UVic-led graphic novel project aims to inform new generation about Holocaust

Campus News World

Initiative aligns survivors with graphic artists across three continents

File photo by Belle White

In the run-up to Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the University of Victoria announced a new initiative involving the collaboration between four Holocaust survivors and a team of graphic artists, spread across three continents. The goal of this project is to create graphic novels that will hopefully impart the lessons of one of history’s most horrific genocides on to a new generation. 

The project is led by Dr. Charlotte Schallié, a Holocaust historian and the current chair of UVic’s Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies. Key partners include the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, as well as the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

“I’ve been conceptualizing this project for a few years — I would say, since about 2016,” Schallié said in an interview with the Martlet. For Schaillé, the inspiration for the project, and of conducting it through the medium of graphic novels, came from the confluence of personal and professional experiences. 

“I have been conducting eye-witness testimonies for a few years as well, and I felt how about if we try to tell these stories differently,” said Schallié. 

Previous experience working with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus as a teaching tool led Schallié to look seriously at the power of graphic novels to convey an original yet powerful message.

“I have [taught Maus] for many years now and the students always responded very strongly to that particular graphic novel,” she said. 

Additionally, experiences with her son further cemented her interest in using graphic novels as a new teaching medium. 

“At that time, I also had a very reluctant reader at home — my son, who was just not interested in chapter books,” Schallié said.  “He took to [graphic novels] instantly, and so I was looking for good graphic novels and I realized that many of them dealt with very difficult, complicated histories such as the Holocaust.”

Once she had the idea, Schallié had to find partners, graphic artists, and survivors with whom she could build this project. The final team she assembled spans three continents and a variety of universities. 

In the Netherlands, brothers Nico and Rolf Kamp, who were born in Germany and forced to migrate between 13 different hiding places during World War II, work closely with Gilad Seliktar. Seliktar, an Israeli artist, has his own ties to the Holocaust as the entire family of his maternal grandmother was murdered at Treblinka extermination camp in Poland. 

Survivor Emmie Arbel, who was born in The Hague but now lives in Israel, works alongside German graphic novelist Barbara Yelin. The collaboration between this pair is unique, as it will represent a coming together of descendents on either side of the Holocaust. Yelin’s grandmother was a Nazi sympathizer, and this history has informed much of her work, including her 2014 graphic novel Irmina.

Lastly, the Canadian portion of the project brings together Romanian survivor David (Dago) Schaffer and American graphic artist Miriam Libicki, whose paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust.

In an email to the Martlet, Schaffer expressed his desire that the graphic novels would serve as a vessel for educating students on the importance of human rights. By doing so, he hopes that a new generation can be instilled with the values of not only human rights, but also of dignity, social justice, and equality. 

“My hope is that the people reading the graphic novel will realize how important it is to be active and participate in activities to avoid … similar things [from happening] again,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer’s personal story is a tragic one of displacement, starvation, and inhospitable living conditions. His family was among the Romanian Jews who, between 1941-44 when Schaffer was between 9 and 13 years old, were first forced into ghettos and then transported by train to Romanian-controlled Transnistria where they endured hunger, typhus, and shootings. It is estimated that 90 000 Jewish people died in Transnistria during the war although not much is known and some estimates range up to over 400 000.

Libicki says that Schaffer’s story resonates with her, as it reminds her of her grandmother who was detained under Soviet occupation. She says she believes that being informed will help breed empathy and that graphic novels are a useful medium through which to facilitate that. 

“The wiser we can be as people, the more informed we can be as citizens and the more empathy we can have for each other,” she said in a press release from the university. “Graphic novels are not just a document in the archives, they’re something people will be drawn to reading.”

There is also an increasing importance to this project as survivors dwindle and the world sees a new surge of anti-semitic rhetoric and attacks. 

“If you have young kids, students, that have learned history, that see the warning signs, that see that we are not inoculated against hatred, against the targeting of individuals, then they can take a stance,” said Schallié. “Given the advanced age of our survivors, our project takes on an immediate urgency. And what makes the survivors’ participation especially meaningful is that all of them continue to be human rights and social justice activists into their 80s and 90s.”

She says that the graphic novels were originally going to be geared towards high school students, however after receiving interest from her son’s middle school she has not ruled out allowing the comic books to be used to teach younger age groups.

 However, she also admits that she does not know what the finished product will look like and will work closely with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as well as partner institutions in other countries to formulate a working curriculum. The way that the Holocaust is taught in different countries will provide a further challenge to developing a curriculum.

“When we develop the teaching materials, we’ll have to develop the teaching materials specifically geared towards these countries.” 

The graphic novels are due to be finished and released digitally in 2022.