Miriam Katin in Ha’aretz

A mother, her daughter and the Holocaust

Ha'aretz    |    Nirit Anderman    |    September 22, 2006

To this day, every time Miriam Katin and her mother Esther meet, they toast with a glass of whiskey, or another alcoholic beverage. But while this ceremony may seem no more than a nice habit, a pleasant custom the two have adopted, those who have read Katin's new book, "We Are On Our Own," are privy to this ritual's horrifying beginnings.

In the book, published last May, Katin describes the arduous journey she and her mother undertook during World War II. In 1944, when she was 2 years old, the Nazis invaded her hometown of Budapest. Her father was a soldier in the Hungarian army, and her mother, living with her daughter in the capital, realized that as Jews they would have to flee the city to survive.

So the mother obtained forged documents identifying them as a Hungarian peasant and her illegitimate daughter, burned all their pictures and documents, left the family estate behind, took her daughter and ran.

Katin depicts their arduous journey for survival in the Hungarian countryside in a graphic novel. In a phone interview from her New York home, she explains that her choice to tell the story through a comic book came naturally.

"I cannot write well enough in any language, but I can draw," she says, "and for this reason I figured that paintings accompanied by text would be the best way for me to tell this story."

The use of simple, minimal text serves this book well and depicts the horrors of the war through the eyes of her toddler self.

"When I started working on the book, I had to enter the little girl's mind, understand who she was, instill this character with life," recounts Katin. "My mother burned all the pictures and documents we had, but my father, who was fighting at the front at the time, still had some pictures of me as a baby and letters my mother wrote him. In these letters she wrote about me, telling him what I was doing, how I talked, what I liked. Reading the letters helped me imagine the girl I was, to understand what I was capable of understanding at that age, what I might have said."

Gray and gloom

Katin's gray and gloomy pencil drawings suit the wartime they depict. Budapest looks like a city under the shadow of impending doom, the village houses in which the mother and child hide look claustrophobic and depressing, and the snowstorm raging while they escape from one of the villages seems to threaten to wipe the figures from the page. Once in a while a page of grace infiltrates with bright colorful drawings, depicting another, normal reality decades later in New York. In these pages Katin plays with her firstborn son, wrapping him in warm clothes before he ventures out into the snow, and listens to her mother's painful memories.

The World War II memories interlaced with the survivors' lives in New York decades later is reminiscent of "Maus," Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book, the first part of which was published 20 years ago, in August 1986. The critical acclaim received by "Maus" at the time, and the excitement over Spiegelman's ability to tell such a complex tale about a subject as delicate as the Holocaust through comics, have elevated the medium's status among literature and culture critics, and paved the road for the success of the graphic novels.

Katin says she credits "Maus," which she first read in 1991, with her decision to tell her war experience.

"Before then I had no interest in comics," she says. "But when I read Spiegelman's book, I discovered there was a way for me to tell all the stories I had carried in my head all these years. Only then did I start drawing my first comic, which described in four pages my return to Budapest after the war."

Since then Katin has published several other stories, all taking place during World War II, in comic-book form. Compared with Spiegelman's book, which focuses on the author's relationship with his father, and another highly esteemed comic book, "Yossel: April 14, 1943" by Joe Kubert, which depicts the Warsaw Ghetto uprising through the eyes of a boy, Katin's book stands out as a feminine story. Its heroes are women - Katin and her mother - and the most difficult passages depict gender-related traumas - gang rape, forced intercourse with a Nazi officer so he won't expose her identity, and an unwanted pregnancy.

"I did not give it thought while I was writing the book, but lately I have been getting more and more comments from people who think it is a feminine story, a comic created by a woman. There aren't many women comic book authors, and only recently, slowly, more and more have been popping up," says Katin. And indeed, more and more women have been breaking into the predominately male field of comics. The most celebrated breakthrough was two years ago, when Marjane Satrapi published her book "Persepolis," describing her childhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Following in her footsteps, more women have published graphic novels about their childhood memories, among them Katin, Alison Bechdel ("Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic") and Bernice Eisenstein (whose book "I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors" was published a month ago).

The only truth

The conversation with Katin is conducted in Hebrew. Her accent is noticeable and she sometimes has difficulty finding the right word, but her joy of the language is felt. When she was 15 she immigrated to Israel and lived here for six years. She studied graphic art at the Shamir Brothers' studio, served in the Israel Defense Forces as a graphic artist, and in 1981, after 18 years in New York, returned here with her husband and children.

"We came to Israel for a year but stayed for nine years," she says. Katin worked at the Ein Gedi Film company, a now-defunct animation studio, and her experience there later helped her obtain work designing backgrounds for MTV and Disney animations.

She had been contemplating writing a book for a long time, she says. "My mother is still alive, and some of the things she experienced in the war I did not know if she would allow me to tell," she says. "I knew that without these things there was no point of me telling the story. I held it back for many years, and two years ago I decided it was time. I started to work on the drawings, and at first I did not tell my mother about it. I waited to see first whether my publisher would approve my story. But as with every Jewish mother, my mother is very involved in my life, and pretty soon she started asking questions, showing interest in what I was doing. I felt she was worried. After my book was approved I sat next to her, poured her a glass of whiskey, and let her read what I had done so far. She wept while reading it, but finally faced me, hugged me and said I did a very beautiful thing."

Katin says she had to invent some of the details in the book.

"I could never ask my mother 'How did you feel? What was that like?' because I had to come to terms with it myself. What does it feel like when you have to burn all your family photos? When you have to run away from home? When you experience all of those things? Some of these things my mother told me over the years, but the really difficult things I heard from her for the first time only when I was 30, and I was shocked. To this day she occasionally tells me more things I did not know; more and more stories gush out of her all the time."

"We Are On Our Own" begins with the mother and child reading the Bible together. "In the beginning God created the dark, then the light, then mother and me and the others. And it was good," says toddler Katin. In the frame after she finishes these words, a red and black flag bearing a swastika appears in the window of the house.

"My father was an atheist, the environment I grew up in was communist, and I did not believe in God," says Katin. "When I came to Israel I had no problem - I lived a secular life and was content. But when I came to the United States, I faced a dilemma: My relatives and my husband's family were all religious or were members of a synagogue, and even my husband considered it important that we raise our children according to Judaism. I was in a continuous struggle between the surrounding pressure and my inner truth, and when I sat to write the book, it became a probing journey, an examination of this conflict."

And so, in one of the scenes in the book, Katin and her mother are in a village, in the home of a Hungarian family that owns a vineyard. When fighter planes start bombing the area, the toddler breaks into bitter crying, and the landlord pours wine from a cask into a glass and offers it to the mother. "God's only truth is inside these barrels," he tells her, "Give some to the child." The mother hugs her daughter, and lets her drink from the wine. "God is red, God is in the glass," she whispers in her ear. "God is soo sweet. God lives inside the big barreeellss."

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