Yossel - April 19, 1943 - A Graphic Novel About the Warsaw Ghetto

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Joe Kubert: Yossel – April 19, 1943. Ibooks, 2003

"It was something I believed I just had to do. […] This book is the result of my questions of 'What if?' It is a work of fiction based on a nightmare of facts."

This is the end of Joe Kubert's introduction to his comic, recounting his memories of the descriptions his parents gave of their emigration to the United States in 1926 . When Kubert started to work as a cartoonist in 1940, the former neighbours of his parents were being deported and murdered back where their home had been. Besides on historical sources, the story of Yossel is therefore also based on his parents' stories, and on letters and documents of family members and survivors of the Holocaust.

In the days of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, 13-year-old Yossel tells his story, which starts at the village of Ytzeran in 1941, with the expulsion of its Jewish citizens and their ghettoisation in Warsaw. Everyday life at the ghetto is determined by hunger, disease, being starved to death, violence of the German occupants and deportations. Yossel, who has been drawing cartoon heroes as long as he can remember, starts documenting life in the ghetto in his drawings. As his talent also appeals to the SS, he is saved from deportation, but his family is sent to Auschwitz. Through a fugitive from a concentration camp he learns what happened to his family and other deportees. Yossel joins a group of young adults who are trying to convince the inhabitants of the ghetto to put up resistance. The uprising begins on April 19, 1943…

Kubert's graphic novel consists of drafted entries of a sort of journal of the Warsaw ghetto; the plot as well as the drawings are very convincing. He purposefully uses lead pencil drawings and does not put them into the bold black frames typically used in comics, thus emphasising their draft-like character. The pictures we see are supposed to be Yossel's drawings, telling his own story as well as that of the ghetto and the annihilation. Kubert concentrates on the description of persons, which contributes largely to the individualising narrative style of the comic. The reader's interest is not to be roused by the recognition of images, places or symbols often seen before, but through the identification with the views of the acting characters. This identification is successful especially with respect to Yossel, who shares the reader's love of comic-books.

The drawings of the concentration camp are superbly impressive. A fugitive prisoner takes the role of the narrator, and Yossel produces the drawings to his story. The drawings are far more convincing than those in Pascal Croci's "Auschwitz" as they do not repeat the often seen images of the selection at the ramp or the gas chambers, but leave the recipients space for the development of their own imagination by showing details of the environment and the people. Thus Kubert's graphic novel provides much more motivation for discussions.

The comic is interesting for the use in historical-political education as it tackles the often asked question about Jewish resistance action, using a medium which is much more attractive to young people than conventional books. The graphic novel describes many different forms of resistance action, e.g. the keeping up of religious traditions, daily self-assertion, solidarity, and armed struggle, thus widening the often narrowly defined term.

The comic can be used, like any other fiction story, as a complement to working with historical sources and secondary texts, or as a motivation for further independent studies. It is suitable for all those who – in spite of the medium comic – show interest in the reading of more comprehensive texts. It cannot and should not be misused as a "lure" for studying the National Socialist crimes. This would neither do justice to the intensely narrated story nor would it be convincing, as Kubert's drawings will probably be too much of a disappointment for the expectations of the usual comic-book reader.


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