By Derek Royal
This has been a fascinating year for comics about Jewish identity and Jewish themes. So far we have seen the publication of such works as Christopher Huh’s Keeping My Hope, Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi’s Jerusalem: A Family Portrait, Rutu Modan’s The Property, Miriam Katin’s Letting Go, and the recently completed miniseries from Steve Niles and Dave Wachter, Breath of Bones. Now comes Jérémie Dres’s We Won’t See Auschwitz from SelfMadeHero, a memoir of author’s travels to Poland to discover his grandmother’s Polish roots. The significance of this act, indirectly imbedded in the title itself, is what makes this book stand out from other Jewish sojourn narratives: its emphasis on reclaiming personal family history, not Holocaust memorializing. As Dres states more than once in his book, the title is a response to the many reactions that he received when traveling to Poland. Being a French Jew with a familial link to Eastern Europe, his travels to Poland were assumed by others to be linked directly with the Shoah and coming to terms with history or honoring the dead. On the contrary, as Dres makes clear from the very first page, he travels to Warsaw specifically to visit his grandmother’s former home in an effort to better understand her past and, by association, his own. “My first instinct on reaching Warsaw was to find where she’d lived,” he tells us, and then reveals his plans in discovering a part of his family of which he had heretofore been ignorant: first to Warsaw, “on the trail of my grandmother, Tema Dres née Barab, who left in 1930,” then onto Żelechów, home of his deceased grandfather, and then Kraków, so that can attend “the biggest Polish festival of Jewish culture, which would begin at the end of the trip.” Nowhere in his itinerary is a visit to any Holocaust sites or memorials. Indeed, the places and people that Dres visits have more to do with life-affirming or celebratory occasions than they do with death and remembrance.
In this way, Dres’s memoir is similar to the recently published The Property. As I wrote in my review of that book back in July, Modan’s focus was not on the Holocaust past, but on the efforts of Mica and her grandmother, Regina, to connect with Regina’s pre-war life in Warsaw. Like Tema Dres in We Won’t See Auschwitz, Mica’s grandmother had been a young woman in the days leading up to the German invasion, and both escaped Warsaw before the aggressive aftermath of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Also like Modan’s narrative, We Won’t See Auschwitz is more concerned with honoring the personal family past than it is linking itself to the larger Jewish community. In fact, if the protagonists of both books — Dres in his memoir, and Mica in Modan’s fictional comic — connect with any larger Jewish community at all, it is with the young third-generation Jews who are in the process of asserting their identity and attempting to reestablish a Jewish presence within the tapestry of Polish culture. It is no accident that both books end with an ethnic communal event: Zaduszki (the Polish day of the prayer for souls) in The Property, and Kraków’s Jewish Polish festival in We Won’t See Auschwitz.
As Jean-Yves Potel — the Guardian of the Shoah Memorial for Poland, and who actually makes an appearance in the graphic memoir — points out in his Preface for the book, the third generation of Holocaust survivors, the grandchildren of victims who either suffered the Holocaust or were able to escape the atrocities, is distinctive from the second generation in the distance it puts between itself and the Shoah. This is not a form of forgetting, Potel is keen to emphasize, but a shift from commemoration and mourning to one of assertive identity building. “We no longer concentrate exclusively on anti-Semitism,” Potel writes, but “would rather reconstruct the life from before, share the little everyday joys and sorrows from a time gone by, a vanished world, a distance culture.” And this is what Jérémie Dres, or at least his narrative persona, do in his travels through Poland. He, accompanied by his brother, Martin, is not only in search of his grandmother’s past, but of any kind of Jewish presence in Poland. What they discover is quite surprising, and it runs up against the stereotypes and assumptions they (and perhaps almost everyone else outside of major Polish cities) harbor about Jews in the region: not only is there a growing Jewish cultural presence in places such as Warsaw and Kraków, but there are older Jewish Poles who have established a communal infrastructure lying just below the national radar. The Jews have never completely left, and this is quite a different take on the kind of narratives we find in such works as Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock: A Confession — with the outlandish Moishe Pipik working with Lech Wałęsa to welcome back the Jews — or Thane Rosenbaum’s post-Holocaust trilogy of Elijah Visible, Second Hand Smoke, and The Golems of Gotham. (Rosenbaum, in fact, is perhaps the most significant representative of American second-generation writers, and his books deftly underscore the dilemma facing the children of survivors and their relationship with Europe.)
Dres’s art is deceptively simple, and it would be a mistake to glance through the book and feel that its monstration — and here I’m using Thierry Groensteen’s term for the graphic manifestation of a comic text’s narrator — is merely cartoonish and non-revealing. On the contrary, the minimal drawn style underscores the memoirist feel of the book, and its many chapters or sections read like journal entries of Dres’s travels through Poland. His frameless panels, where one set of images almost blends into or collides with another, provide a kind of flow that reflects the wandering nature of his journey, going from one Jewish organization or synagogue to another in search of not only his grandmother’s past, but an actual Jewish identity within present-day Poland. And we see through his art the many connections, frustrations, and recognitions he experiences in searching for a Polish Jewish community. We Won’t See Auschwitz isn’t just a graphic memoir that brings him closer to his grandmother and her personal history, but one that uncovers an ethnic presence he, along with most readers, never knew existed. In this sense, it is a book of realization.
Get your copy of We Won’t See Auschwitz, as well as of those other books discussed in this review: