The Holocaust through survivors’ eyes

Connecting to traumatic history through visual storytelling

I remember us standing for hours, drawing (pencil, color pencil, gouache) by Barbara Yelin for the graphic novel But I Live, based on the life of Holocaust survivor Emmie Arbel

Holocaust survivors have important stories to share, with human rights messages that are just as essential today as they were in the 1940s. But sharing those memories can be difficult—for everybody involved. Charlotte Schallié, Chair of the University of Victoria’s Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, wanted to explore a new way of preserving these experiences that would both respect survivors and resonate with a new generation of listeners.

The challenges of engaging with traumatic material

More than 75 years after the end of the Second World War, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories—making it more critical than ever to collect those stories. It’s just as important to share them in ways that engage students so they can absorb the lessons and work to prevent future atrocities. But with no formal Holocaust curriculum in Canada, teachers often don’t have the resources or training to help students grapple with this kind of material.

In her own classroom, Schallié found that graphic novels were an effective tool for making difficult subjects more approachable: “The format creates a bit of distance and conveys aspects that transcend words in ways that enable students to critically engage with the material without being overwhelmed by the sheer horror of it all,” she says.

Based on that experience, she decided to put the graphic novel format at the heart of a new series of resources to support Holocaust education. With funding from a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, she put together a team including survivors, graphic novelists, researchers and education scholars from six countries.

A new approach to collecting and sharing testimony

Emmie Arbel at the Ravensbrück Generations Forum in August 2019.

Photo: Carsten Büttner

© Dr. Hildegard Hansche Foundation

Schallié knew a non-traditional method would be the best approach for collecting the survivors’ stories. Traditional testimony collection involves a standard interview, where the interviewer asks a defined set of questions and expects certain types of answers. The interaction comes with a built-in power imbalance, and the survivor gets little control over how their story is ultimately presented.

Instead, Schallié matched award-winning graphic novelists Barbara Yelin, Miriam Libicki and Gilad Seliktar with survivors and gave them free rein to build their stories together. The artists were given no specific questions to ask or outlines to follow. The process was more about building relationships and trust, and making joint decisions on what questions to explore, what details to include and how to present it all in a way that respects and amplifies the voice of the survivor. The result is three deeply moving visual stories about the experiences of Emmie Arbel, David Schaffer, and Nico and Rolf Kamp.

“It’s so important to create these stories and visuals in this way, because nearly all the imagery we have of the Holocaust was created by the perpetrators,” says Schallié. “This approach gives voice and images back to those who have had their voices taken away.”

Supporting education with art

The graphic novels—If We Had Followed the Rules, I Wouldn’t Be Here; Thirteen Secrets; and But I Live—are nearly complete and will be published in the spring of 2022, but they’re just one piece of the project. Starting this spring, they will be piloted in classrooms in Canada, Israel and Germany, with thousands of students getting the opportunity to learn from these stories. Their experiences and those of their instructors will inform the development of supplementary teaching materials to complement the graphic novels. These materials will be publicly available on the project website, along with clips of the survivor interviews and notes and sketches from the artists.

The multi-year process that began in 2019 has been so effective that Schallié is also working on a set of best practice guidelines to support other researchers who’d like to use this innovative method of testimonial collection.

“I came into this project anticipating that art would be a powerful tool to engage with traumatic memories,” says Schallié. “But even I was surprised and deeply moved by the human connections created and how they brought some humanity back to such an absolutely horrific part of history.”

Want to learn more?

For more about the artists, the survivors and the project, visit the project website; check out Schallié’s post on the Facing Canada history blog, co-written with colleague Ilona Shulman Spaar; and read the profile in The Globe and Mail and interview featured on the Arolsen Archives

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