How the US Government Used Comics to Inform Americans About the HolocaustBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, teaching history, World War 2
In late January, Tennessee’s McMinn County School Board made international headlines when it unanimously voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s seminal Holocaust memoir, Maus, from curricula and libraries. Board members insisted, vociferously and apologetically, that their decision had nothing to do with the genocide itself, but rather the book’s inclusion of female nudity and curses that took the Lord’s name in vain.
To many casual observers, Maus is the comic that made the funny pages legitimate literature. But long before Spiegelman’s account of his family trauma won a Pulitzer and broke open establishment conceptions of what comics could be and do, artists were using the medium to talk about difficult nonfiction topics. During World War II, in fact, some comics creators even delved into the grimmest depths of the Nazis’ Final Solution.
In early January 1945, just before the liberation of Auschwitz, a small group of journalists and artists, many of them European immigrants, published a roughly 50-page pamphlet titled The Bloody Record of Nazi Atrocities. Printed by Arco Publishing Company, a small imprint based in New York, it combined previously circulated photographs, drawings and text with newly commissioned works documenting the mass killings of European Jews, Roma and Sinti. Though the victims’ ethnicity was the main reason the Third Reich targeted them, the pamphlet largely omitted this fact in favor of presenting a broader narrative of Nazi inhumanity that generated support for the Allied war effort.
Within The Bloody Record, a six-panel comic takes up an entire page. Titled “Nazi Death Parade,” it depicts the arrival of prisoners at an unnamed concentration camp. The inmates are stripped of their belongings and clothing and given showers to “open their pores for quicker poisoning” before being gassed to death. The last two panels show Nazi soldiers salvaging victims’ gold teeth and shoveling a corpse into an oven for cremation; the final caption notes that “the ashes are sold for fertilizer use.”
Kees Ribbens, a historian at Erasmus University Rotterdam and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, believes that “Nazi Death Parade” is the earliest known comic depiction of the horrible endpoint of the Shoah. He’s fascinated by the choice of medium. After all, why would one use “the funnies” to present this grim testimony?
“On the one hand, it was too terrifying to realize what was actually going on there,” Ribbens says. “On the other hand, people thought, ‘This can’t be true—it’s simply unbelievable.’”
Ribbens is equally invested in learning more about the man who created “Nazi Death Parade”: not a young American Jew, as one might expect of the period’s comics industry, but a classically trained Austro-Hungarian émigré named August Maria Froehlich—a man then in his mid-60s.