As the final generation of survivors lamentably fades away, the legacy of the Holocaust faces an existential conundrum: who will continue to tell these stories? Fortunately for future generations, first-hand accounts and a copious literature has accumulated that will give a sense of the horrors that happened only seventy years ago.
In the popular culture sphere, it would appear that Holocaust as a topic of interest started around 1993, when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was released and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC was opened. The dual opening of these cultural milestones paved the way for more investment in studying the Holocaust as a continuum of cruelty and dehumanization. But, as one delves deeper into the literature and historiography of post-war renderings of the Shoah, it becomes apparent that another form of pop media was delving with Holocaust themes decades before Spielberg made Oskar Schindler a household name.
And that media was, of course, comics. And not just any comics, but stories that were written by legends in the field: Kutzman, Kubert, Wood, O’Neill, and, of course, Adams. And indeed, it’s Neal Adams whose name is most relevant here, for he, along with historian Rafael Medoff and archivist/publisher Craig Yoe, has recently released a compendium of comics about the Holocaust titled We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust. While presented as an academic tome (which it is, in some respects), We Spoke Out is also a comprehensive survey of some of the finest mainstream comics to touch on Holocaust themes. When I chatted with Neal about the book, he talked at length about the putting the book together, how readers should approach the book, and why it is more vital than ever for younger readers to learn about the Holocaust.
FROST: I wanted to start out a little bit about the background and genesis of the We Spoke Out book. A few years ago, you came out with the “They Spoke Out” series, so I wanted to know the larger story of the creation of this book. So could you start off with the Dina Babbitt story, and how that story launched the “They Spoke Out” video series?
Adams: The Dina Babbitt thing is a terrible story and is the last story in the book. That came about by a campaign Rafi Medoff of the Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies, and he had been working for a while to try and rescue these paintings that were in the Auschwitz museum that were done by Dina Babbitt during World War II. The way that happened, of course, is that Dina was a 19 year old girl, an art student. Her mother was going to be taken to Auschwitz, and she insisted that she had to go with her to help her and protect her and whatever, not realizing that she was going to go to a death camp. So they both end up in the Auschwitz death camp. Dina was a cartoonist. She had watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarves about seven times. And somebody from one of the other barracks asked her if she would come over to draw pictures on the walls to entertain the kids, who, in the end, were going to go to their deaths. She agreed, and she went over and did a mural on the wall of that barracks with chalks and other things that she found around there. She did an illustration of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, of course, which she had committed to memory. The kids were entertained by this, so their minds were taken off what was about to happen to them. It got around that Dina Babbitt was a young artist, and it got around to Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death who ran the Auschwitz camp. (He was a terrible guy who operated on twins and did all these terrible experiments, like submerging people in ice and stuff like that. Just a horrible person, hardly a human being.) He sent for her and told her that he was trying to prove that Gypsies were another race of humans, that they were subnormal, that they were not like us. And he said his proof was their skin color.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have a lot of color film at the time. And so he wanted her to paint them, so that he could show the nature of their skin, making them inferior as human beings. Now of course as stupid as that may be, here was an opportunity for Dina to save her own life. And she would not agree to it unless Mengele agreed to keep her mother alive. So he did. And she began a very long torturous process of making these paintings of these people, very slowly, of course, trying to keep them alive as long as she could. She did other paintings too for people at the camp, but she kept her mother alive and herself alive. They went on a death march near the end, came back to Auschwitz, and were rescued by the Americans and the Russians. So they went to America. And Dina got involved in the animation business in the United States and met a guy named Art Babbitt, who was, in fact, one of the Disney animators who had animated Dopey. Art was not only a terrific animator, but he was also kind of a union organizer. But he was a tremendous animator, so Disney kinda just left him alone. They married and had two children. And as things go in America and various parts of the world, they did end up getting divorced. And Dina continued to live her life with her daughters, and at one point she was called by the Auschwitz museum to possibly come and identify these paintings that they had acquired. I don’t know how they got them, but they acquired them.
Now, were they in the hands of guards? Were they in the hands of Mengele? We don’t know. Were they sold back to the museum? Were they even sold back to the museum by Mengele? Nobody knows. So they asked her to come and identify them, and she did. She went over to Poland, where the Auschwitz museum is, which is the prisoner of war camp, of course. She identified the paintings because they said “Dina” on them! And she said that she’d like to take them home. And they said no, and they were going to keep them there in the museum. Was a deal made? Well, I suppose you could say a deal was made for her life at the pain of death. Yes, they were kept by Mengele. Should they be kept by the museum? No, of course not. They belong to Dina Babbitt and her two daughters. So they refused to return the paintings.
This is where Rafi Medoff gets involved. He started a campaign to get legislators, lawyers, judges, and artists to sign petitions to try and get her paintings returned to her. Among those people was yours truly. So, of course, I was there to sign and to add my name. But I noticed that in the outline of the story that Rafi had done, that it read very much like a comic book. In fact, Rafael Medoff is a comic book fan. So I suggested to him that I draw up as a comic book story, and we will give it to whoever would like to have it to reproduce in whatever publication they would like—free of charge—and try to get it published in various places around the world as a way of getting these paintings released; up to that point, they were not being released, even though judges and legislators signed petitions. Obviously, you can’t explain the curator’s attitude at the museum, or the museum’s attitude, because it was totally ridiculous and stupid and beyond comprehension. And getting all the petitions from judges and lawyers saying the obvious meant nothing to them. And they still have the paintings. We will get them back.
In the meantime, Dina Babbitt has died. Her daughters survive her and we are going to get the paintings for her daughters. Now, the good thing about this is that first of all, the story got printed in a Marvel comic book. It got printed also in Germany and Israel. It got printed in the New York Times as a feature story. So anyone who wanted to see the story could read it. We got it in a number of publications, and we still offer it to anyone who would like to print it. Disney decided what they were gonna do was they were going to turn it into an animatic. They said,“Why don’t we turn it into an animatic?” They did it as a film, and they added into three of the movies they were releasing that year: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Anne Frank Story, and one other. But they did little features in the back of the video as added bonus points. And since they had done that, they thought they could have us do some more stories. So Rafi did some more stories, and we illustrated them.
One of the things that they do, that most films on the Holocaust don’t do, is they take one step back, and although they tell the story of the Holocaust, they tell it from a small distance away, so it doesn’t become so terrible and so horribly tragic. It becomes a dramatic story about an individual or a person who dealt with the Holocaust at the time. And I think that in contrast to some of the stuff that’s out that you see on television and various places, it’s so hard to watch that people choose not to watch it. And I think that’s a terrible thing, but it’s because the information you see, and the pictures you see, and the film you see is so horrible, that you turn it off in spite of yourself. These stories are more personal, a little bit more interesting. They were done with drawings, so maybe a little less tragic, but still talking about the Holocaust. So we actually had some fairly good success with these. Some schools have shown them as Holocaust Remembrance, which is basically Rafael Medoff’s goal because the Wyman Institute is basically doing is reminding people that the Holocaust exists and that it was terrible and that it could happen again. Which is something we all need to be reminded of.
FROST: Can you talk generally about the medium of comics and the relationship it has with the Holocaust in terms of general storytelling?
Adams: First, it’s important to remember that with drawings, you are able to tell a story that you have no photographs or film for. You’re not picking paintings out of a museum or finding some photographs in somebody’s trunk. You’re actually illustrating the events, and putting a camera on them so that you can see them, even though pictures of them no longer exist. You’re recreating the pictures or the events through drawings. It can be done in no other medium. Even when they try to do the Civil War, of course, there weren’t really any good animated ways to show it. Unless they took actors out in the field, then of course there would be actors out in real life, which is slightly impersonal in a way, but at the same time very personal. So comic book stories, if you take them in their lightest form—you know, Bugs Bunny—or in their densest form—Classics Illustrated, for example—are able to tell a story that can be told no other way. Well, it occurred to some folks along the way, after the Holocaust and after World War II, in doing comic books, that we could tell some of the stories that we’ve been told about what was going on in Germany during the war. And this is not so much film, which people were seeing, this is stories. So you can tell the stories about Rommel, you can tell the stories about the Golem, about things that happened during the Holocaust. And you can illustrate those stories so that you get to read them as a story.
The advantage of comic books and comic strips is that it’s another way to tell a story with pictures and words; it isn’t film. You’re basically making up the documentary with drawings. So, comic book artists and writers saw the opportunity when given the opportunity by their editors to tell these stories that they might have heard. Take the Rommel story [“Desert Fox” by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood]: Here was an opportunity to tell a story that might not be told any other way unless you start putting millions of dollars together and making a film. You can do it in something as simple as a comic book. You’re telling the story, you go to your editor and you say: “Hey, there’s some things people don’t know about Rommel, and here it is, can we go ahead and do it?” Sure, go ahead. Why not? So then suddenly, in the middle of a standard war story you get a Rommel. And you get to learn things about Rommel that you didn’t know before. And you didn’t think of him as the other guy’s hero.
An artist can draw a comic book story in a week; he can draw the whole world. And then next week he can draw another story. So telling stories with pictures becomes the medium by with artists and writers can work together and tell stories that otherwise might not be told any other way. And people don’t think of comic books that way. They think of comic books as a junk medium. Well, this junk medium is now making $250 million movies and various television shows and computer games, and it is becoming significant in our culture. And people are beginning to recognize it, but they also forget that you can also tell real-life stories, and what we did is we picked those stories out of the history of comic books when nobody was really talking about the Holocaust. And we put them together into this book that we’re talking about.
FROST: Can you talk as about the process of choosing the particular stories that were ultimately included in the finished volume?
Adams: I think you choose the best first, and the worst last, and then you chop off the ones at the bottom that are relatively insignificant. So if somebody wanted to do another book, there really isn’t any other material available. We chose from the best: we went to DC Comics, we went to Marvel Comics, we went to all the publishers. Everybody was cooperative. They gave us their best material because we had chosen it. We knew it. We had at our fingertips people who knew what these stories were. Rafael Medoff, in addition to being a Jewish historian, is a comic book fan. Everybody was cooperative with us because after a very short conversation, they saw that it was significant. And they gave us whatever we asked for.
FROST: Do you think that the stories were used mostly as pedagogical tools? Or just pure entertainment?
Adams: They were used as a form of entertainment. Comic books are a form of entertainment. But you can’t say Schindler’s List was made as a form of entertainment, because there’s somebody out there laying money on the table that has to pay for this that hopes that they will make their money back. But it covers a topic that’s worthwhile to cover. There are many films that are made that are worthwhile that don’t necessarily fit the normal entertainment mold, but certainly can make money, because people are interested in things other than clowns bouncing around. People are interested in real, significant stories. They’re interested in history. We just had the film on Churchill, Darkest Hour, in the movie theaters. Beautifully done. It was done for entertainment’s sake, people put money up and they earned their money back because the thing was popular. So, it’s a dual form. It is entertainment and it is education. You make choices as a writer or as someone who is producing material. It’s just a matter of choice. We are in a business whose end goal is entertainment but we know that we can do it in different ways.
FROST: Do you think that the directness and intimacy of just the comics form make them the best way to get these ideas across? Or, at least, the most effective way?
Adams: It’s the cheapest way, for sure. Steven Spielberg doing Schindler’s List is going to be pretty expensive. Maybe he went get across all the things he wants to get across. I think the picture that you have to have in your mind is the kid who’s been told to go to bed, and he gets under his covers and he raises the covers and takes out a flashlight and shines it on his book and he reads until he falls asleep. It’s a private thing. It’s significant to the individual. I’ve had people come to comic book conventions and tell me that comic books taught them to read. That comic books set a standard in their lives, you know. They guided their life. They’re out there doing the job that other forms are trying to do in our civilization. People who do comic books have a sense of responsibility, as far as I know. They try not to betray the form. They try to come up with something that’s worthwhile to read. It may be superheroes punching each other, but it’s for a reason and it’s for a purpose. But it’s also experimental in a way. So you have a medium that is a whole medium, and you can tell many different stories. You can tell every kind of story.
One of the things that the French say is that America created three art forms: jazz, musical comedy, and comic books. I don’t know if that’s true, and I wouldn’t trust the French with that kind of definition, but if you think about it, we did. Two Jewish kids in Cleveland created Superman, and that launched the comic book industry with million-seller comic books all across America.
FROST: Last question! What is the pressing need for this book in terms of creating more awareness of the Holocaust?
Adams: I think the last question is the easiest question to answer because the New York Times did an article just recently: People are forgetting the Holocaust. Look, I don’t want to be political but parents are being separated from their kids right now and sleeping on mats like cattle like concentration camps. There’s a wall being discussed between America and Mexico. We cannot say just because Hitler built the Autobahn that he was a good guy. He was a monster. We can’t be blinded by the horrors. We are very little different then we were and we need reminders of that.
We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust is available now.