The Shoah Memorial: Remembering the Holocaust through the Unlikely Medium of Comics

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The Shoah Memorial: Remembering the Holocaust through the Unlikely Medium of Comics
“Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky… even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.”  “For the dead and the living. We must bear witness.” “To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor) “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” (Primo Levi) “Pardonne, n’oublie pas” (“Forgive, don’t forget”) Carved in the wall above the door as you exit the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation in Paris. Such atrocities, in retrospect, do not seem possible in a modern society. The citizens of Germany and France were not monsters, were they? Yet somehow, in Germany the Nazis were allowed to  move forward in increments – first, isolating Jews from the economy with laws prohibiting non Aryans from being in the Civil Service or practicing law; then prohibiting intermarriage, moving on to boycotts, ghettos, forced emigration, and finally, the rounding up of millions of Jews and other minorities to be killed in concentration camps in what they called the “final solution” and we call the Holocaust. In France, the Vichy government also isolated Jews, required the wearing of the infamous star, and finally rounded up and deported over 200,000 citizens. Everyone should read “The Journal of Hélène Berr,” the daily diary of a 21-year-old Jewish literature student at the Sorbonne. Hélène wrote about her classes, music, friends and boyfriend, and slowly recognized that something unusual was happening as her daily life was restricted a little at a time. One day, she could no longer ride the Metro past a certain stop; then, she was forced to wear the star, her businessman father was taken away, and finally – her last entry on February 15, 1944 – just 3 weeks before she and her family were arrested – “Horror! Horror! Horror!” She died later that year in Bergen-Belsen. Her diary was sent to her fiancé, who was fighting with the French resistance, and finally published in France in 2008. The take-away from reading this Journal is that she sounds like you and me. Her daily life is familiar to those of us who grew up in similar circumstances whether in Paris or Chicago, as are her surroundings, until, suddenly, they are not. Never again, we say, as we wring our hands. We swear to be vigilent and hope that we are caring and sufficiently moral to  intercede in time. But how can we be sure that dislike and mistrust by the majority of a society for the minority “others” will not lead again down a slippery slope? The United States interned 2nd generation Japanese citizens during World War II, even while their progeny fought in the army; we are reminded in the recent movie Hidden Numbers of how an African American computer expert in the space program had to run a half mile through the rain to the “colored” bathroom; and now, synagogues and mosques are being vandalized and we are vilifying all those with connections to the Muslim religion or even to countries connected to that religion – to the end that Muhammid Ali’s American-born son was held for hours before being granted entry back into the country simply because of his last name. To guard against the recurrence of such a horrible affront to humanity,  we must not ever forget the details of how it once happened. To that end, museums and memorials exist to remind the world to never allow even preliminary steps of prejudicial actions against any minority – else yet another society may start down the  slippery slope from small unfairnesses to the horrific. It is especially appropriate to visit such memorials in the spring as Holocaust Rememberance Day is April 28 (designated by a 1953 Israeli law). Paris is the home of a number of such memorials, including a special dedicated section of Père-Lachaise cemetery; plaques with the names of children deported to the camps; a stark and dramatic stone memorial just behind Notre Dame; and, most prominent and importantly, the Memorial de la Shoah in the Marais district. It was inaugurated by President Chirac on January 27, 2005– the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz– as the Shoah Memorial and Holocaust Center museum. Today it hosts moving temporary exhibits alongside a comprehensive permanent exhibit which includes survivor videos, collected artifacts of the dead, a memorial flame and crypt, original records, a wall of names, and photos of children who died in the camps. I found the current temporary exhibit – there until October 30, 2017 –  particularly moving because of the juxtaposition of an entertainment medium with the starkly tragic truth. Shoah et bande dessinée (“Shoah and comics”) is an extensive look at how the comic medium has been used to depict, comment, educate (and sometimes even darkly amuse) on the subject of the holocaust through 70 years of different genres and styles. At the beginning, comics were sometimes produced by the victims themselves. In the first exhibit room, you encounter a small notebook entitled Mickey au Camp de Gurs, in which Horst Rosenthal, interned in the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942, depicted in 15 pages of colored drawings how Mickey Mouse- in his own mouse words – dealt with life in that camp. You laugh a bit when you see his notation “publié sans l’autorisation de Walt Disney” and the drole and befuddled way in which the familiar…

Lead photo credit : "Shoah et Dande dessinée" exhibit at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris.

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Michele is a corporate lawyer and writer who visits France often and is convinced she must have been French in an earlier life -probably hanging around with Ernest Hemingway during what she calls his "cute" stage, living on Cardinal Lemoine and writing on rue Descartes - which just happens to be be her usual stomping ground. From her first time in Paris and that first feeling of familiarity she has returned often as if it is her second home. Now the hotels are Airbnb apartments and she enjoys being a short-term local and shopping at the market, cooking her own meals. Sitting on her own Paris balcony , a wineglass or morning coffee in hand, she writes her journal, describing her walks around town as the proverbial flâneur and taking notes for the future’s stories and travel pieces.


  • Kim A Hazel
    2017-05-16 21:02:54
    Kim A Hazel
    Correction: The movie is called "Hidden Figures" not "Hidden Numbers." It's a play on words. Very informative review of this exhibit.


  • Parisbreakfast
    2017-05-11 12:35:45
    Thank you for the detailed review! I will definitely go.