by Kristy Boney
It is inevitable. Every year there is always at least one student in my German class who only wants to talk about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, World War II, and all the information they have gleaned from the latest program about Germany’s sordid and blood-stained past on the History channel. I always appreciate the curiosity to learn, but I am consistently disappointed that the interest begins and ends with spectacle—there is never much engagement beyond the “Did you know that . . .?” or “Can you believe that . . . ?” If there is one thing I have learned in my studies of German history and literature it is this: There is no good way to criticize a story about the Holocaust. The subject matter is too weighty, too overwhelming, too gruesome, and too tragic that criticism of such art which deals with Germany’s greatest sin comes across as callous, inhumane, and ignorant. Yet, to allow for such a significant period of history to remain only as tantalizing trivia is just as callous, inhumane, and certainly ignorant. So to come across Dave Sim’s Judenhass [Jew Hatred], was refreshing in the hope that his project to “allow even the slowest reader and the most reluctant teacher to comprehend and convey some measure of the enormity of the Shoah and the profound level of enmity against Jews which made it possible” would offer me new ways to teach the students about culture and history and learn about the violent lessons of intolerance and racial hatred.
While impeccably and realistically drawn, using sources of photorealism, Sim begins his tale with the acknowledgment “that every creative person should consider doing a work addressing the Shoah,” and briefly wonders what the comics medium would have been like if such heavyweights such as Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Joe Schuster, Jack Kirby, and other Jewish notables had been born in Germany rather than America. A sickening thought, but that’s the point—such an assertion is a strong start to ponder and discuss the hatred of the Jewish nation that began long before Hitler came to power. Sim doesn’t follow this train of thought for long, however, and the project teeters between chronicling history and becoming a post-modern montage of sensationalistic horror.
It is this grey area of sensationalizing history where I find Sims’ latest project troubling. The artwork taken from photographs is detailed, concrete and poignant when placed next to a derogatory definition about the Jewish nation such as Judenrein [the cleansing of the Jews] or die Endloesung, a Nazi euphemism that replaced the terms “murder,” “gassing,” or “genocide.” Similarly, Sim’s rendering of close-ups, taken of corpses found in concentration camps juxtaposed with quotes from Martin Luther, Mark Twain, and of course Adolf Hitler provide a mosaic of repulsion from which one wishes to look away, but much like a horror movie can’t. Granted, presenting the Holocaust can—and some argue must always—be graphic. But there should always be a balance between presenting the Holocaust and Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (a German term that means “coming to terms with the past”). When the project presents the evidence without seeking to find meaning and understanding in the millions murdered, it becomes a way to deal with history superficially that latches onto—and maybe even fetishizes—the blood and macabre—and does not instruct, but merely tantalizes.
Sim is not alone in his attempt to pay tribute, and I do respect him for engaging with the material, even if it borders on the sensational. The sensationalism is the same with many movies, and it even rears its ugly head at Washington D.C.’s Holocaust museum—an effort meant to stimulate persons to confront hatred. One walks in, takes an identity and at the end of the tour, and learns if s/he has survived or perished. And all this allows the visitor to shudder and be cathartically grateful that s/he is in a different time and—more often than not—of a different nation. The sins of the past are real, and the lessons to be learned—of the history of the Jewish nation, of the cultural tension between Jews and other beliefs, of moral responsibility, and of tolerance and humanity—are tangible and within reach when learning about the Holocaust. I wish Sim had stuck with his original notion of “What if. . .” and followed through to make these socio-cultural and political lessons of the Jewish nation more applicable. Even with the undercurrent that the past is not dead, and that, despite the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is still today alive and thriving, the message gets undercut by the impulse to shock and disgust, rather than provoke and teach.