Graphic novel art reawakens survivor stories
Holocaust survivor Ralph Rehbock recounts his history as seen through the 2012 Munro Campagna calendar. The Holocaust Museum recently celebrated the unique calendar that reflects survivor stories. | Jerry Daliege~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 10, 2012 5:07PM
Their stories are told in a variety of ways — through old photographs and film, eyewitness testimony and meticulously installed summary panels, an upper floor art gallery and a lower floor space for traveling exhibitions.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center feels like a repository for storytelling tools all serving a similar purpose: to relay the histories of survivors so we never forget the past to better shape the future.
The museum’s newest storytelling tool may be its unlikeliest one yet. Who would initially think of the graphic novel art form as the ideal medium to express the wrenching but hopeful stories of courageous Holocaust survivors?
Not the museum itself — not at first anyway.
“At first blush, when we heard ‘Holocaust,’ ‘comic book story,’ ‘graphic novel’ — not so sure. Not so sure,” said Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut.
But Munro Campagna, a company representing artists that creates a Chicago-themed calendar every year, persuaded the museum. And museum leaders are now mighty glad it did.
“This is an exquisite, remarkable series of narratives,” Hirschhaut said at the calendar celebration last week. “It’s a work of art, a work of history, and it has absolutely at its core the affirmation of hope and resilience and courage and heroism.”
Steve Munro of Munro Campagna understood the initial reluctance.
“You think of comic books, and you think of the gangster reading a comic book, or you think of when you were a boy and first collected them,” he said.
But Munro also understood that what fuels the success of the comic book art form has always been the ability to tell stories, to bring narrative to life. That, in fact, meshes with the museum’s collection of survivor stories and its urgency to make them accessible.
Munro also knew the graphic novel has become recognized as a serious modern art form. He became familiar with the celebrated Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman, which creatively provides a graphic narrative in which Jews are depicted as mice while Germans are depicted as cats in telling the story of his father, a Holocaust survivor.
Ironically, the “Maus” book and the Munro Campagna calendars are both 25 years old now. The latter initially intended to turn its creative force loose on another museum for its 25th edition, but Munro changed paths after he toured the Skokie museum for the first time.
“This museum blew me away,” he said. “I didn’t know what we were going to do at the time but I was convinced this was our subject.”
The Munro Campagna calendars always include 12 artists each creating different art for a given month. Although all the pieces in this edition are rendered in graphic novel form, they stand out because of their uniqueness in style and content. Many of the artists worked in the graphic novel form for the first time, Munro said, but you would never know it by looking at such an extraordinary collection.
Thoughtfully laid out, the calendar art works its way chronologically, starting in January with Rabbi Herman Schaalman who was first to escape among the featured survivors, and ending in December with the post-war wedding of Lilly and Ludwig Friedman, a reflection of the new lives that survivors were determined to create for themselves.
The museum chose survivors for the project whose stories provided historical and chronological balance as well as remarkable elements of hope.
“Each have stories that reveal tremendous courage, a measure of luck and tremendous determination to endure the horrors of the Holocaust years,” Hirschhaut said. “Each is triumphant.”
February tells of Kristallnacht, which was experienced by Ralph Rehbock and his family.
In only seven panels, the narrative covers Rehbock’s comfortable middle class life as a child in Germany to the family’s escape from Nazi oppression after “the night of broken glass” set unprecedented inhumanity in motion.
“Traditionally, the graphic novel is meant to be a fictional narrative,” Rehbock said. “It usually becomes a comic strip. This is the only case that I know of where the graphic novel is being used to depict real life stories.”
The hope of everyone involved in this ambitious project is that these real life stories — told in such a different way — reach new audiences.
“The people who will have this calendar on their wall — each story displayed for a month at a time — will hopefully get the message of hope that each of the stories gives,” Rehbock said.
Barbara’s Steiner’s harrowing story for June tells of her survival of the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland.
Like Rehbock’s story, it depicts a peaceful childhood nightmarishly interrupted — in this case by Germany’s invasion of Poland. Steiner worked as a medic during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which ultimately failed.
When she saw her story brought to life in this unique way, she said she couldn’t believe it.
“To see this and be a part of this — you can’t say you are happy about it because there is nothing happy about this story,” Steiner said. “But it’s part of a history that has to absolutely be told to make sure this will never happen to any people again.”
May’s story tells of Hilda Stern’s voyage on the German transatlantic liner St. Louis. It sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba, carrying Jews fleeing the Nazis.
The piece’s first panel captures a happier time — before the ship was refused landing at the harbor in Cuba. It was even a joyous time en route to what passengers believed was their freedom.
“Every night, Max Pander would dance with his daughter Hilda … it became sort of a tradition,” reads the first panel. “There were dances and swimming pools … and optimism, looking forward to a new life.”
Debra Green, Stern’s daughter, was especially pleased to see that frame.
“It shows what she thinks of as a good memory of the ship,” Green said.
“That’s what she holds onto. She’s always been hopeful and looking at the good. She never complains — even now. She has a wonderful attitude for life and always has.”
Rehbock’s son, Mark, was with his family last week looking at the original art that tells his father’s story of Kristallnacht. They were on the museum’s second floor hallway where the original works will remain on display for the next few months.
“I really like how they took something as serious as this subject and have made it less painful because of the format of being a graphic novel,” he said.
But maybe the best measure of the project’s success comes from even a younger generation — Mark’s son, the Holocaust survivor’s grandson.
“My dad and grandma would tell this story often,” Mark Rehbock said pointing to the graphic novel art. “When my son first saw this, he said this is exactly what he pictured in his head the events would look like. I guess that makes this perfect.”