How Jewish Comic Book Artists Led the Fight to Break the Silence on the Holocaust

A new book and exhibition both aim to show how comic books and graphic novels were the first to depict the Shoah, and its victims, in popular culture

Cover of a 1979 edition of Captain America featuring a storyline in a concentration camp.
Marvel Comics / Image from the book "We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust"

During World War II, American kids pored over comic books where superheroes like Captain America and Superman punched out Nazis. But one thing completely missing was any storyline about the Nazi’s victims, Jewish or otherwise.

In the following decades, though, a small number of bold artists – several of them Jewish – began to use comics to bring stories about the Holocaust to readers. These stories, involving superheroes like Batman, Captain America and the X-Men, managed to reach a generation that did not learn about the Nazi genocide in school. And more recently, there has been an unprecedented surge of Holocaust storylines entering the comic book universe.

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An upcoming exhibition at Holon’s Israeli Cartoon Museum on how comics depicted children in the Holocaust and a recently published book, “We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust,” both focus on what might seem at first an unlikely pairing of medium and message.

“Most people correctly perceive comic books as entertainment,” says Rafael Medoff, co-author of “We Spoke Out” and director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. “But when I was growing up in the ’70s, my friends and I also saw how they addressed social issues,” including racism, poverty, drug abuse and environmentalism.

The cover of "We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust" by Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe.
Yoe Books/IDW Publishing

This observation led the Holocaust historian to team up with Neal Adams – an iconic comic book artist known for his work on DC Comics superheroes like Batman and Green Arrow – and comics historian Craig Yoe to explore the subject further.

The resultant book assembles 18 comic books from the ’50s through the ’80s that were groundbreaking for their depictions of the Holocaust, and recounts how they were created.

“In this sense, the book is a badge of pride for the comics industry: That they were taking on a somewhat educational role at a time when comic books were looked at as just a cheap form of entertainment,” Medoff tells Haaretz.

The first comic book to directly discuss the Holocaust and to mention Jews as victims of Nazi persecution was “Desert Fox,” published in 1951. It was essentially a rebuttal to revisionist depictions in books and films at the time attempting to whitewash the role of Gen. Erwin Rommel in the Nazi killing machine.

Harvey Kurtzman – the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and who a year later founded the Mad comic book – decided, uniquely, to pen his response to the “Desert Fox” myth in comic form, outlining why Rommel shared moral responsibility for the Nazi atrocities. The story also mentioned Jews being experimented on and systemically starved by the Germans.

More typical comic book-style stories followed later that decade – wild science fiction and horror stories featuring Nazis as villains, and where Jews also start to be mentioned. And by the ’60s and ’70s, the first major superheroes started to be featured in Holocaust-related themes. These included a 1969 Captain Marvel cautionary tale about a dictator figure and a 1971 comic book story pitting Batman and Robin against a revenge-plotting Holocaust survivor.  

By the ’90s, with the Holocaust increasingly being addressed in the world, a new backstory for the character of Magneto was developed in the “X-Men” comics, Medoff explains. Magneto transitioned from clear-cut “mutant” villain to something more nuanced, being presented for the first time as having a Jewish background (birth name Max Eisenhardt) and having spent time at an Israeli psychiatric facility.

He was also presented as a Holocaust survivor who had started using the name Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, a German-born Jew who was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto with his parents. They escaped but were later recaptured, his parents being murdered by the Nazis and Max sent to Auschwitz. The horror and stress he experienced there sparked his mutant powers. His cynicism about the world explains his desire to protect his fellow mutants, as he draws similarities to the way the world persecutes them and the trauma Jews suffered in the Shoah.

This vivid storyline of a clearly Jewish victim of the Nazis who turned into one of Marvel’s most powerful characters contrasts with the way the Jewish story of the Holocaust was muted in earlier comic books – for instance, in “Escape from Majdanek,” where the prisoners at the concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland are never even identified as Jewish.

“I take pride in our industry, which is criticized by some as being childish but somehow manages to get first in line in publicly attacking Nazis, crooked legislators, the Holocaust and bad guys in general,” “We Spoke Out” co-author Adams tells Haaretz via email.

Page by Gene Colan from a 1967 comic book story, "Experiment in Fear," taken from "We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust."
GENE COLAN / EERIE COMICS / IMA

Just after the war, Adams spent several years as a child on a U.S. military base in Germany. “That probably had a great deal to do with [my] natural sensitivity with regard to the Holocaust,” Adams writes. At age 10, he and fellow children on the army base were among the first to see shocking footage that showed U.S. soldiers entering the death camps.

Taking on Hitler

Adams and Medoff first teamed up a decade ago – along with another comic book great, Joe Kubert – to tell the real-life story of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt in “The Last Outrage.” She had only survived Auschwitz because, in 1944, the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, ordered her to produce watercolor portraits of Roma inmates so he could assess their skin tones as part of his ongoing Aryan experimentation. 

“The Last Outrage” includes a depiction of the actual “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” mural that Babbitt painted on a children’s barracks in Auschwitz. After the war, she would immigrate to the United States and marry one of the movie’s animators (Art Babbitt, who also created the character of Goofy) and become an animator herself – working on such Warner Bros. characters as Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzalez. However, her final decades were spent in a dispute with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum over them returning her artwork, which they refused to do.

Fighting the Nazis

Many founders of the comic book industry in the ’30s were Jewish, either immigrants to the United States themselves or the sons of immigrants. For example, the first major comic book superhero character, Superman, was created by two young Jewish men in Cleveland – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Medoff suggests they were motivated by the desire to create a hero who could fight the Nazis when the Man of Steel made his debut in 1938.

Superman even directly confronts Hitler in one comic book – which allegedly prompted Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels to declare “This Superman is a Jewish!” and forbade German children from reading any Superman comics.

But Jewish persecution was not included or mentioned in most of the comics Jews were creating during the wartime or postwar period, Medoff says,

“Jewish comics creators wanted to be perceived as patriots and regular Americans and fitting into American society, and likely were uneasy about calling attention to the particular plight of the Jews,” he explains.

Beyond super criminals

Cover of a 1976 comic strip about the Warsaw Ghetto, by Joe Kubert
"We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust"

In 1969, Roy Thomas – a senior writer at Marvel and arguably best known for introducing Conan the Barbarian to comic books – wrote “The Mad Master of the Murder Maze,” a Captain Marvel story about the dangers of an authoritarian leader rising to power. The storyline, conceived by (Jewish) artist Gil Kane, included one character, Mr. Weiss, who was a Holocaust survivor.

“As someone with an interest in most aspects of World War II, I liked working on a story that connected with it. In addition, I remembered the great [Albert] Feldstein/[Bernie] Krigstein story ‘Master Race’ from EC's IMPACT #1 back in 1955, which had dealt in a different way with a Holocaust survivor and a guard, and I saw this as a superhero equivalent,” Thomas says via email, referring to the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed comic book about a chance encounter between a former concentration camp commander and one of his victims on a New York City subway.

Thomas recounts how it was still considered unusual at the time to include a Holocaust survivor in a comic book story. “I knew it was a bit off the beaten track,” he writes. “But Marvel had spent the larger part of a decade establishing itself as an iconic and icon-shattering entity in its own small way. It was time to branch out in other ways besides super-criminals and alien races.”

Fighting back

The Israeli Cartoon Museum’s exhibition “A Million and a Half: Childhood during the Holocaust as Presented in Comics” will open on October 24.

“When one thinks about the Holocaust and children, you usually think about the child as a victim, an innocent being taken to his or her death,” says the exhibition’s curator, Michal Paz-Klapp. “But what I found is that most of the works are about surviving and fighting back.

“There are examples of victims as victims but not as many as depictions of the survivor, because it seems the comic artists wanted to show these children as active,” adds Paz-Klapp, who is also an editor of Young Adult books and comics at one of Israel’s largest publishing houses.

The exhibition will include nearly 100 images from around the world, including a section dedicated to Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking ’80s graphic novel “Maus.” There is also a focus on Anne Frank, including a Japanese comic book that retells her story in a Manga style and a graphic novel version of her diary, recreated by the team behind the award-winning Israeli animation “Waltz with Bashir” (2008).

There will also be exhibits showing panels from “graphic memoirs,” including Miriam Katin’s “We are On Our Own” (2006), which recounts how, as a girl, she and her mother escaped wartime Budapest when the Nazis invaded.

Also on display will be cartoons by Orthodox Jews featuring depictions of childhoods unfolding during the Holocaust – including one called “I Beat You Eichmann,” a reference to the Nazi war criminal later captured by the Mossad in Argentina, and another that takes place in Tunisia during the war.

Works by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors also feature, including well-known Israeli artist Rutu Modan, who fictionalizes the story of her return to Poland with her grandmother in the 2013 graphic novel, “The Property.”

There will also be a special room dedicated to a 22-page story about race car drivers, written and illustrated by Ivan Polak, a 16-year-old boy in the Terezin Ghetto (aka Theresienstadt concentration camp). Polak, who did not survive the war, was editor of a ghetto magazine called Kamarad, which he produced for his friends.

“There’s fighting, blood and lots of violence, and you can see this child does not have a normal life. Even though it’s about cars and sports, you can feel the surroundings,” notes Paz-Klapp.

Medium for the masses

The cover of Joe Kubert's "Yossel."
Vertigo Publishing/Joe Kubert

The Holon museum owns the original drawings used in Kubert’s graphic novel “Yossel” (2003),  and these will also be on show. (Kubert donated the drawings to the museum before he died in 2012.)

Kubert was born in Poland and had arrived in the United States in the 1920s, his family almost being denied entry. He drew on this experience to try to answer the question, “What if my family had still been in Poland when the Warsaw Ghetto was founded?” in “Yossel” – in which his fictional alter ago finds himself becoming popular with the Nazis due to his sketches of superheroes. 

Adams says comic books can be used to tell any kind of story, including the Holocaust. “Today, they have brought us our greatest high-budget films, our best television shows and computer games. They are a medium for the masses and they do not diminish any other medium by their presence,” he writes.

“Or, to put it another way: I have never seen a kid purchase a children’s book with their own money [unlike comics], nor does anyone not know Archie, Thor, Captain America, Batman and Robin, Superman or Wonder Woman.”