Look, this is what they did

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Laurence Alster measures a new graphic novel set in Auschwitz against other attempts to represent the horror in pictures and asks where we should draw the line

The Complete Maus Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History (Mid-1930s to Winter 1944); Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (From Mauschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond) By Art Spiegelman Penguin Books pound;14.99 pbk

Erika's Story Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti Text by Ruth Vander Zee Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

Rose Blanche Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti Text by Ian McEwan Red Fox pound;5.99

Auschwitz By Pascal Croci Abrams pound;11.95

Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence By Janina Struk IB Tauris pound;15.95

Shortly after the start of And Here My Troubles Begin, his second Maus graphic novel, the author and central character Art Spiegelman struggles with the problem of finding a fitting visual correlative for the bottomless agonies of the Holocaust. "There's so much I'll never be able to understand or visualise," he frets. "I mean, reality is too complex for comics. So much has to be left out or distorted."

Judging by the international success of the two Maus books, available since last year in one paperback volume, Spiegelman's decision to draw the Jews as mice toyed with and tormented by Nazi cats was the right one. What might have been an intrusive and embarrassing anthropomorphism serves instead to underscore the human dimension. Avoiding caricatures of good versus evil, Spiegelman sets his narrative in a nightmare world of overwhelming but ascertainable fact based on the recollections of his irascible father, a Holocaust survivor whom the author knows he should love but can't.

While the drawings in The Complete Maus are deliberately inelegant - clearly, Spiegelman wanted the strength of the book to rest as much on prose as picture - Roberto Innocenti's images in two picture books telling stories from the Holocaust for younger readers are drawn with photographic accuracy. Spiegelman's images of animality are replaced with a literalism that downplays horror in favour of poignancy. Erika's Story, Innocenti's latest book with text by Ruth Vander Zee, is simplicity itself. A pink bundle thrown by her mother from a wagon destined for Auschwitz, Erika is found and raised by strangers. The final, colourful frame of this otherwise tonally subdued picture book shows an older Erika looking wistfully at a distant goods train, a picture of loss and longing certain to move readers aged nine and above.

The same audience will appreciate Rose Blanche, Innocenti's classic collaboration with Ian McEwan, first published in 1985. While Erika lives to bear witness to her own pain and that of others, Rose Blanche, a German schoolchild who has helped Jewish children in a concentration camp, is shot in the confusion surrounding the Russian invasion of her country.

With their simple prose and pictorial finesse, Innocenti's books survey communal disaster and individual loss without ever steeping themselves in it. Pascal Croci's graphic novel Auschwitz, suited to an older readership of young adults (possibly mature 12-year-olds and above), eschews this timidity. Drawn entirely in black and white, his narrative seeks to picture all but the worst excesses of human cruelty.

These take place in a gas chamber packed with corpses illustrated not in fine detail but by descriptive speech bubbles ("children with their heads split open, vomit elsewhereI menstrual blood, too") set against vague, gaseous clouds. Croci's refusal to reproduce the ultimate abomination heightens its dreadfulness. Elsewhere, though, his touch is less sure, with some conventions more suited to Marvel comics than this chronicle of slaughter and sadism. "Kwwlahmmah!" goes a gun fired by a Nazi; many younger female prisoners look fashionably thin and doe-eyed rather than starved and lousy; their guards are more ghosts than people. As with films such as Escape from Sobibor and Hannah's War, Croci's Auschwitz risks sensationalising rather than memorialising calamity. His human inmates are never as moving as Spiegelman's fugitive, neurotic Jewish mice, forever on the alert for treachery and beatings. This book should be given only to students mature enough to recognise its shortcomings.

Both Innocenti's and Croci's works use images based on photographs of the Holocaust and made emblematic through frequent use: a little boy with hands raised at gunpoint, Jews staring out from cattle wagons or through barbed wire. These and other such images are the focus of Janina Struk's excellent Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, which should become required reading for students of A-level photography or the history of Nazi Germany.

In a sometimes dense but always engrossing analysis, Struk looks at the circumstances that produced the photographs and the purposes to which they were put then and since. Much of interest emerges: the various captions, hence meanings, given over the decades; the perilous conditions in which some photographs were taken, developed and preserved; the sceptical reception and consequent suppression of wartime atrocity photographs by the Foreign Office; and the use of these and similar images in today's death camp museums.

How terrible that the torment of those in the photographs should so often have been ignored, misused or misinterpreted. As, for Struk, they sometimes still might be; are we "educating ourselves or entertaining ourselves" when we gawp at them, she wonders. A hard question to ask, let alone answer honestly.

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