By Ryan Woodward
As the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh devoted the month of August to celebrating and highlighting the role comic books and graphic novels have played in Holocaust education, I challenged myself to seek out something new, or new to me, to review and possibly add to the increasing list of recommendations the Center can offer our students and supporters. August marked the sixth anniversary of the release of Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust – The Upstanders, the first volume of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s own comics series. Hoping to find something similar in format and tone for the sake of comparison, I came upon the Episodes from Auschwitz series, published by K&L Press.
There are four volumes in the series:
- Love in the Shadow of Death (Vol. 1) written by Michal Galek, art by Marcin Nowakowski
- Witold’s Report (Vol. 2) written by Michal Galek, art by Arkadiusz Klimek
- Sacrifice (Vol. 3) written by Michal Galek, art by Lukasz Poller
- Bearers of Secrets (Vol. 4) written by Michal Galek, art by Michal Pyteraf
Each volume is written by Michal Galek, originally in Polish, with the first two volumes released in 2009. Subsequent volumes arrived in 2011 and 2013 and all have been additionally released in English, French, German, and Italian. Measuring at 8.5” x 11.5”, the books are somewhat larger than traditional comics, allowing more space for artwork as well as for text, as translations may demand.
At the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, we routinely welcome students of all ages to our exhibits and programming, often engaging in difficult conversations about history and human behavior. One component of a visit to the Center, for both students and educators, is the evident power inherent in one individual’s story. How the Holocaust was experienced by a particular person, in a specific place and time is an incredibly powerful exercise for audiences in thinking about the Holocaust less as a singular event and more realistically as something that happened to millions of individual people.
While the power of one person’s story is effective in educational settings, I have learned at the Center over the past two years to stress to students and visitors that even shared experiences can be very different for any two people. There is no typical experience or standard reaction, just as no two days in Auschwitz were alike. Some may have spent two years in the camp, while others, only two hours. The entire Episodes from Auschwitz series highlights this well, pulling individual stories out of the general narrative of what readers might already know about the camp’s history.
When I toured Auschwitz as part of my graduate studies in 2012, I was struck by the immense size of the Birkenau camp. Trying to imagine thousands of people in this now empty, yet endless space added a unique perspective to how I would subsequently think about and study the Holocaust – again, through the lens of the individual. Everything surrounding me vied for attention in this new perspective – someone had experienced the Holocaust by the gate in front of me, or over by a fence, or on the railroad tracks below me. Because of its graphic format, the Episodes from Auschwitz series is able to visualize such experiences in a way that a standard book or even documentary footage may not for some students and audiences. Various locations in the camps are depicted as accurately as possible. Prisoner jobs, interactions with guards, and references to satellite camps further this “inside look” into events that most readers might otherwise not be able to imagine. In focusing each volume on very specific events, the series also highlights various forms of resistance found throughout the history of Auschwitz. Escape, documentation, spiritual and armed resistance are all evident and provide quick and factually-based answers to the common misconception that no one fought back.
I was happy to see the first volume was devoted to Mala Zimetbaum, a Jewish Belgian woman of Polish descent, who served as an interpreter while imprisoned at Auschwitz. Quite familiar with her story, I was pleased that the volume told her story of resistance and escape more from the perspective of Edward “Edek” Galinski, with whom Mala left the camp in disguise in the summer of 1944. The final volume, Bearers of Secrets, tells of the Sonderkommando revolt in the autumn of 1944. Having learned a great deal about both stories, I would say I learned the most new material from volumes two and three – Witold’s Report, which tells of Polish Army Officer Witold Pilecki’s voluntary three-year imprisonment in Auschwitz and eventual escape to report on what he witnessed, and Sacrifice, recounting the life and final days of Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest who volunteered to die in place of another man while a political prisoner at Auschwitz. Both stories were not unknown to me, but the volumes provided more detail that I had previously not known. Coincidentally, I found the art in Witold’s Report and Sacrifice to be the most compelling. Creative uses of darkness, shadows, and various forms of daylight added more dimension and emotional weight to particular panels.
From an educational standpoint, I liked that each volume features an introduction to the specific topic covered, a follow up explanation, and a glossary of terms. Particularly helpful is a timeline within the introduction. Set against the entirety of the camp’s existence, the timeline shows where the action of the particular volume takes place, and by volume four, when each of the volumes occur within relation to one another. As informative as each volume is, readers might still need a very basic understanding on the Holocaust in order to read these books and more fully appreciate what Auschwitz was. I would recommend Episodes from Auschwitz for high school students through adult readers. The writing and heavy content are not necessarily too sophisticated for younger readers, but my concern is they may not have yet had the appropriate education to put into context the horrors of the backdrop in which these stories take place. Overall the attention to historical detail, sharing of individual stories that we can never hear from people who experienced them, and the intriguing artwork afford me the opportunity to recommend Episodes from Auschwitz for learning more about the Holocaust through comics and the graphic arts.