November 16, 2018

‘Hidden,’ a child’s view of the Holocaust in graphic form

There are hundreds of Holocaust-themed books for children and teenagers that are written in English. Often these books are translated into various languages, but there are fewer Holocaust books originally published in German, French, Italian, or Dutch, and much less found in other European countries that were under Nazi control during World War II. One reason for the dearth of European children’s books on the Holocaust is that these countries simply publish fewer books overall, and their children’s publishing industries are just not as robust as those in the English speaking world. This is more pronounced in countries such as Greece, Poland, or Hungary, but, in places where children’s publishers are taking a chance on innovative formats and themes, the subject is more popular.

The Netherlands and France are two countries that have endeavored to tackle their troubled histories by publishing original Holocaust-themed books for children. In 2007, a Dutch high-level comic book called The Search was printed by The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It is a fictional story of a Jewish woman who tells her grandson about her childhood in Nazi Germany after Hitler rose to power. Her family escapes to Holland, but later they are arrested and her parents are killed at Auschwitz. It was widely translated, even into Hebrew, and used successfully in schools to teach about the Holocaust by using the comic book format to engage young people. Controversy and hand-wringing ensued: is it ok to use comics to teach about the Holocaust? Art Speigelman’s groundbreaking 1986 comic parable, Maus, was written with an adult audience in mind, and this had not yet been attempted for children.

When The Search was published in Israel, Dorit Novak, the director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad VaShem, was interviewed about the appropriateness of a graphic novel about the Holocaust. “It doesn't debase the subject of the Holocaust”, she said. “We must tell (the kids) everything without hiding anything, lying or deceiving, but do it in a manner that doesn't scare them.”  The Search (Die Suche) also became popular in German schools because of its format and had a “strong impact on young people”, according to an assessment written on behalf of the Ministry of the Interior of North Rhine-Westphalia, which stated that “comics grab the reader’s attention.”

In 2010, the Anne Frank House published the excellent Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Biography by comic book masters Sid Jacobsen and Ernie Colon. Reviews were universally positive and the book was considered an important addition to the literature on Anne Frank in a format that would draw in new readers. That same year a graphic novel for teens entitled, Resistance by Carla Jablonski and illustrated by Leland Purvis, was published by First-Second Books. It was the first of a trilogy about three children from a village in France who join the resistance during World War II. It won a Sydney Taylor Honor award from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Other graphic novels followed these as the market for this type of teen literature has grown more lucrative for publishers of young adult literature.

Until now, these graphic novels were all written with a teen audience in mind. This year, First-Second publishers aimed for younger readers. There are dozens of picture books dealing with the Holocaust, but this newest one, Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo (translated from the original French, L’Enfant Cachee) may be the first to use the illustrations and dialog boxes of the graphic novel format. The publisher states that “The Holocaust is one of those complicated, sensitive moments in history that it’s difficult to find a way to discuss with young children because the complexity is so far beyond them.” The story concerns a French Jewish girl named Dounia who is so young that she dosen’t understand what is happening around her. The adult reader will have more knowledge of events as they are transpiring, such as the meaning of a scene when her father explains to the family that “Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs”. The earnest sepia-toned illustrations (that brighten only on the final page) convey the little girl’s pride at wearing her new yellow star, along with her utter confusion as to why she is suddenly ostracized in the school play yard.  The story is a flashback: Grandma Dounia is actually relating her own childhood to her young granddaughter, Elsa. This oft-used plot device reassures the child reader, who knows from the first pages that the protagonist of the story will eventually survive, live to old age, and have grandchildren.

Even so, this book would surely not be suitable for children under ten. As the little girl’s neighborhood starts changing day by day, reality sets in: her father loses his job, a neighbor is beaten, windows are smashed, and the Nazi soldiers arrrive. Her parents hide her under a secret panel inside a wardrobe. This exceptionally moving scene is greatly enhanced by the graphic novel format. An oversized spread of a cramped and frightened little girl in her nightgown, waiting silently in a dark space until her parents will free her, creates a true emotional connection to the pages. Illustrator Marc Lizano succeeds brilliantly in conveying complex emotion with very few stokes of his pen.  Donia is found by the kindly downstairs neighbors who eventually inform her that her parents were sent to the Drancy camp outside Paris. The neighbors agree to care for her, but they are betrayed. Dounia’s name is changed and she flees with her new “mother” to find safety at a remote village farm. Her new “father” joins the resistance. When the war ends, they search together for her parents.  Present day Grandma Dounia narrates, “The hotel walls were covered with photographs. I was told they were survivors from the camps. My mom and dad had to be in one of those pictures. We looked carefully. I didn’t know what a camp was…and no one would explain it to me. They weren’t being mean. They wanted to protect me. With my little girl’s eyes, I could see it was something unbelievably cruel. “The haunting drawing of young Dounia’s first sight of her unrecognizable mother is stylized (enlarged head, vacant eyes), but entirely effective at creating the shock and discomfort experienced by a child.

As Grandma Dounia relates the last of her difficult memories, including the fact that she never found her father, her young granddaughter has fallen asleep. Our point of view is like a video camera: we follow Dounia as she carries the child back to her room and our eyes catch the off-center portion of the item they pass in the hallway. We gently turn the page to find a  small but bittersweet photo of Dounia’s smiling, intact family as they were before the war.

Should this be the end of the story? For children in 2014, it is not. There are four more pages –this time in brighter colors—as Dounia’s son gently mentions that his daughter told him “about the talk you two had last night”. Six square panels relate this tense scene as we grow to realize that Donia has never been able to discuss the war with her own son until this day. The talented illustrator again conveys the emotion by dabbing a few extra lines across the face. Little black semi circles express downward glances and eye avoidance as they blow into their coffee cups. A close-up of a tearful Dounia  that is split into three wordless panels is full of feeling. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m very happy and very proud that you told her”, says Dounia’s son, and the last, now colorful image of he, his daughter, and mother embracing recalls the black and white photograph of long ago.

This beautiful, heartfelt book will touch all who have the privilege of reading it. The talented trio of writer, illustrator and colorist, along with translator Alexis Siegel deserve kudos for tackling this subject in graphic novel format with such power and grace.

Lisa Silverman is library director at Sinai Temple.