Miriam Katin in the MONTREAL GAZETTE!

A daughter tries to understand

Montreal Gazette    |    Elaine Kalman Naves    |    May 6, 2006

Nearly 30 years ago, in 1979, U.S. journalist Helen Epstein published Children of the Holocaust, a seminal book that examined the impact of the Shoah not on survivors of the unthinkable, but on their children. Epstein's classic - part autobiography, part collection of interviews - validated the Holocaust memoir as a genre and opened the door for other second-generation authors like Eva Hoffman, Art Spiegelman, Julie Salamon and Susan Varga.

In my home library, three rows of shelves are chock-a-block with personal non-fiction titles about the Holocaust. Between George Steiner's musings that silence is the only appropriate response to the Shoah ("The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason," he wrote in Language and Silence) and Elie Wiesel's dictum "Even if I wrote on nothing else, it would never be enough," I choose Wiesel.

Yet reading about this awful phenomenon oppresses, pains and unsettles me. On the other hand, admitting to such failings triggers stabs of guilt and remorse. After what millions (including my parents and family) endured and suffered, how do I have the gall to complain that reading is burdensome?

It's in part because of my ambivalence that I savoured Bernice Eisenstein's beautifully conceived and executed illustrated memoir, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, with such wonder and, yes, pleasure. Every page elicited nods of recognition. For instance, this passage: "Is it funny enough, is it sad enough? Am I too whiny, too angry, too petulant? Boo hoo, poor little survivors' child. Have I managed to avoid using every cliche there is out there relating to the Holocaust? You see, I have this problem - growing up in the household of my parents was not tragic, but their past was. My life was not cursed, theirs was. They were born under an unfavourable star and forced to sew it onto their clothing. Yet here I am, some Jewish Sisyphus, pushing history and memory uphill, ... and what I really feel like is a rebellious child, wanting to stand before my parents and say, Here, take it - it's yours, I don't want it."

Born in 1949 in Toronto, to parents from Poland who had experienced ghettoization, deportation, enslavement and the death camps (they met in Auschwitz), Eisenstein knew she wanted to be an artist from the age of 6. A career freelancer, she has worked as a graphic artist and editor for many years, but this is her first book. She began it five years ago with sketches and portraits of her father, who had died almost a decade earlier. The artwork pulled skeins of memory in its wake, and the memories inspired words. The final product is an extended meditation on her own life and that of her family, on the powerful generational hold of the Shoah and on the imperative of remembrance. The magical interplay between the haunting illustrations - the often-skewed faces reflecting disordered lives - and the by times poetic, philosophical and outrageously funny prose results in an original and deeply moving work that, though it covers familiar ground, feels both fresh and timeless.

One of its most poignant features is the commemoration in words and pictures of Eisenstein's parents' survivor friends. I found myself perusing the drawings of these emblematically Jewish faces with wistful affection, as if they were people I knew.

Miriam Katin's graphic novel We Are on Our Own resonated for me in other ways, by evoking landmarks of my own Budapest childhood. Barely older than a toddler during the German occupation of Hungary in 1944-45, Katin was saved by her brave mother, whom she calls Esther in the book. Esther defied orders to move into a so-called Jewish house in the capital. Instead, she assumed an alias as a non-Jew and trekked with the child into the countryside.

We Are on Our Own unfolds in comic-book panels to visually recount the saga of Esther's harrowing exploitation by Hungarians, Germans and Russians alike. Miraculously, both Katin and her mother survived and were eventually reunited with Katin's father after the war.

Emigrating to Israel in 1956 and later to the U.S., Katin became an animator for MTV and Disney. She is a talented artist with a sharp eye for detail and a compelling ability to capture emotion with strong, simple lines.

Both Katin's book and Eisenstein's are worthy new access routes toward an understanding of the unfathomable evil, torment and resilience unleashed by the Shoah. But, paradoxically, they are merely sinuous, narrow pathways. As Eisenstein herself concluded after visiting the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.: "I will never be able to know the truth of what my parents had experienced. It is beyond my reach, and perhaps even theirs to know the full extent of their loss."

Elaine Kalman Naves is the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and the author of two memoirs about her parents' lives, Journey to Vaja and Shoshanna's Story.

I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors

By Bernice EisensteinMcClelland & Stewart, 192 pages, $32.95

We Are on Our Own: A Graphic Novel

By Miriam Katin

Drawn & Quarterly, 136 pages, $24.95

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