Four Holocaust survivors and three graphic designers have worked tirelessly to co-create a series of three autobiographical graphic novels about one of the darkest periods in human history. Today, a multi-year global effort results in a unique, beautifully rendered collection that frames the lasting lessons of the Holocaust.
But I Live: Three Stories of Child Holocaust Survivors is edited by Holocaust historian Charlotte Schallié, Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria and Project Leader of the University of Victoria Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education. Here, Schallié talks about the role of visual arts in Holocaust education, the importance of survivor-centered storytelling practices and trauma-informed approaches to collecting ethical testimonies, and the urgency preserve the experiences of survivors.
The project based at UVic, first announcement in January 2020, involves an international team of researchers, students and institutional partners spanning three continents, supported by funding from the Humanities Research Council and focused on the stories of Emmie Arbel (Israel), Nico and Rolf Kamp (Holland), and David Schaffer (Canada) through the unique, hand-rendered styles of graphic designers Barbara Yelin (Germany), Gilad Seliktar (Israel) and Miriam Libicki (Canada).
But I live was published today by New Jewish Press, a division of University of Toronto Press (one of the largest university presses in North America).
May is Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.
Q. What can we learn from these graphic novels about the Holocaust that we didn’t know before?
A. Many people in North America learned about the history of the Holocaust through survivor stories that recur in popular culture, which largely focus on survival in concentration camps or experiences of hiding in Nazi-occupied territory. The three stories of But I live complicate these traditional narratives by exploring complex topics such as the burden of memory, the need to testify, the ripple effects of trauma, and the impact of the Holocaust on the descendants of survivors, for example. As historical documents, they are also important for centering the experiences of survivors and allowing them to tell their own stories.
The enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust is well documented, but the majority of visual records we have were largely produced by the Nazis and their collaborators. These are important historical sources, but focusing solely on the documentation produced by the authors ignores the value of the survivors as living keepers of knowledge.
Grounding the history of the Holocaust in the knowledge and living memory of those who survived helps to show its relevance and urgency to understanding the gross human rights violations of the current moment.
—Charlotte Schallié, UVic humanities specialist, Holocaust historian, project manager and editor-in-chief of But I live
Q. Why is it important for Holocaust survivors to be able to tell their own story?
A. We have extensive documentation of the mass atrocities created by the perpetrators of the Holocaust that meticulously captures acts of extreme violation, degradation and dehumanization. The purpose of these documents was to erase any individual trace of a victim’s identity and experience. A survivor-centered approach to collecting Holocaust testimony honors the integrity and humanity of the person’s lived experience while respecting their right to tell their own story.
Time is also a factor, as we are rapidly approaching what is known as the “post-witness” era. The majority of Holocaust survivors alive today were children at the time, born between 1935 and 1938, which means they are around 80 years old. At best, we could have another 10 years to learn from these knowledge keepers, human rights activists and educators. If we don’t engage them in our research now, their expertise and experience will soon be lost.
Finally, I believe we have a moral obligation and duty to collect and preserve the testimonies of survivors. Every voice that has been marked for silence by the perpetrators of these atrocities matters a lot and must be heard and recognized.
Q. You described But I live as the product of a collaboration between historians, artists and survivors of the Holocaust. Can you explain the process behind this unique collaboration?
A. Drawing on the foundational research of oral historian Henry Greenspan and other survivor-centered projects, we have developed a community-based, collaborative, and trauma-informed approach to ethical evidence-gathering practices and arts-based co-creation.
Obtaining experiences and memories of extreme human suffering from survivors required a research process and practice that prioritizes their safety by minimizing the risk of re-traumatization, managing potential triggers, and providing sustained support to all. participating project partners.
This approach ensured that we, survivor memory keepers, honored what we felt was our obligation and duty to amplify the voices of Holocaust survivors.
We were extremely fortunate to work with three wonderful artists who treated the four survivors and their life stories with compassion, tenderness and love.
Q. What gap do these graphic novels fill as resources for teaching about the Holocaust?
A. In Canada, where teaching and learning about the Holocaust is not compulsory in high schools, we hope that our visual storytelling work will appeal to young people and young adult readers and inspire in them a deep sense of empathy that will lead them to think critically. about past and present history.
The stories of Holocaust survivors presented as heroic tales, where the storyline progresses from darkness to light – or, from a site of danger to a site of safety – impose a heavy burden and responsibility on the survivors whose life stories and memories are unlikely to conform to this model, and simplify the reality of their lived experiences. But I live contains space for fragmented memories, difficult emotions and the afterlife of trauma. In doing so, it complicates the traditional tropes, clichés, and iconographic imagery that are sometimes misused or exploited in popular culture.
These graphic novels also encourage the reader to experience stillness, silence, and contemplation. Readers should slow down their reading and pay close attention to the compositions of the panels, the rhythm and timing of the narration, the shifting color palettes, and the changes in voices and narrative perspectives. The work of art in But I live cannot be consumed passively or hastily. It requires deep intellectual engagement from the reader on many levels, stimulating self-reflection and a willingness to critically engage, reflect and feel the life stories and memories of our four Holocaust survivors. .
— 30 —
A media kit containing high-resolution photos of this project is available at drop box.