De-Judaizing the Shoah in Polish Comic Books

Ewa Stańczyk. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 17, Issue 1. 2018.

It is commonly believed that the memory of the Jewish genocide was completely erased from public discourse in Communist Poland. While it is true that in the aftermath of the Second World War, this memory came to be subsumed in the narrative of national martyrdom, the systematic extermination and eventual annihilation of millions of Jews was never denied. In fact, expressions of heartfelt solidarity with Jewish victims were widespread in the immediate postwar period. Those were articulated by a variety of actors, including the state, intellectual elites and ordinary citizens (Szaynok 2012, 138). With the changing political situation, in particular the waning of friendship between Poland and the newly founded state of Israel, the collective memory of Jewish suffering evolved too, ranging from indifference to outward hostility. Over time, this led to a marginalization of the Jewish experience and a proliferation of nationally minded narratives of the camps, two of which—Majdanek and Auschwitz—became national monuments in the late 1940s (Wóycicka 2013, 71-116). With the gradual liberalization of the 1970s, the lessening of censorship in the 1980s and the fall of Communism in 1989, Poland witnessed an eruption of interest in the Jewish past and the Holocaust. And yet, to some extent, nationalist tendencies persisted (and persist to this day), this time justified by the shedding of the vestiges of Communism and the demands of nation building.

This article explores a selection of graphic narratives spanning the period from the 1940s to the 2000s. First, it shows that while the atrocity was far from being considered “unmentionable,” for much of the Communist period, the Jewish victims were, leading to a peculiar de-Judaization of the Holocaust. Second, despite the liberalization of memory after 1989 and the ensuing “Jewish turn” which brought about a mass revival of interest in Jewish culture and heritage, to some extent, this tendency persists. Analysing a selection of newspaper cartoons, graphic novellas and educational comic books, not only does this paper show how the genre has been subservient to ideological demands but also how its roles and functions changed throughout decades, from light-hearted stories addressed to a mass readership to educational narratives produced with school children in mind.

Comic Books as Entertainment

Following the emergence of newspaper cartoons in the aftermath of the First World War, graphic narratives quickly became a popular and much loved genre in Poland. This popularity was sustained throughout much of the interwar period and was later used in the legitimization of the Communist regime, turning comics into an important tool of Stalinist indoctrination (Rusek 2009). During that time, certain inconvenient themes were either downplayed or omitted and it was no different in the case of the Holocaust. Indeed, under Communism the atrocity was presented solely as a mass extermination of the Polish nation, and the distinction between the Jewish and the Christian victims was rarely made in the official discourse. Instead, topics that fitted the political agenda of the newly created state were brought to the forefront, including the narrative of the “liberation” by the Red Army from the Nazis and the Polish-Soviet brotherhood in arms.

The first graphic narrative to touch on the Holocaust was Wicek i Wacek (Wicek and Wacek), a serialized newspaper strip published by the Łódź-based daily Express Ilustrowany. The cartoon was launched in 1946 and became an instant success with the readers. The two characters were loosely based on Fy og Bi or Pat and Patachon, a famous Danish comedy duo who made more than 50 films between 1921 and 1940, and who were often seen as precursors of the American comedy act Laurel and Hardy. Their figures were modified to match the Polish context and the themes adapted to reflect local realities. The authors tackled issues that were on everyone’s lips in the immediate post-war period, in particular the experience of German occupation. Still, these representations were frivolous and entertaining, offering a playful take on the Second World War.

The drawings, made by Wacław Drozdowski, were austere black and white, conforming to the requirements of a newspaper cartoon. Likewise, the positioning of the script, written by Adam Ochocki, was representative of a newspaper strip and typical of the time, appearing at the bottom of the image as opposed to being placed in speech balloons. In 1948 best-loved stories were selected by the authors and published in an album, becoming an overnight sensation and selling the staggering number of 250,000 copies (Ochocki 1989). It is in that particular album, reprinted in colour in 1989, that the authors take on the Shoah as Wicek and Wacek get caught up in a roundup and are eventually transported to a death camp. After a series of obstacles and challenges during which the two characters outwit the Nazis, they are sent to a gas chamber. Here they prove their resourcefulness and ingenuity as they climb out through the chimney, avoiding certain death. Shortly after, the camp is liberated by the Red Army and the two men stroll off with a Polish soldier, most probably a member of the Soviet-aligned People’s Army.

Aside from adhering to the Communist-controlled narrative of the Second World War, which entailed praising the Soviet army as liberators, the comic strip implicitly reinforces the contemporaneous view of Auschwitz as a site of Polish/Christian suffering. Here no distinction is made between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and between gentile and Jewish victims, respectively. Instead, the camp is presented as a site of Polish national, and by association, Christian, suffering. This comes as no surprise. After all, such narrative was ubiquitous in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum established shortly after the war. In his fascinating study of its institutional trajectory, Jonathan Huener shows that for much of the post-war period it was the Catholic Poles who were commemorated as the central victims of the camp, with the spatial arrangements, particularly the proximity of Auschwitz I to the town of Oświęcim and the remoteness of Birkenau, supporting the focus on Polish-Catholic prisoners (2004). And even though the authors of Wicek and Wacek decided to include in their portrayal the gas chambers, and thus Birkenau, the lack of engagement with the ethnicity of victims can be seen as obfuscating the distinction between the various groups who were either imprisoned or exterminated in the camp.

What is interesting though is that despite presenting painful events that were still alive in the collective memory of Polish society at the time, the strip is devoid of martyrological overtones. An explicit narrative of communal suffering is largely absent. Instead, humour and irony are employed as important storytelling strategies. By focusing on the two characters whose nonchalance and ingenuity keep them out of harm’s way, the narrative allows for a happy ending. In this respect, the cartoon could be compared to Horst Rosenthal’s Mickey Mouse in the Gurs Internment Camp (Kotek and Pasamonik 2014) which presents life in the camp from the point of view of the popular Disney character, resulting in a grotesque and ironic portrayal of the events. In the same way as Wicek and Wacek, Rosenthal’s Mickey Mouse is also able to liberate itself, eventually finding safe haven in America (Rosenberg 2002).

Of course, such representations of the atrocity could be viewed as trivializing the Holocaust but the comedic distance built into the misadventures of the two characters serves here as a collective coping strategy and a way of overcoming the trauma of the camp experience. Furthermore, the use of humour in Wicek and Wacek could be read as a sign of resistance which, according to Mark Cory, is a common approach, also used in Holocaust literature. In particular, the motif of a trickster who suffers but eventually succeeds in surviving owing to his quick wits is an ultimate symbol of a triumph against the enemy (1995, 36).

Although such a portrayal of the Shoah would not be acceptable today, in particular the silence surrounding the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population, in the immediate post-war period such an obscured vision of the atrocity was more than welcome. It went hand in hand with the contemporary politics of memory and was instrumental in constructing the new Polish national identity. This identity was to be built on the remembrance of the shared suffering, courage in the face of “fascist” oppression, and perseverance in overcoming obstacles. Implicitly, this identity was also a homogenous one and devoid of the multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious elements that constituted pre-war Poland. Combined with the idea of the liberating role of the Red Army, the comic promoted a brand new vision of the country’s wartime past and pinpointed the direction this vision should take in the future.

These kinds of representations were not that uncommon in the wake of the war. For example, in 1947, a youth comics magazine, Świat Przygód (The World of Adventure), published a similar story as part of an ongoing strip “Z procesu Bolka Tarnosika” (From the Trial of Bolek Tarnosik), which recalled the adventures of Bolek, a teenager from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. In one of the episodes, we see the boy, accompanied by his cousin Basia, travel to Auschwitz. They make their way down in a punt, down the rivers of Vistula and Soła, with the plan of reaching Auschwitz where the girl’s mother is imprisoned. There the children take on the difficult task of liberating her. Like Wicek and Wacek, they attempt the impossible and, like the two protagonists, succeed in their daring undertaking.

The death camp is portrayed in a realistic, even if somewhat formulaic manner, whereby stripped pyjamas, watchtowers, guards and barbed wire delineate and define the spatial and visual parameters of the camp. While this realistic convention would normally be used to infuse the narrative with a sense of terror, here it is underscored with a tone of light-heartedness. According to Jan Dunin, even though in the immediate post-war period people were desensitized and traumatized by war, they still saw this as part of their “normal” daily experience. As a result, such depictions of the camps did not raise much protest. The fact that the script was written by Jerzy Abramow (real name: Igor Newerly), a former member of the underground resistance and Auschwitz prisoner, did not appal the public either. This showed, on the one hand, how the purported lightness of the genre lessened the shock factor and, on the other, how accustomed the readers were to the representations of concentration camps, be in in the daily press reporting, radio broadcasting and the emerging television programmes (1972, 16).

Justyna Czaja rightly points out that it is very unlikely that the two works attempted to provide any deep assessment of the atrocity (2010, 78). There is no doubt that the political context also hampered a full engagement with this issue, preventing the authors from commemorating the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. More importantly, the humour and comedy built into these representations suggest that the genre itself was seen as unfitting to afford a serious perspective on the horrors of Nazi occupation. After all, comics were still considered a light form of entertainment aimed at attracting a mass readership, maintaining high sales figures and keeping the public amused. As the memories of war slowly faded away and the society shifted their focus to rebuilding the country, also the graphic representations of death camps dissipated. With the continued ethnic homogenization of Poland’s population under Communism, narratives exploring the Jewish experience were not to emerge until much later when Poland witnessed a renewed interest in the Holocaust.

Comic Books as Postmodern Challenge

Graphic narratives published post-1989 show brand new ways of engaging with the Shoah, while demonstrating how the perception of comics as unserious art form evolved over decades. This is the case with Achtung Zelig! Druga Wojna (Achtung Zelig! The Second World War) (2004) by Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz (artwork) and Krystian Rosenberg (script) which positions the theme in a complex web of cultural symbols and historical references. Aside from dealing with the persecution of European Jews under the Nazis, the story tackles the Communist politics of memory, in particular the uses of popular media in the constructions of past. Achtung Zelig! is largely based on personal memories of the authors who grew up in the 1970s and were exposed to the official discourses of the Second World War and the mechanisms of social memory formation, particularly through popular television programmes.

The comic book tells the story of a father and son named Zelig who escape from a transport heading for a death camp, are then captured by an SS unit, to be eventually rescued by the Soviet-aligned Polish People’s Army. The graphic novella is filled with cultural and historical references, and combines realistic and surreal conventions. For example, the two Jewish characters are portrayed as having deformed and amorphous faces which distinguishes them from other protagonists, signifies their otherness and distinctiveness, and alludes to the stereotype of the “conspicuous Jewish looks.” There are also visual references to Maus here in that it uses animal figures, cats in particular, to represent the Poles. Interestingly enough, the authors defy and oppose Spiegelman’s depiction of Polish people as pigs, while attempting to redress this negative portrayal. There are surreal protagonists here too, including Emil, a Nazi dwarf and an ex-circus performer, dressed in a wizard costume, who was forced to abandon his vocation and go to war.

Despite his artistic inclinations, he is a zealous SS man and an efficient administrator, both of which bring to mind specific historical figures, such as Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, and the executioner of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Finally, there is the name “Zelig” which evokes Woody Allen’s chameleon man. This comparison, in particular, demonstrates the necessity for the father and son to adapt various roles as they try to escape the tragic fate of other Jews.

The comic book can thus be viewed as a compilation of cultural tropes and historical facts that the authors were exposed to while growing up in the 1970s, be it through school, television or popular literature. But the graphic novella is also a postmodern palimpsest which takes on more recent themes and imagery, and joins in the ongoing debate on collective memory and national identity. Thus, despite being seemingly devoted to the Holocaust, Achtung Zelig! uses the atrocity to reflect on the past that the authors can personally relate to. In light of this, the deformed faces of the two Jewish characters can be read as a reference to the Communist-era historiography which downplayed or falsified certain aspects of the Polish-Jewish past, particularly the suffering of Polish Jews during the war. In a similar way, the involvement of the Soviet-backed People’s Army (Armia Ludowa, AL) in rescuing the Zeligs refers to the concerted state-sanctioned effort to emphasize the role of AL and other Soviet-aligned troops in fighting the Nazis, and to erase the contribution made by the clandestine Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK). In their subversive and ironic take on that narrative, the authors draw inspiration from two comic book series which were particularly popular in the 1970s, including Kapitan Kloss (Captain Kloss) and Podziemny front (The Underground Front). Both series were based on well-liked TV programmes which praised the Polish-Soviet “brotherhood of arms,” in general and the People’s Army, in particular, as well as highlighting the impact of Soviet intelligence services in defeating the Nazis.

This multifaceted collection of cultural references has often been criticized as detracting attention from the Holocaust or even diminishing its importance, while leaving the reader unmoved by the scale of atrocity (Gajewska 2008, 114). According to one author in Achtung Zelig! the Shoah “takes the back seat, or rather it becomes neutralized, providing the readers first and foremost [with] the pleasure of recognizing and then solving the puzzle” (Gajewska 2013, 64). There is no doubt that the graphic novella is a postmodern feast of symbols and references, and that it could, in fact, be interpreted as a self-indulgent exploration of Poland’s Communist past. Indeed, the Shoah seems to be used here solely for “decorative” purposes, it is employed as a fashionable facade with which to explore issues that are more relevant to the authors’ personal trajectories, on the one hand, and their national consciousness, on the other. Once again, the Holocaust (as a literary theme) becomes subsumed in a wider narrative of the Polish past. Here, the authors use the Second World War as evidence in a symbolic trial against the Communist politics of memory and its omissions and silences. In doing so, the novella also speaks to the divergences between the collective memory of the Second World War in Eastern and Western Europe. The former often sees the Nazi period as inextricably linked to the subsequent subjugation by the Soviet Union, an aspect which is invariably absent in Western European narratives.

That general tendency to use the Shoah as a backdrop to reflect on issues that are closer to authors’ experience is also visible in other contemporary comics in Europe and beyond. Representative examples include Jérémie Dres’s We Won’t See Auschwitz (2012) which recounts the French artist’s trip to Poland in search of family roots and Rutu Modan’s The Property (2013), a semi-autobiographical book telling a story of an Israeli family who journeys to Warsaw to reclaim their pre-war property. A similar approach can be discerned in contemporary American comic books and graphic memoirs, including those by Miriam Katin and Amy Kurzweil (discussed in other articles in this special issue), which look at personal memory and transgenerational trauma.

Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of Achtung Zelig! with these graphic narratives points to the dearth of family memories on which to build the “postmemory” of the Holocaust in Poland, as was the case with Spiegelman and other authors who followed in his footsteps. In this way, the comic book draws attention to the scarcity of new voices coming from Poland’s Jewish community which, despite its rapid revival post-1989, is still largely underrepresented on the comic book scene.

Finally, Achtung Zelig! illustrates the ongoing development of the comic book genre in Poland and its progression from a light form of entertainment, as was the case with post-war newspaper cartoons, to an example of a “serious” graphic narrative. The novella thus speaks to a slow process of the enfranchisement of comic book artists and their attempts to establish the genre as part of the mainstream literature. Other shorter works, which came to the fore around the same time, point to a similar striving for a recognition of the genre. As I show below, historical themes are proving to be a convenient way of enhancing the visibility of comic books and bringing the genre to the forefront of literary production.

Comic Books as Exercise in History Making

In the last decade comic books have become a popular medium through which to explore historical themes. During this time a number of new graphic narratives, aimed at promoting the national past, emerged in Poland. The Holocaust has featured in these publications and several short stories exploring the theme appeared in the anthology Wrzesień—Wojna Narysowana (September: The War in Drawings) (2003b). According to Tomasz Kołodziejczak, the anthology was a turning point in the development of Polish comics on the Second World War, being the first publication to offer a comprehensive view of the theme and bring together a new generation of Polish artists, many of whom made their debut in the 1990s (2003a). The anthology was also illustrative of a watershed in public history making whereby debates about the past became increasingly present in the public sphere. This was connected to the rise of the right-wing national conservative Law and Justice Party, which was to become Poland’s ruling party in 2005 and again in 2015, and whose historical politics has been continually underscoring Polish heroism and victimization.

Some of the stories in the volume are representative of this wider political context. For example, “Jej oczy” (Her Eyes) by Marcin Nowakowski and Wojtek Franzblau, recounts a story of Andrzej, a member of the clandestine Polish resistance movement, who poses as a prisoner in an unnamed death camp in order to expose Nazi crimes. While at the camp, he is responsible for the extermination of Jewish prisoners, which involves hoarding them inside the gas chambers, removing the dead bodies afterwards and burning them in the crematorium. During one of his shifts he encounters a Jewish woman whose terrified eyes leave him deeply moved and whom he nonetheless sends to death. This is when we find out that he is equipped with a hidden camera and that his task is to take photographs documenting the atrocity, before passing the images on to the resistance. As the next transport of prisoners is led to their death, Andrzej goes into the gas chamber to take pictures of victims before the annihilation but the door is locked before he manages to escape. Aware of what is about to happen, he sees the Jewish woman again, her gaze fixed on him.

The story strikes one with its simplicity and brevity. Unlike Achtung Zelig! the novella is devoid of complex historical references and aims to provide a straightforward and yet poignant account of the Holocaust. Here the single Jewish woman gives a face to the countless victims of the Shoah and, at the same time, becomes an embodiment of Andrzej’s guilt. Yet the figure of Andrzej is also a potent symbol in itself. It is through this character that the comic seems to encourage identification with the brave Polish gentiles who risked, and at times also lost, their lives to document the genocide. The protagonist is then an epitome of the two myths that have shaped the official memory of the Second World War in Poland, both under Communism and after its fall, namely the myth of heroism and victimization. It is only the subjects of this myth-making that change, from the heroic soldiers of the Soviet-backed People’s Army to the fearless members of the Polish resistance movement. Here not only does Andrzej attempt to contribute to the exposing of the atrocity, proving his bravery and commitment to truth, but he also shares the fate of the Jewish victims while performing his patriotic duty. He is fashioned into an archetypical tragic hero who makes a serious error of judgement and pays for this with his life. At the same time, notwithstanding Andrzej’s role of a clandestine photographer who is entrusted with the task of documenting the crime in the making, he is a dispassionate participant in the extermination. The graphic narrative refrains from passing judgement or questioning his actions. In fact, Andrzej’s role in the Holocaust is meant to strengthen the image of a conflicted individual who is forced to make difficult decisions and sacrifice innocent lives for a higher cause.

Like in the comics discussed above, the non-Jewish experience takes centre stage here, obscuring other narratives and preventing a more pluralistic vision of the past from being presented. But the emphasis on Polish heroism and victimhood also speaks to the wider political context in which this narrative was created. Published only a couple of years after the Jedwabne debate broke out, the story might be seen as an antidote to the public discussion about Polish anti-Semitism. Initiated by Jan Tomasz Gross’s path-breaking book Neighbors (2001), this discussion questioned the righteousness of the Polish nation and showed that, like Nazis, Christian Poles, too, were perpetrators. Thus, graphic stories like this one can be seen as an upshot of this wider political climate which mobilized the defenders of Polishness and led to an eruption of counter-narratives, which were voiced through various outlets (including literature, the media, museums and urban spaces).

While “Jej oczy” can be seen as an expression of a contemporary commemorative culture, articulating issues that have been widely discussed in the Polish public sphere in the past decade, other stories in the anthology eschew such political subjects. “Skarb” (Treasure) by Hubert Ronek, in particular, presents the Holocaust from the point of view of a group of country children who find an escapee from a death camp, hide him in a shed and attempt to nurse him back to health. On the surface, the boys are saviours who give the fugitive a new lease of life. However, while doing so, the children also assume ownership over their “find.” This inevitably objectifies the man and leaves him at the mercy of his “owners.” As the Nazis search the village for escapees, the boys become worried that their “treasure” might get found and taken away. They hit the man in the head and cover him with hay. When they return several days later, the man is gone.

This heart-rending story of a fugitive left at the mercy of strangers shows the precariousness of Jewish lives under German occupation. The immaturity, selfishness and ignorance of the boys leave them blind to the suffering of those in need and prevent them from making a change in the life of the fugitive, forcing him to push on with his lonely struggle for survival. As such, the story challenges the common view of children as inherently innocent and kind creatures. Instead, they are presented as engrossed in their childhood games, indifferent to human pain and even exhibiting signs of cruelty. This is reiterated by the last few panels which present the boys discovering a new “treasure,” a collection of glass marbles which are to replace the fugitive.

The drawings are exquisite, in particular the first few panels, which portray the boys as a friendly bunch of village urchins. When juxtaposed with the ending of the story, which exposes their callousness, these images make a powerful statement on the duality of human nature and show that even children are no different. This unforgiving representation of the boys differs significantly from the portrayal of Andrzej in “Jej oczy.” In this respect, Ronek’s novella is uncompromising—it makes no concessions where moral and ethical choices are concerned. At the same time, the story resembles other graphic narratives discussed here in that it focuses purely on the experience of non-Jewish Poles and uses the Shoah as a backdrop to discuss dilemmas faced by gentile characters. This de-Judaization of the atrocity is also characteristic to the story discussed below.

The final Holocaust narrative in the Wrzesień anthology offers a somewhat surreal take on the death camp experience, both where the script and artwork are concerned. Piotr Kowalski’s “Blok nr 7” (Block no 7) tells the story of a mysterious man who finds his way to a camp with the task of destroying the notorious block no 7 in which political prisoners sentenced to death are kept. As we later find out, this is also where the “Mother” is located, a mysterious creature that feeds on the human body and acts as a power supply unit for the Nazis in charge of the camp. The man’s task is to destroy the “Mother” and avert the atrocity. In a final battle, his body transforms into a beast which defeats the enemy, kills the men managing the camp and frees the prisoners.

Kowalski’s story presents the death camp as the creation of a supernatural organism whose bestiality fuels the Nazi killing machine. “Blok nr 7” also shows that only another unearthly being can surmount this bestiality and prevent the disaster from happening. In sketching the two creatures, Kowalski draws heavily on the tradition of Polish “fantastic realism” which is best exemplified by the paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński in which deformed “post-utopian” figures roam the earth, creating an atmosphere of impending doom and showing human helplessness in the face of a wraithlike evil. But this fantastical stylistics also enables an ostensible de-ethnicization of characters. On the surface, it is not their background that matters, but their oppression by the forces of evil.

The three short graphic narratives show a variety of contemporary responses to the Shoah and the Second World War, from stories epitomizing Polish heroism, through to comics representing the war from the point of view of a child, on to narratives that employ “fantastic realism” in exploring the evil that brought the death camp to existence. These stories make for wide-ranging responses to the past by artists who have no personal memory of the Second World War and whose different drawing styles provide an interesting overview of the contemporary comic book scene in Poland. At the same time, all these stories replicate the tendency we saw in both Communist-era cartoons and Achtung Zelig!, namely the propensity to de-Judaize the Holocaust and to move the focus to gentile (or ethnically unspecific) victims of the atrocity. Jewish characters are merely part of the scenery, even if they are crucial to plot development. They are often reduced to voiceless faces, terrified eyes or weak bodies. As such, these narratives attest to a paradoxical phenomenon whereby the atrocity continues to inspire terror and fascination, and yet its representations remain perennially incomplete and one-sided.

Comic Books as Educational Material

The tendency to obfuscate ethnic distinctions or to move the focus away from Jewish victims is visible in recent publications aimed at the young reader. A lot of these works have been commissioned and subsidized by the state, and written with the school curriculum in mind. This proved to be a capacious market. The popularity of educational narratives led to an emergence of publishing outlets that specialize solely in historical comic books, the two main being ZinZin Press and K&L Press. Also public institutions such as the Museum of Warsaw Rising and the Institute of National Remembrance created their own comic book series. For many of these publishers the Second World War and Communism became the priority. Many of these comics adhere to traditional national narratives of the past which promote the heroism and victimization of the Polish nation under the two totalitarian regimes, a trend that is visible in other post-socialist states (as Jose Alaniz’s case study of Czech comic books shows). Representative events covered here include the Battle of Westerplatte in September 1939, the massacre of Polish officers by the NKVD in Katyń in 1940, the workers’ revolt in Poznań in 1956 and the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko by the secret police in 1984.

The Holocaust became one of the themes featured in these kinds of publications. One series, in particular, was created with a view of dealing solely with this theme. In 2009, K&L Press published the first album in the series Epizody z Auschwitz (Episodes from Auschwitz), created in cooperation with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. To date, four albums have come out and more are yet to appear in print. In order to ensure historical accuracy and to avoid factual errors the authors consult experts in the field and use testimonies of survivors. This is meant to render the albums a useful educational resource, particularly for young people over the age of 14, as well as for their teachers who are encouraged to use the comics in classroom. Part of this educational focus of the series is translating the albums into other languages, such as English, French, German and Italian. According to the organisers, these translations will play an important role in countering Holocaust denial and working towards a change in nomenclature, particularly around the phrase “Polish concentration camps,” which has been widely contested and criticised by the political establishment in Poland.

Like the majority of graphic narratives discussed above, also the four albums focus predominantly on the experience of Polish gentiles in Auschwitz. All the four stories are fact based and look at authentic historical figures. The first album is devoted to Edward Galiński and his love affair with a Jewish prisoner, Mala Zimetbaum, along with depicting their unsuccessful escape from the camp. The second episode presents the story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the underground Home Army who volunteered to go to Auschwitz in order to disclose the Nazi crimes. The third looks at the “saint of Auschwitz,” a Franciscan monk Maksymilian Kolbe who chose to die of starvation to save another inmate (a popular figure for comic books in his own right, as the article by Paolino Nappi in this special issue shows). Finally, the last album concerns prisoners who worked at the crematoria and who eventually shared the fate of other victims. Even a brief look at these topics suggests the propensity to favour the non-Jewish experience, while emphasising the bravery, selflessness and victimhood of each and every one of the protagonists.

On the surface, the authors do not steer clear of controversial issues and attempt to cover them either in the main body of narrative or in the historical introduction/afterword. This is the case with Episode 2 which presents the story of Witold Pilecki whose mission at Auschwitz culminated in an escape which later enabled him to testify on the true nature of the camps. While it is commonly known that it was those who remained in the camp or were suspected of helping the fugitives who were often punished, here the afterword shows that the camp authorities did not seek retribution against other inmates (Cyra 2009). This is meant to counter any potential criticism and present Pilecki as an unequivocally positive character. In a similar vein, the story of Maksymilian Kolbe touches upon some of the controversial issues surrounding his legacy, in particular the anti-Semitic undertones of his pre-war journalism. First of all, the comic attempts to challenge the notion of Kolbe’s anti-Semitism by showing the priest’s compassion towards his Jewish prisoners. Second, the afterword provides a justification for his writings by presenting them as an outcome of the dire economic situation of the time (Gałek and Poller 2009). Thus inconvenient issues are presented in a way that does not interfere with the hidden resolve behind these narratives, namely the veneration of Polish heroes and victims. According to Michał Traczyk, the use of introductions and commentaries is meant to prevent the reader from assessing these stories critically and providing her/him with a blueprint for interpretation (2011).

There is no doubt that the choice of topics for the series is limited and obscures the ethnic, national and religious diversity of the population in the camp, posing a danger of presenting a one-dimensional view of the past. In particular, if used in the classroom the albums may misguide the pupils giving the impression that they are presented with a comprehensive representation of the Shoah. This would prevent them from asking further questions, eventually sidestepping the issue of other victims.

This clear politicization of the narratives makes historical comics subservient to the national curriculum, while disregarding projects that do not fit such defined educational agenda. This, of course, contributes to the waning of the genre and the strengthening of the propagandistic trend whereby one-dimensional narratives of the past are fostered and subsidized. Aside from the tendency to present Poland’s past in a prescriptive and formulaic manner, Epizody strikes with an overly realistic quality of artwork and an inclination to view history as something that can be fully grasped and presented in one “true” and accurate manner. Needless to say, such faithfulness of representation often misses out on a more nuanced view of the past and rarely yields satisfactory results on the graphic level.


The comics discussed here show a variety of responses to the Shoah in Poland and point to important social, political and cultural factors that affect their creation. These may include the Communist politics of memory, as seen in Wicek and Wacek, which presented a uniform narrative of Polish suffering, obscuring ethnic distinctions and leading to the suppression of the memory of Holocaust in much of the post-war period. More recent narratives such as Achtung Zelig! point to the attempts at reconciling the Communist past which, conversely, pushes the tragic story of the two Zeligs to the background and evades the atrocity altogether. Other accounts, such as the stories found in the Wrzesień anthology present a more varied view of the Second World War but those narratives, too, tend to portray solely the gentile experience of death camps, pointing to the scarcity of new voices coming from the country’s Jewish community. This tendency to focus predominantly on Polish gentiles is also visible in the educational materials on Auschwitz published by K&L Press which clearly cater to a homogenous “de-Judaized” (gentile) classroom. And while stories focusing on Polish (Catholic) heroes could be an important contribution to the patriotic upbringing of contemporary schoolchildren, there is an urgent need for narratives that go beyond such a one-dimensional view of the Second World War.

In all of the works analysed here the Holocaust, understood as a systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish communities, constitutes only a small fraction of these narratives. This does not mean that there is no graphic language associated with the Shoah. Quite the contrary, the gas chambers, stripped pyjamas and images of corpses feature in many of these narratives, but they are often treated as a metaphorical box to tick before the gentile-centred narrative can be put forward to the reader. This selective approach to Poland’s past is also reflected in the formulaic and conventional construction of the characters which often strike one as improbable and contrived. The way they act and speak is clearly aimed at underscoring the valour of these protagonists. Not only does this show the necessity of pluralizing the memory of the atrocity in Poland but also turning to topics that might be closer to contemporary audiences, for example, the increasing tendency to rediscover one’s multiple identities and the revival of the Jewish community in Poland. Only then can we hope for more multifaceted and artistically convincing representations of the Polish-Jewish past.