that are able to translate the experience of the Holocaust to readers, in a manner which is still informative, but interesting.
However, the series does have some short fallings, becoming overly moralistic and heavily leaning on the education for contemporary change rather than education for learning. It also presents the characteristics of survivors as uncritically good. They may have no moral failings, this is seen in the characterisation of Maximillian Kolbe and his previous treaties on the Jews, which are resolved as a misunderstanding.