Auschwitz - A Graphic Novel About the Holocaust
"Thank you Pascal for what you did. You should, however, know that the characters you made up are unable to represent the reality that we had to go through. Too many terrible things separate us from other human beings."
These words were written by Renée Eskenazi, an Auschwitz survivor who Pascal Croci had repeatedly interviewed while working on his graphic novel, in a letter to the cartoonist. Does this mean that Croci failed in his attempt to produce a comic book that represents the history of Auschwitz in realistic pictures? The question can only be answered by looking at the author's aims.
Croci's story begins in the former Yugoslavia in 1993. The Jewish couple Kazik and Cessia is to be executed because of treason. In the face of their pending execution, they remember Auschwitz fifty years ago, when their lives had been threatened by murder once before. They had been deported to Auschwitz together with their daughter in 1943. Up to this point, they had never spoken about their daughter's death. Croci describes the events at the camp through Kazik's memories: the arrival, the selections, the gassing of those not selected for work, the work in a special squad and finally the flight of the Germans before the approaching Red Army. Kazik and Cessia, about whose life after 1945 the book tells us nothing, are executed by unidentified soldiers at the end of the story.
The leading idea of the comic, the production of which took Croci five years, is to tell the stories in order to remember. For the author, remembrance does not include any imperatives for future action, it just means to remember what happened and what people can do to other people. Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" and encounters with eye witnesses motivated the author to develop a graphic novel about the Holocaust.
In sharp contrast to Lanzmann's narrative method, he chooses a fictional story and tries to draw realistic pictures. Moreover, he presents his interpretation of the annihilation by having it told by his characters. As an example, Cessia's daughter, standing in font of the destroyed gas chambers, asks whether, assuming that living together in justice and solidarity is an impossible thing, it wouldn't be possible to at least "hate each other in peace". The continuity the authors sees between the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity also becomes clear as the story is set in the context of the Yugoslavian civil war.
Insofar as Croci does not spare the reader neither the executions nor the gassings, the slave labour and the deaths after the liberation, the graphic narration succeeds in achieving its goal - to remind of that which happened.
The comic has a great potential for political-historical education, but there are also some difficulties. One of these is the disputable setting of the story in former Yugoslavia, which implicate a particular view of the singularity of the Holocaust as well as of the events of the Yugoslavian civil war. Croci's decision to combine eye witnesses' accounts into a coherent fictitious story is comprehensible and interesting from an educational point of view, as it enables him to address a great variety of problems. However, for multipliers working with the cartoon, it means that they have to interfere in the reception of the story in order to keep the facts straight. On the other hand, the combination of fiction and reality could provide a motivation for learners' independent research work (Did the prisoners really wear such clothes? Is it true that some prisoners survived the gassing? etc.)
There is a good balance of well-known stories and stereotyped pictures (gate into the camp, train, ramp, selections) and other information, probably less well-known to the students, about e.g. solidarity and rivalry among the prisoners. The author purposefully does not elaborate on the motivations for the actions of perpetrators, prisoners and other actors. The question remains whether this really enables young readers to develop their own opinions about the events, especially as they are confronted with very clear interpretations of the author in other contexts.
It would be interesting to use the novel in interdisciplinary teaching of Arts, German and History at secondary high level. Here it would be possible to compare Croci's comic and Art Spiegelman's "Maus", e.g. with respect to obvious differences in the narrative perspectives, the decision to use fiction/ non-fiction, realistic/ non realistic representations etc. An interview with Pascal Croci, which has kindly been added to the German edition, provides many ideas for such comparisons.