The genre of graphic novels dealing with the topic of the Holocaust has never been an easy one to digest. In 1991, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” paved the way in its exploration of the limitations of the graphic novel in representing that which resists representation on one hand, and on the other hand in treating such a grim topic using an irreverent form such as a graphic novel. Over the past decade an abundance of graphic novels about the Holocaust has emerged. These include Pascal Croci’s “Auschwitz” (2004), Bernice Eisenstein’s “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors” (2007), Eric Heuvel’s “A Family Secret” (2009), Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón’s “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography” (2010), Joe Kubert’s “Yossel: April 19, 1943” (2011) and Miriam Katin’s “Letting It Go” (2013).
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Loic Dauvillier’s “Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust” (originally published in French in 2012) similarly recasts childhood memories of the Holocaust in comic-strip format. But whereas most such books are written with an adult audience in mind, “Hidden” is meant for young children, ages 6 to 10 according to the publisher.
The story is told from the perspective of an elderly woman, Dounia Cohen, who recounts her childhood experiences during World War II to her young granddaughter, Elsa. The book begins as Elsa wakes up in the middle of the night and finds her sleepless grandmother in the living room. Cuddled in her lap, Elsa listens to Dounia’s haunting memories and falls asleep again.
Dounia’s memories are rendered not only in words, but also in shapes, colors and facial expressions. As a child, Dounia still lacks the language and cognitive faculties to fully articulate the complexity of the events that surround her, and she is caught in a world of adult cruelty, helplessness and protective lies: The yellow star, Dounia’s father tells his young daughter, is a “sheriff’s star,” and at first she wears it proudly. The interplay of Dauvillier’s text, Marc Lizano’s illustrations and Greg Salsedo’s colors captures a child’s perception of catastrophe: beyond dates or geography, “hidden” not only from the Nazis but also from adult empathy and knowledge.
Soon after the invasion of France, in 1940, Dounia, who is perhaps 6 years old, must wear to school the yellow star that marks her as Jewish. She experiences her own segregation and that of her family, and worse. Her friend Isaac disappears overnight. Dounia is forced to sit alone, at the back of the classroom, and at recess she is excluded from her classmates’ games. She witnesses the humiliation of her neighbors, and the destruction of Jewish stores. Finally, her father loses his job and the family stops going out. After the police take her parents away, to a camp outside Paris, neighbors hide Dounia in their apartment. When that becomes too dangerous, French Resistance fighters help her escape to a farm in the countryside, where she remains until after the war. Dounia is then reunited with her mother, who survived the camp.
Dounia uses simple words to narrate complex events, such as her fear, her father’s death and her mother’s deportation and survival of the camp. Colors change in accordance with Dounia’s emotions: Danger and desolation are depicted in cold grays, the happiness of the home in warm red tones. Lizano’s strong, bold lines capture the terror of the Holocaust: the pale, shorn, oversized head and the wide, fearful eyes of Dounia’s mother after her rescue from the concentration camp; the exhausted dark shades and deep wrinkles of Dounia’s adult face.
In order to spare children from pain, adults might “do things without thinking” Dounia tells Elsa, thereby unintentionally increasing a child’s fear, incomprehension and confusion, as Dounia’s father did when he told her the star meant that she was a sheriff.
Although Dounia is unable to fully express her unsettledness — “All I really remember is crying” she tells Elsa by way of describing the loss of her parents, and “I didn’t know why, but I didn’t like it” is what she says about being sent back to school — Dauvillier depicts the maturity of a child who is capable of reacting wisely, of cooperating and of making the right decision under extreme, life-threatening circumstances. Dounia intuitively recognizes danger. She follows her parents’ instructions to hide in a closet, to change her name to Simone while fleeing the Nazis. She calls her kind helper “Mama,” and while hiding in the countryside she insinuates herself into the community and attends the local church.
Dauvillier has found a new way to tell children about the Holocaust and to make them understand it by depicting a child who experienced it, without quite understanding it. Hugs are central to the book. It ends with a hug, and there are hugs in many moments, especially after frightening events, when Dounia the child seeks reassurance from adults. With moments and episodes that culminate in hugs Dauvillier’s book reminds us not only of the Holocaust, but also of the way in which we perceive our own childhood and hidden places: in the intensity of dark threat or joyful closeness; in colors, in faces and in the reassuring, dark and warm hug that perpetuates time.
The author studied literature in Cologne, Cardiff, and Stanford, and wrote her dissertation on the poet Charles Baudelaire.