Kitsch and tell;Book of the week;Books

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
TOMI: a childhood under the Nazis. By Tomi Ungerer. Airlift pound;19.95. Orders on 0181 443 5333.

Half memoir, half scrapbook, Tomi Ungerer's account of life under Nazi rule explains how the occupation of Alsace gave a nine-year-old boy a chance to satisfy his passion for collecting ephemera, and provided a rich source of material for his budding illustrative skills. Geraldine Brennan reveals all

Life in Alsace under the Nazis was a misery in many ways - but it was good for collectors. The young Tomi Ungerer (whose teachers called him Hans to remind him that Alsace was now German) had a passion for collecting: chunks of shrapnel, stamps to celebrate German military fervour and family values, postcards of the Fuehrer, coloured cigarette cards of the Fuehrer's forces.

At home he had other, closely guarded, collections: the set of playing cards he had decorated with caricatures of the occupying forces, the anti-Nazi slogans and messages he had written in code, the subversive drawings, one of which shows the local baker in Colmar being arrested soon after the Nazis arrived in summer 1940, when the artist was nine.

Tomi is partly a memoir, but mostly the ultimate scrapbook. Ungerer's mother, Alice, never threw anything away (his father, Theo, a Strasbourg clockmaker, died when he was three, leaving Tomi and his three older siblings) and he was fascinated by kitsch and ephemera. In his record of the years of occupation, family documents and his childhood drawings ("I drew propaganda in school and counter-propaganda at home, leading a double life") are scattered among examples of the Nazis' attention to detail.

"They had thought of everything," Ungerer recently told an audience at London's French Institute, with a trace of admiration. "When they arrived they already had the schoolbooks printed. They already had cigarette cards for us to collect. They even controlled the kitsch."

The schoolboy was also given tiny porcelain figures and miniature books of folk tales to sell for charity. He later discovered they had been made by prisoners in a nearby concentration camp, which he now visits once a year.

At school, the Nazi "national curriculum" included arithmetic problems about the price of Hitler Youth uniforms. Hitler's portrait adorned every exercise book. "I did not get good grades but I got through because I could draw well. The teacher would say: 'The Fuehrer needs artists too.'" His first homework task under the new regime was to draw an anti-Semitic picture of a Jew, then he had to concentrate on his German.

"We had three months to become fluent. French was banned - a single bonjour or merci would get you months in prison. We were given carts and sent from house to house to collect French books for burning." French street names disappeared. Every main street was re-named Adolf Hitlerstrasse. In Strasbourg, the Fuehrer's name adorned the former Street of the Savage.

Alice Ungerer insisted French was spoken at home. She was shopped by a neighbour ("at school we were offered money to betray our parents and neighbours") but managed to charm the German officials into allowing the family to continue being bilingual "so we could become administrators when all of France was ruled by Germany - we couldn't believe they fell for it".

The "linguistic genocide" perpetrated during his childhood is a lasting source of anger. "Now you have young Alsatians who can't speak their neighbours' language. After the war it was German that was outlawed, and Alsatian too, and we all had to learn French again. I think of myself as Alsatian and European rather than French. We say Alsace is like a toilet - always occupied. Alsatians are hesitant and insecure about their identity but I'd rather be insecure than arrogant. Better to be free to change your mind and your prejudices than have the same ones all the time. The war left me with a lot of anger, and what the Germans call Weltschmerz - sorrow and pessimism. I had to draw it all out."

The result is a prolific career as an artist and satirical cartoonist in which he has drawn 120 books, around half of them for children. The first titles, The Mellops Go Flying and its sequels, were published in New York in the late 1950s, where Ungerer was working in advertising. He had a long break from children's literature in the Seventies and Eighties, when he brought up his three children and took up sheep farming in Nova Scotia and later in County Cork (he now lives in Ireland and Strasbourg).

His best known children's book, Flix, was published in 1987 and has the issue of identity and acceptance very much at its heart (Flix is the offspring of two cats, who have to come to terms with the fact that their new kitten is a puppy). Until recently, his books have been collectors' items themselves as Ungerer has only sporadically been published in the United Kingdom. Now Tomi and a selection of his picture books are available. He has a wide following in Europe and last year received the Andersen Award for illustrators from the International Board on Books for Young People. Admirers among his colleagues include Ralph Steadman, who, introducing him at the French Institute, called him "a master of the free form that takes the line on an adventure whether the line wants to go or not".

Tomi was first published in France, where it lifted the lid on wartime memories. Ungerer was inundated with the contents of other scrapbooks that had never been made, material he has passed on to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. "People were sending me their documents, memorabilia, the contents of their cupboards," he says. "It was as if they were suddenly able to look at it all again."

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