“This book is more than the story of how two Polish Jews survived; it is also a cautionary tale of what happens when people stand by and allow antisemitism, hate and prejudice to run rampant” (Introduction, xii).
This nonfiction graphic novel illuminates the story of Bluma Tishgarten and Felix Goldberg, two young Polish Jews who were survivors of the rise of fascism and Hitler’s rise to power. It also reveals the intensification of antisemitism in Europe and the rise and consequences of the Holocaust to contemporary readers. The narrative follows Bluma and Felix on their individual fraught journey to an eventual fruitful meeting filled with optimism, endurance, and promise. It does not sugar coat the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps but offers historical insight and background along with the pain and anguish experienced by the protagonists and their allies. It is not an easy story to read but an extremely important one, especially in our current society.
The story, opening in the present day, explains several Jewish customs before moving back through time to the explore the beginnings of the Holocaust in 1917. It paints a bleak picture for the Jewish population as events lead up to the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II. In alternate vignettes the reader follows Bluma and Felix as they are separated from everything and almost everyone they have known and thrown into the frightening cauldron of racial and religious exploitation.
Towards the end of the war, Felix is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he is tattooed and where 960,00 Jews, 74,000 Non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Romas, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and over 15,000 citizens of other nations died before liberation. At the same time, Bluma and her sister Cela are transferred to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp which also housed Jews, POWs, political prisoners, Romas, criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals and where approximately 50,000 people died. Both camps excelled at humiliating treatment and considered the inmates as less than human. Eventually the three protagonists, along with Felix’s friend David Miller, are sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. (Ironically, in 1924, Adolf Hitler was imprisoned there and where he wrote Mein Kampf.) The four young people meet, fall in love, and have a double wedding before moving to the United States. Once they are settled, they begin informing others about the atrocities they experienced and the dangers of unbridled antisemitism. They encouraged their children to continue their mission with one of the results being this moving graphic novel.
The evocative black and white realistic illustrations signify both the hardships and the joys that the families experience. Most of the written content is in text boxes augmented by some dialogue. There is a great deal of information to absorb on each panel and page. A variety of panels and backgrounds of the pages add to the depth of data and emotion in the story.
Extensive back material includes family photographs, biographies of the creators and contributors of the graphic novel, a timeline of events related to World War II and the Holocaust, a succinct glossary, recommended resources, and an index.
Highly recommended for middle and high school libraries and public and academic library collections. The title has been nominated for inclusion in this year’s YALSA listing of Great Graphic Novels but is a substantial read for older readers.
Thanks to Crystal Strang who gifted me an autographed copy of the graphic novel after attending a presentation by the author, illustrator, and publisher. She, along with the creative team, truly understands the importance of making sure this message is spread far and wide for people of all ages.
We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story By Frank W. Baker Art by Tim E. Ogline Imagine & Wonder, 2022 ISBN: 9781637610206
Publisher Age Rating: 12-16
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Representation: Polish, Jewish
The beautifully illustrated comic biography, Marie Curie: A Quest for Light, shares the story of Curie’s life and Nobel Prize-winning scientific accomplishments.
The authors, Frances Andreasen Østerfelt and Anja Cetti Andersen, both have a passion for science and for Marie Curie. Østerfelt is a dental scientist and Andersen works to make scientific information more accessible to others. Together they wrote and published this book as tribute to Curie. The book was originally published in Danish in 2018, and translated to English by Østerflet.
The text follows the life of Curie from her childhood as Marya Sklodowska, through her schooling, then later her scientific work, her Nobel Prizes, and her death. It is a dense amount of information for the format (a middle grade comic biography). The text and book would have benefited from focusing on one aspect of her life (such as her scientific work with radiation). Instead, the book places a focus on her life as a whole, and each chapter deals with a set time period covering her life from childhood through her scientific career. Of the 5 chapters, only the last two discuss her scientific work and her life at that time.
To be fair, Curie did have a fascinating life. A childhood in a politically unstable Poland and the early deaths of her mother and sister definitely affected her life and work as a scientist, but this would have been more effective to frame in the context of scientific work. Giving equal focus on all periods of her life makes for a drier read, aside from the compelling imagery from Anna Blaszczyk.
Readers can’t help but to follow the flow of Blaszczyk’s collage illustrations filled with rich textures and dark muted colors. Rather than illustrating a basic chronological story in a more traditional comic format, these images build mood and the emotions behind moment’s in Curie’s life. In one particularly moving spread after the death of her husband, Curie is lost in the background against a sea of black, with her two daughters in the foreground asking for their mother. On another page images of Curie’s father, who first ignited her passion for science, float in a cloud of smoke across the page. Blaszcyzk’s illustrations carry fear, love, curiosity, sadness, joy and more throughout the story of Curie’s life.
There are some moments with awkward wording that may be a product of translation from one language and culture to another. I did appreciate the authors’ frequent use of quotes from letters to and from Curie. These quotes helped readers to contextualize the importance of these moments for Curie. The authors, Østerfelt and Andersen, were also able to use their own scientific understanding to describe Curie’s work with radiation in an accessible way. Their descriptions of her experiments and findings would be understood by most audiences. They were also able to give the context of the Curies’ discovery against the backdrop of the scientific world at the time.
Marie Curie: A Quest for Light could find a fit in a public library children’s collection or elementary (maybe middle) school libraries, especially where comic biographies are popular. I have been fascinated by Marie Curie since I was a child. When I was in elementary school, I read every biography I could find about her life, and I would have adored this book, dense with her life’s story and filled with captivating illustrations. I would have loved and cherished this book in elementary school. So there is definitely an audience for this book, but I am not sure it is a wide one. There are stronger Marie Curie biographies for a middle grade audience and more compelling comic biographies. I do not recommend this as a first choice purchase.
Marie Curie: A Quest for Light By Frances Andreasen Østerfelt, Anja Cetti Andersen Art by Anna Blaszczyk IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684058372
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Danish Character Representation: Polish
In this moving narrative about his father’s experiences in escaping Nazi-occupied Belgium to his eventual safe arrival in Canada, Cary Fagan effectively and efficiently offers contemporary young readers with relatable background information about this historical era.
Fagan’s introduction to Maurice Fejgenbaum begins abruptly; the reader is thrown immediately into the apprehension, chaos, and confusion experienced by the fourteen-year-old protagonist and his Jewish family as they frantically pack their belongings to flee persecution in Brussels. Along with the approaching lack of freedom, Maurice, who changed his surname to Fagan when he immigrated to Canada, articulates the everyday losses that the family is experiencing as they are displaced from their community. The family travels by train to Paris, Spain, and Portugal to finally escape to an internment camp in Jamaica, where there is little independence. Fortunately for Maurice, he finds a great deal of family and community support, along with some camp administration assistance. This support gives Maurice an informal but valuable education and the ability to obtain a second-hand English language dictionary, which becomes both his English language teacher and his talisman in his successful journey to becoming a lawyer at the University of Toronto in Canada.
It is Maurice’s thirst for knowledge and the strength of his family support that creates a foundation of hope against the ravages of war and antisemitism. His informal education does him in good stead as he applies to the local high school, Jamaica College. “I have learned the smallest act of kindness can make a huge difference” (41). This lesson is exemplified throughout the graphic novel, adversity is faced and overcome with the aid and kindness of those Maurice and his family meet in their struggle for autonomy.
The book as an object is deceptive as it appears to be a picture book intended for younger readers. However, opening the covers immediately dispenses with that assumption. The sepia illustrations and the panel layout illuminate the perils the family faces leaving their home, crossing Europe, and the tossing seas that accompany their voyage to Jamaica. As with the text, the illustrations offer lightness and hope within the borders of the horrifying wartime experiences while at the same time being authentic portrayals of them. The dangers and horrors the refugees experience during wartime are not sugar coated by either the text or the illustrations. The color palate used by Mariano contrasts the sombre colors of war with orange backgrounds that illuminate the memories, and future plans held by the individual members of the family. The facial expressions, especially the mouths, of all the characters add to the immediacy and emotions of the moment and effectively enhance the engagement of the reader.
The supplementary Author’s Note comprises additional historical background, photographs of the family and the ship, and documents of the Fagan family. It includes the poignant photograph of the mended, faded red dictionary now residing on the author’s own desk. It also delineates the loss of the rest of the extended family in the Holocaust. The dictionary of the title, while not a major focus of the story, plays an invaluable role in this tale, cementing the past with the present by demonstrating Maurice’s perseverance and hopefulness and witnessing the strong familial connection of the author to his father’s story.
Fagan’s family story of survival and persistence continues to be relevant in today’s time of turmoil, unrest, and continued and renewed antisemitism and is highly recommend for elementary school and public library collections.
Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story By Cary Fagan Art by Enzo Lord Mariano Owl Kids Books, 2020 ISBN: 9781771473231 Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Jewish Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish