We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story

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

How to Win the War on Truth: An Illustrated Guide to How Mistruths Are Sold, Why They Stick, and How to Reclaim Reality

With every year, truth seems to become more and more subjective. At least that is what many forces want us all to think. In issue after issue, we are driven apart by obfuscation and subterfuge. It’s hard to imagine how we can come together to exist in the same reality sometimes. Author Samuel Spitale believes he knows how to reclaim our reality with his book How to Win the War on Truth: An Illustrated Guide to How Mistruths Are Sold, Why They Stick, and How to Reclaim Reality

This hybrid comic and non-fiction book looks at propaganda and bias. It is lengthy and detailed. Spitale tells story after story that illustrates how humans seek to reduce complexity and how our brains can fail to recognize certain facts. These blind spots allow us to be manipulated by marketers and public relations companies. He cites a wide variety of interesting research including Daniel Kahneman and his work on human error. The illustrations by Allan Whincup effectively break down some of the more complex ideas into understandable parts. The comics are more on the cartoony side than realistic and that helps when tackling such an intense subject. Graphs, pie charts, and topical quotes spoken by cartoon politicians and economists help relay the information.

The book spends a lot of time on the history of propaganda as well as U.S. political history. It rings true for the most part, but occasionally becomes a left wing polemic. The chapter on what to do about this substantial problem is slight on workable solutions, so readers may be disappointed considering what the title of the book is. Spitale is still describing the problems right up until the conclusion. Previous works on similar topics, like Unrig, had specific proposals and examples of solutions that are being tried around the country. This book could have used more of that.

The publisher states this book is an “illustrated guide.” That is more accurate than calling it a graphic novel. This is a dense book with lots of text. There are illustrations on most every page, but they are not sequential art. This book belongs in an adult nonfiction collection. Only the most interested teens are going to stick with this to the end. This is certainly an important topic, but I wonder, if they had fully committed to telling a story with pictures would the work be more accessible to a larger audience?

How to Win the War on Truth: An Illustrated Guide to How Mistruths Are Sold, Why They Stick, and How to Reclaim Reality
By Samuel Spitale
Art by Allan Whincup
Quirk, 2022
ISBN: 9781683693086

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

Iranian Love Stories

Iranian Love Stories is a journalistic look at Iranians in their 20s heavily controlled by a conservative regime. Ten vignettes cover individuals and couples, their dreams, fears, and political angst. Jane Deuxard is the pseudonym of two journalists, a man and a woman, who conducted the interviews that make up the script of the graphic novel. They are also a romantic couple, opening the book by talking about the rings they purchased to make them appear married as part of the costume that would allow them to move freely in Iran, along with the woman’s veil and ¾ length coat. Most of the women in the book, including the blonde female journalist, are shown wearing loose headscarves in public in accordance with the local law. Originally published in 2016 in France, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Green Movement of 2009 are discussed by interviewees, but the book predates the political unrest and bloody governmental responses that have occurred in the last 5 years. 

The unspoken word in the title is “forbidden.” The writers sought out specific kinds of stories that are outside of the accepted traditional social structure. One of the brief interludes between profiles shows a handful of people the authors try to talk to giving pat answers such as, “I want a good, pious husband. I’d like an interesting job and children… etc., blah blah blah.” While their work mostly likely does reveal concerns felt by a large swath of Iranian youth, the book makes no attempt to give a balanced look at all Iranians. I appreciate that the authors made their goal clear in their approach. The anger in the stories is targeted at the regime; there’s less discussion of Islam in general. It’s not about bashing Islam. Instead, it’s a nuanced look at the different perspectives of a wide variety of men and women with complex ideas about the roles of men, women, and religion in their lives. No LGBTQ subjects are covered. 

Many of the interviews reveal details of sex lives and purity tests, others focus on family conflicts and precise dances between obeying and breaking laws. It’s stressed many times that simply discussing all of these matters is not allowed, let alone performing the specific acts. In one astonishing vignette, a woman discovers from the authors’ conversation with her partner that he disagrees completely on their future, where they will live, and what their roles will be. She admits to the journalists that, even though they’ve been together for more than a year, they’re allowed so little time to speak openly that she didn’t know how he thought about these things at all. Throughout there are references to revolutions of the past and frustration with the political system, especially a feeling that future mass actions are not worth the danger. It’s jarring to see the degree to which the government is tied to their romantic lives. The stories vary in length and give their characters depth and development. Between each focused profile is a page or two that places in context some of what the journalists had to do to find subjects and their time together, including a stint of being held and questioned about their motives and cavorting in their hotel room. While they are present in all of the discussions, the journalists focus on their subjects’ stories more than their own. 

The art by Deloupy is arresting. With thick lines and a muted color palette, the stories come to life with a dynamism unexpected from largely depicted conversations. He captures a great deal of expression in eyes, mouths, and body language. Backgrounds provide sweeping views from the Isfahan cable cars to stark cemeteries, juxtaposed with claustrophobic interiors. You feel like you’re traveling the country with the journalists. The vignettes each start with the names of the subjects, their ages, and location. The interludes are shown surrounded by a notebook corner, similar to a moleskin, giving the impression of a journal and visually separating the sections. In the stories there are realistic depictions of the lives described as well as political cartoon style flights of fantasy, such as Pez dispenser politicians and arachnid mother-in-laws. The stories unfold in panels without lined borders, often delineated by colored backgrounds or leaving heads and shoulders floating on the page. This adds to the travelogue feel and provides opportunities for a contrasting shock in the moments the images bleed to the edges of the page. The pages are frequently dense with illustration.

This is an excellent addition to any adult nonfiction graphic novel collection. Readers of Marjane Sartrapi and Joe Sacco will especially enjoy it. The subject matter and presence of a few sexually graphic parts make it better suited to adults, though older teens may find it interesting. It could be a deep conversation starter for weighty book clubs and college classes. For a broader comparison of approaches to marriage in Muslim culture, try reading this alongside the bubbly and cartoonish memoir That Can Be Arranged by Huda Fahmy. 

Iranian Love Stories 
By Jane Deuxard
Art by Deloupy
Graphic Mundi, 2021
ISBN: 9781637790045

Publisher Age Rating: 16+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Representation: Iranian

Free Speech Handbook (World Citizen Handbook Series)

This book opens with the free speech portion of the first amendment from the US Constitution, followed by writer Ian Rosenberg, who is Jewish, explaining the events that led to this book. Several events are referenced within the first three pages, including the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, National School Walkout protests, 2017 Women’s March, and Mollie Steimer’s arrival at Ellis Island from Russia in 1913. Steimer’s foundational court battles lead into a key consideration: “Who is truly heard in the marketplace [of ideas]? If women, minorities, and the poor are not granted equal opportunity to enter the market, how can their voices participate in the competition for truth?” This question is immediately followed by talking-head quotes from law professors Charles Lawrence III, who is black, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, who is white.

The second chapter looks at Colin Kaepernick and the act of taking a knee (originally staying seated, but changed to kneeling as a sign of respect to fallen soldiers, an oft-overlooked nuance I was glad to see highlighted). After comparing reactions for and against that act of protest, the narrative shifts to the 1935 case of a child not participating in his classroom’s pledge of allegiance. There, as in Steimer’s case and many others used in this book, Rosenberg quotes and contextualizes judges’ rulings, their immediate fallout, and what they mean for Americans’ freedoms today. In each chapter, Rosenberg cites different scholars, justices, authors, and legal precedents, ensuring that his teacherly perspective is never unilateral or unsupported by facts and expertise. This is important when debunking Donald Trump and Clarence Thomas’s hypothetical rewriting of libel laws to go after the media, for example. Further issues include but are not limited to civil rights protests, propaganda on social media, Westboro Baptist Church’s protesting at funerals, and the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. There’s a lot to chew on in every chapter!

All of this history and legal analysis needs a skilled cartoonist to weave its various threads into a cohesive whole, and artist Mike Cavallaro is mostly up to the task. There can be paragraphs of dry text on some pages, and Cavallaro makes sure to break up each block of text with a related image, often a picture of someone in portrait. Layouts will include images designed to guide readers across the page; other times, they use broad, straightforward grids. Some metaphorical imagery underlines Rosenberg’s points, but more often than not the art is rather literal, depicting flatly delivered quotes, exposition, talking heads, and book covers. The first amendment appears as an anthropomorphic #1 wearing a red cape, battling laws aimed at restricting it. I can’t help but think back to my previous review of What Unites Us, which used color and figurative imagery more frequently and effectively. That’s not a knock against the arguments presented in this book, only its presentation.

An afterword including quick summaries of first amendment concepts, as well as a glossary of legal terms and chapter-by-chapter bibliography, provide resources for learning and recall. As one might expect in a thorough review of free speech, some of the book’s examples involve swearing, from celebrities cursing at awards shows to George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” bit, Samantha Bee’s callout of Ivanka Trump over immigration policy in 2018, and “fuck the draft” printed on a jacket during the Vietnam War. A section about Larry Flynt’s legal battles over Hustler, a pornographic magazine, does not include porn. The issues discussed in this book are undeniably pertinent to all Americans, as well as historians and legal scholars. To make another comparison to What Unites Us, this is another powerful teaching tool from the World Citizen Comics line of publisher First Second that demonstrates over and over the impact of people standing up for their rights, even (especially!) if doing so is unpopular. The presentation is scholarly, as well it should be. Close reading and factual analysis should be considered signs of respect for “the most American of virtues.”

Free Speech Handbook
By Ian Rosenberg
Art by  Mike Cavallaro
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250619754

Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: African-American, Russian, Mobility Impairment, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Protestant ,