The Return of the Jewish Brigade - in Comic Books

The exploits of Jewish volunteers from the Yishuv who fought for the British in World War II, are the subject of a new series of comic books in Belgium.

On the shelves of the numerous comic book shops in Brussels, amid the Gallic Asterix and the Belgian Tintin, some surprising new illustrated heroes have been popping up – soldiers of the Jewish Brigade fighting the Nazis in World War II. How did they get there? What brought them back to the headlines 70 years later?

The answer can be found with one of the genre’s most familiar and prolific creators, the Flemish Mark van Oppen, better known by his nom de plume – Marvano.

Comics are a very serious business in Belgium. Not for nothing has the genre been called “the ninth art.” Belgian and French comics are aimed at a market that has been releasing an amazing number of titles each year – about 5,000, with two-thirds of those being new works and the rest reprints of past titles. Dozens get print runs in the tens of thousands and are translated into many languages.

Marvano (an abbreviation of Mark van Oppen), 62, was born in the town of Zolder in northeastern Flanders, Belgium. He started out in a completely different field, architecture, but over time developed a passion for drawing and writing. He began drawing comics for various newspapers, making the final break from his original profession in 1982 when he was offered the job of chief editor of the Flemish version of Le Journal de Tintin, the successful illustrated weekly “for young people aged 7 to 77” that ran from 1946-1988.

The project that really made his name as one of Belgium’s top comic artists was Marvano’s graphic novel version of Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman’s science fiction novel “The Forever War.” Marvano became friends with Haldeman and eventually received the rights to adapt the story, which concerns the struggle of humans against a race of bizarre and violent aliens.

The much-acclaimed illustrated “Forever War” trilogy came out in 1988-1989. (A Hebrew version of the original book was published in Israel by Am Oved.) It was followed by other comic book series written by Marvano, including “The Seven Dwarves,” about the exploits of a British bomber crew in the German skies during World War II, “Berlin,” about the American and Allied airlift that saved West Berlin from the Soviet siege after the war and “Grand Prix,” about the Nazi auto industry in the 1930s, when the Germans were determined to prove their technological supremacy.

“Not only that,” says Marvano, elaborating on the story. “Hitler summoned the automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche and asked him to build a 1,000-horsepower car engine. ‘1,000?’ asked the stunned engineer. ‘In the most powerful cars we get to 400 or 450 maximum,’ he told him. ‘1,000,’ the Fuhrer insisted. It turned out the dictator already had a plan in mind. This engine was really meant for fighter planes. That kind of development was prohibited, under the German surrender agreement from World War I, and this was his way of getting around the obstacle.”

As an artist, you’re clearly fascinated by the years before, during and after World War II?

“What happened then is a crime the likes of which the world had never seen before and will never see again – and those who deny it are mad. This history is starting to be forgotten, and forgetting is the start of the path to a new hell, God forbid. And at the same time, when I sometimes hear people talking about that period in the context of what’s happening in the Middle East – I feel that they just don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The Jewish Brigade was founded in September 1944, the first British military unit in World War II composed entirely of Jews from Mandatory Palestine. The Jewish Agency pressed for it, Winston Churchill supported it and young men from the Jewish Yishuv volunteered to do what little they could in the face of the Nazi threat and the rumors about the fate of European Jews.

A unit of 4,000 troops was organized in three battalions, with other auxiliary units appended to it. After four months of rigorous training, the brigade set off for the Italian front under the command of a Jewish brigadier from the engineering corps, Ernest Frank Benjamin. Benjamin and the brigade’s Jewish chaplain, Moshe Dov Casper, agreed at the outset that no pork would be served to the troops and that the Sabbath day of rest would be honored as much as possible.

The battalions had their baptism of fire in March 1945, fighting against the German army in the Alfonsine sector of Italy. An even tougher battle followed on the banks of the Senio River. The soldiers fought bravely, seizing outposts in an area that separated the British and Germany armies, at a cost of 30 killed and 150 wounded. It was the German army’s last line of defense in Italy.

After the German surrender, the Brigade was transferred to the Italy-Austria border zone and then to liberated Belgium. While assisting Holocaust survivors and the remnants of Europe’s Jewish communities, the soldiers also undertook “under the radar” activities – organizing operations to help survivors immigrate illegally to Palestine. Some also took it upon themselves to mount revenge operations against the Nazis.

The number of Yishuv volunteers in the British Army, not only in the Jewish Brigade, who fell in the line of duty amounted to 800. The largest single group was the 140 soldiers from the 462nd Transport Company who lost their lives when the SS Erinpura was sunk in the Mediterranean by German planes in 1943.

Starting in July 1946, the Brigade began to be dismantled by the British Command, but the extensive experience acquired by the Jewish soldiers and officers later played an important role when the Israel Defense Forces was established.

Exhaustive historical research

I meet with Marvano at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He has come to talk about the publication of the second book in his new series, “The Jewish Brigade” (La Brigade Juive.) The first book, which came out a year ago, told the story of Ari and Leslie, soldiers from the unit who find themselves in Poland in 1945 and take revenge on SS men who murdered Jews. It is a personal mission, without the knowledge of the senior British command.

In the second book, which has just come out, the heroes are caught up in the immediate post-war chaos. They head toward Berlin, with Nazis fleeing in the opposite direction, headed for Argentina and Brazil. In Poland, they are witness to attacks on Jews by local Poles at the end of the war.

The third book, now in progress and due out next year, will deal with the British concern that the men of the Brigade are using the experience they’ve gained to smuggle Jews into Palestine, leading to the decision to break up the brigade. Like all of Marvano’s recent work, the trilogy is being published by Dargaud, which also published the first 25 volumes of the Asterix series.

“No, I’m not Jewish and there are no Jews in my family,” Marvano says with a smile. He came to the subject of the Jewish Brigade purely by chance. “I happened to see a documentary by an Israeli director whose name I’ve forgotten, and the story thrilled me. I asked around and no one was familiar with the story of the Brigade, the most secret unit in the British Army in World War II, apparently.

“That was enough to start me searching for more and more material on the subject, to read as much as I could about it and get caught in its net. I managed to find books about the war in Italy, where the Jewish Brigade operated, and British Army reports from that period about the battles and events immediately following the German surrender. I collected newspaper clippings from those days, I read the testimonies of soldiers who served in the Brigade, and of course I also consulted with historians who had researched the subject.

“How is it possible that the world doesn’t know this story? – I asked myself, and I got to work. Yes, I don’t have any personal involvement in this chapter of history, but an expert can describe precisely how a bird flies without personally having the experience of flight.”

Marvano, who to date has published about 30 albums of comics, works alone. Well, just about. “I have an assistant who colors in my illustrations, because I’m color-blind,” he reveals. “And if I were to take that part on, too, the result would be quite embarrassing. I write the texts in Flemish, and this time, to translate the albums about the Brigade for the French versions, I have a Jewish translator, so she can also correct any foolish mistakes I make.”

How much of a presence is the Holocaust in these books?

“The Holocaust is there as the background to the events, and I try to handle it with great respect and sensitivity. But I feel that I mustn’t exploit this subject too much.”

You believe comics is the right way to tell the story of the Jewish Brigade?

“Comics is how I make my living,” he laughs, before turning serious. “Comics is the way to reach a certain audience with this story, to reach young people who otherwise wouldn’t be aware of it.”