Graphic Novel Review: Survivors of the Holocaust

Survivors of the Holocaust (Graphic Novel)
Edited by Kath Shackleton, Illustrated by Zane Whittingham
Published by Sourcebooks eXplore. Review copy provided by NetGalley. Available Oct 2019.

I don’t think I need to explain the topic of the book. It’s pretty plain right there in the title and the book’s subtitle. So I’ll skip that and only touch on story elements to avoid spoilers.

The first thing to note is that this graphic novel is obviously written for younger readers, of Primary School age. The art style is pretty simple, and hammers home its message fairly bluntly, with swastikas everywhere – from the legs of soldiers to hubcaps of cars. The german soldiers are depicted throughout as large, hulking ogres – though again, that’s one of the purposes of uniforms – even today – you don’t see the person, you see the uniform – and as the book’s five narratives come from the perspectives of Holocaust survivors’ childhood memories, it’s no wonder that the Nazis are depicted as such huge, monstrous beings.

Visually, each story also features a limited but distinct palette of colours, which works well enough in this format, and serves to make each story distinct, which would be especially useful for younger readers in differentiating the stories. The artwork is fairly simple but stylised in a way that works to emphasise the context of the content througout this graphic novel, where “realistic” artwork is less important than conveying emotion and “feel”.

Little niggles – Martin’s story begins with the Polenaktion, though it doesn’t explain where Martin’s familiy originated from, which is something that would have the capacity to make the story a little more impactful, especially to younger readers that this graphic novel is aimed at. This is sort of rectified later, but I feel that not explaining it as part of the narrative causes the *full* impact of that story to be lost.

In my (digital, review) copy, the text from Page 35 is entirely absent. I expect this will be rectified before final publication time, though it did remove most of the exposition for the third story, though the graphics on that page did imply that the protaganist (Ruth, as I found out at the end) was Czech when the Wehrmacht moved into the region, and then later the text talks about them leaving Czechoslovakia, so I guess that’s the story.

Arek, whose story concludes the graphic novel, takes him through Birkenau-Auschwitz is in many ways the story that many of us are most familiar with in terms of broad strokes, and gives us a strong conclusion to this collection due to it’s more confronting content.

The book concludes with a “What Happened Next?”, which was a nice touch – showing the artwork of the different characters alongside their real-life, modern photographs. I liked this because it puts real faces to the more disconnected “story-book” versions of them as children.

Next, the book contains a glossary of terms, which would certainly be something that would help many readers of whatever age, as well as parents, family, teachers or anyone reading the stories to others to answer many of the many “why?” and “what?” questions that a book like this would provoke from its audience. This is followed by a historical timeline, that again helps with context for each of the stories.

I think these three post-story inclusions really do help the book be more than a collection of stories and give interested readers jumping off points for their own research or reading as well as a great deal of additional context.

This period of history is one where preservation of the lessons and knowledge learned is important. While the easy solution is to expect “schools” to “do it”, the fact is that outside of nations such as Germany, Austria and Israel, the curriculum is simply too crowded – and history is something that gets shuffled off to the side by necessity – nevermind the discussions on which bits of history get taught, as there is rather a lot of it and the relevance of different subjects within are very much localised as school contact time is very much a zero-sum game.. this is where books like this, bought by family members, in school and public libraries and so on come in.

In the end, Survivors of the Holocaust does achieve what it sets out to do – in giving a child’s perspective on what it was like to escape Hitler’s Reich in a mannner that is accessable to older children. The content is delivered in a way that feels like it would be impactful on reflection without being *too* confronting in a graphic sense. Obviously, the full impact of this graphic novel would differ depending on the reader.

Speaking for myself, an adult who is reasonably well-versed in this period of history, it’s certainly a sombering read.