A Graphic Story of a Holocaust Survivor's Son

Illustrator and cartoonist Michel Kichka has left his mark on countless children's books. But it took him decades to examine his own childhood.

Michel Kichka’s  first graphic novel, “Second Generation – Things I Never Told My Father,” opens with the line: “Father rarely spoke about his family.” It continues: “He only had three photographs left: one of his mother, one of his father, and a big family picture that was taken on the streets of Brussels before the Nazi occupation. He’s wearing Tintin-style golf pants and is walking next to his mother Hannah, his father Yosef and his two sisters, Niva and Bertha.” Readers are invited to examine the accompanying illustrations of these three pictures. “When I was little, I would sneak into his room, pull out the family album, look at the photograph and weep hot tears. I wiped them away the moment I heard his footsteps.”

The novel then moves on to a description of a family meal with the Holocaust survivor father and his four children. “Mmmm! This soup reminds me of Auschwitz! You know why, kids?” the father asks. “No, daddy!”  answers the eldest son. “Because in Auschwitz we didn’t get served this kind of soup!” smiles the father, while his children look at him with sad, shocked faces.  Immediately afterwards, when the eldest son lets out a proud burp at the end of the meal, he is reprimanded by his mother who barks at him: “Michel, one more burp and you’re being sent to your room!” “Why is father allowed?” the boy asks. “Of course father’s allowed. He was in the camps!” she answers.

The newly published Hebrew translation of  cartoonist and illustrator Michal Kichka's graphic novel, originally written in French,  is a revealing, personal, brave and captivating journey into life alongside  – and in the shadow of  – a Holocaust survivor parent.  Kichka delves into deep childhood memories and tells the story of the father who didn’t tell his children anything about what he had been through during the Shoah. He explains how this dark period of his family’s history preoccupied him as a child; stirring up his vivid imagination, feeding his anxieties and also penetrating into his dreams, turning them into terrifying nightmares. He tells readers how the few comments his father made about Hitler and the death marches stayed with him for days on end and months at a time, and explains how ever since he has felt obligated to please his father and to compensate him for all the suffering he endured.

But Kichka doesn’t stop here. Using black and white illustrations accompanied by a sense of humor that pervades the whole book (published in Hebrew by Hargol-Modan), he reveals shady secrets that many families would have preferred to leave in the dark.

Kichka says that he first had the idea for the book 27 years ago, having read Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking book, “Maus.” In the book – which was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize – Spiegelman described his father’s experiences during the Holocaust and also examined his relationship with his father. “When I read ‘Maus’ I was only 32, but I felt a strong connection between myself and Spiegelman from the very moment I sat on a bench in the street and read it from cover to cover. It wasn’t just the fact that we’re both cartoonists, but also the similarities between our stories and our father’s stories,” he explains.

He admits that for most of his life, he didn’t have the strength to face his father and explain how he, the eldest son of the family, saw things . “I couldn’t confront him, disappoint him and make him feel sad. I felt that it wouldn’t be fair to do so, as he had suffered so much,” Kichka says. But he also adds that the book is not an attempt to settle accounts with his parents. “I started working on it at the age of 55, when I was already reconciled [with what had happened] and had left all the anger behind me. I simply wanted to tell the story of what it was like to grow up in such a household – what was funny, unique, difficult – and to explain how now, in retrospect, I see everything that happened.”

In the novel he reveals things he has never spoken of, including the fact that he is the only member of his family to receive a letter from his brother, delivered a few weeks after his suicide. He also implicitly links his brother’s suicide to the shadow of the Holocaust hovering over his family, and tells readers about the immense anger he felt when his father finally decided to start talking about the Holocaust during his brother’s shiva: “The best thing that happened to my father was that he finally found a way to tell his story of the Holocaust. But the price he had to pay for this was especially painful – his son’s suicide,” he says.  

Not angry anymore

Kichka was born in 1954 in Liege, Belgium. He abandoned his architectural studies in order to move to Israel in 1974. Thanks to his great love of cartoons, he decided to study graphic design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Over the years he has created a wealth of humorous cartoons mostly aimed at children, and has also illustrated many children’s books and drawn political caricatures and illustrations for newspapers. He used to be the chairman of the Association of Israeli Caricaturists, and won the Dosh Caricature Award in 2008. He has lectured at Bezalel for years, and is an active member of the international organization “Cartooning for Peace.”  

"Second Generation – Things I Never Told My Father” is his first graphic novel. He says that it’s his proudest creation, and explains that it took a while to come to fruition. “A decade ago it started to bother me,” he says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and say to myself: ‘I must get up, go over to the table and start working on this book.’ I felt that all the years that had passed allowed me to look back at everything we’d been through, to analyze what had happened and to try to make sense of everything. I guess that at an earlier stage in my life I wouldn’t have been able to do so, because I was very angry.”

He felt that the time was right five years ago, when Bezalel offered lecturers a research grant. He proposed studying the issue of second generation Holocaust survivors from his own personal perspective, and won a grant that enabled him to take a semester off. “I delved into the depths of my soul and tried to understand what story I had to tell,” he says. “I took an empty notebook, wrote on it ‘the second generation’ and decided to try to break everything down. I filled the notebook with thoughts, memories and anecdotes.”

The notebook lay in a drawer for three years. It wasn’t until Kichka headed abroad for a conference in 2010 that he decided to start working, encouraged to do so by his wife. He took the notebook and several old diaries with him, rented an apartment in Liege and finally got started.

Kichka finished working on the book in January 2012, and it was published in France (by Dargaud) two months later. The publishers delivered a copy to his father, who lives in Belgium. Kichka’s sister told him that their father had found it hard to read, so Kichka decided to allow things to settle. This approach proved itself.  A few months ago he went to the Brussels Book Fair in order to sign some books and give some lectures, and his father was present at all these events. “He came to all the lectures, sat in the front row and didn’t say a word. And he always has something to say,” Kichka says with a smile. “But at the end of one of these lectures he stood up, walked over to me, hugged me in a way he never had before, and said in my ear: ‘You spoke so beautifully.  I’m so proud of you, and I’m so happy you did this book.’ At that moment I nearly started to cry. I told everyone from the stage: ‘you know, this is the first time my dad’s listened to me.’”

Michel Kichka
Emil Salman