New way to tell a terrible story

New graphic novels take on difficult subject matter: the lives of Hannah Arendt and Anne Frank

Marina Gerner

The most famous graphic book about the Holocaust is Maus by Art Spiegelman. Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs in what is the compelling and heartbreaking story of Spiegelman’s father surviving the Holocaust. It’s drawn with virtuoso skill, and in 1992 it became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Graphic novels continue to draw on that dark time. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein illustrates the philosopher’s three escapes: first, her move to Berlin, followed by her escape from the Nazis to Paris, and finally, settling in New York. It looks as if it was drawn in haste, possibly relaying the experience of being on the run. Krimstein shows the circle of her contemporaries, including Marc Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse and Sigmund Freud, and provides somewhat distracting, yet imaginative footnotes.

Krimstein, who has previously drawn cartoons for the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, takes liberties in presenting Arendt’s feelings and thoughts. When Germany passes a law that sick Jews can only be treated by Jewish doctors, Hannah says: “Who would want to see any other kind?” At one point, the ghost of Walter Benjamin appears to her as a water stain on the ceiling of her apartment.

Arendt risked her life by doing research on Nazi propaganda for the Zionist Congress, which led to her arrest by the Gestapo. In France, she was interned at Camp Gurs, and used a politically chaotic moment to escape. In New York, she first had to work as an au pair, before an essay calling for the creation of a Jewish army caught the attention of Salo Baron. It was followed by the work that led to The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Arendt remains a misunderstood philosopher. Her coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem is often trivialised. She is interpreted as having diminished the evil of Eichmann, when in reality her point was  that no single person is as evil as to have been beyond organised resistance. Her love affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger, who later became a Nazi sympathiser, also damaged her image. Here, the section dealing with Heidegger is rather too graphic. Still, the novel succeeds in depicting Arendt as the courageous and brilliant philosopher she was.

The story of Anne Frank hiding during the Holocaust is one of the most widely-read historical documents of the 21st century. This month, a graphic adaptation is published, adapted by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky. The illustrations look as if Amadeo Modigliani had drawn a Japanese manga. Some images riff on Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. There are comic strips, full-page illustrations and diary take-outs that capture Anne’s cheeky humour as well as her episodes of depression. They retell Anne’s diary with great compassion, wit and ebullience. We see Anne’s family dramas, her growing sexuality, her and Peter’s love story, and all the key moments from the diary.

One such moment is when Anne looks out of the window and writes: “As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more” — we see Anne and Peter flying through the sky. She says that in spite of everything, she still believes that people are truly good at heart. But as Eva Schloss, who knew Anne and has her own remarkable story, noted, she would not have said that if she had seen a concentration camp at the time.

Of course, no illustration can fully capture the intimacy, the soul of Anne’s own writing in diary form. But this adaptation could succeed at drawing in a new audience. Like many others, I first read Anne’s diary as a teenager. Rereading it made me realise just how extraordinarily talented a writer she was, how mature and wise. “Why are millions spent on the war each day, while not a penny is available for medical science, artists or the poor?” she wrote. Elsewhere she wrote about gender inequality and noted: “Women who struggle and suffer pain to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much tougher and more courageous soldiers than all those big-mouthed freedom-fighting heroes put together.”

Anne talks about what she wants to do after the war: “I’ve made up my mind to lead a different life from other girls, and not to become an ordinary housewife later on.” The picture that accompanied this moment caught me off guard and hit me the most. It depicts Anne as a grown-up woman, sophisticated and beautiful. She sits at a typewriter, surrounded by newspaper cover stories she has written. She is the woman Anne might have been, had she survived.

As it was, she was taken to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus fever aged 15. Of her family and the friends they were hiding with, only Anne’s father Otto survived. He is the one who passed down this book to us. “A book? A wound,” as Elie Wiesel said.

Anne’s diary continues to echo with great resonance some 75 years later. A team of experts led by a retired FBI agent has reopened an investigation to find out who betrayed the family. Meanwhile, the documentary No Asylum, which is widely available online, illustrates Otto’s gut-wrenchingly hopeless attempts to save his family. Before they went into hiding in the annex in Amsterdam, Otto applied for US and Cuban visas but was repeatedly turned down.

“Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank,” John F. Kennedy said. Nelson Mandela read her diary while in prison and said he “derived much encouragement from it”.

We know the story of Anne’s life and death, but even though we’re still within living memory of the Holocaust, we still know little about the lives of the other six million Jews who were murdered. As Primo Levi noted: “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”

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