How Cartoonists fought the Holocaust

Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe have published a book of powerful cartoons drawn during and before the Holocaust that you will not want to put down.

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Rochel Sylvetsky,

Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky

Most of the world turns a blind eye to today's growing anti-Semitism, which, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has perceptively said, is "legitimized" by a façade of concern for "human rights."

The fact is that those who consider themselves the watchdogs of human rights see no contradiction to their humanistic creed in denying the right of the lone democracy in the Middle East to exist, and the right of its Jewish population to security and to life without fear of terror. Today's BDS, shameless lies, irrational hatred of Jews and mob tactics are only too reminiscent of the 1930s when the Nazis rose to power.

Nazi Germany, however,"legitimized" its rabid anti-Semitism with the so-called "science of race," and coupled it with blaming  the Jews for Germany's economic ills, This travesty was observed with equanimity in the West, as long as it was only the Jews  who suffered, Fleeing Jews found the gates of the USA locked shut, the British White Paper prevented their immigration to Palestine - and they and their young children were sent back to Europe to certain death - while the Nazis went on to bring the world the horrors of WWII.

In the 1930s, Western leaders did not evince any signs of perspicacity about Hitler's intentions nor did they manage to dredge up any shreds of humanity in the face of Nazi trampling of Jewish rights, while mainstream media gave the topic short shrift. The NYTimes, for example, did not even consider the genocide of  Europe's Jews worthy of its front pages in the 1940s, as the aptly titled book "Buried by the Times" proves.

It was a small group of talented, intrepid cartoonists, not all of them Jews, who, with drawings more powerful and compelling than any newspaper article, did their best to fight the cruel injustices of those darkest years of human existence. Dr. Rafael Meddoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and Craig Yoe, noted historian of cartoons and comics, have now published an arresting book filled with the drawings of these American and Israeli cartoonists who used their art to cry out against Hitler and what he was doing to the Jews. In "Cartoonists against the Holocaust" each page is a drawing that digs a knife into Hitler's plans, but also into the reader's heart as it mourns the world's heartlessness – using bitter graphic cynicism to attack the selfishness of the West.

These cartoonists realized the portent of what they were seeing early on, creating cartoons about pre-war Nazi brainwashing and abrogation of rights, about Kristallnacht, the pre war Olympics and the Nuremberg Laws in the 1930s - and about the world's indifference to them. They publicized drawings about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the concentration camps and the gassing of the Jews as the Holocaust continued.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is a renowned expert on the Holocaust who has researched that period intensively and written about it, so that the chronologically arranged book is actually a clear, condensed step by step history of the rise of Nazism and the war, enriched by the many dramatic cartoons, and by interesting – although terribly, terribly sad – additional stories about individuals which involve the reader more than regular books can. The authors suggest that the book be used in schools, which seems to me a sure way to make the Holocaust vividly real to students, especially as the writers included several accounts of teenage experiences. (One of those mentioned is named Eva Heyman, and I wish I knew whether the sweet faced teenager, posed charmingly in her best dress when life was still normal and whose diary describes her shock at how the Nazis impounded her beloved bicycle, survived the war. Innocently, she tells the Nazi thugs that she has a proper license for the bike, and somehow that ordinary rationality makes their barbaric response all the more horrible in contrast. )

The cartoonists themselves are described in the book's preface, and all are listed in the back section, with a helpful list of the pages where each one's works are found. I  wondered how many of today's readers, let alone students, have ever heard of names like Herblock, Arthur Szyk  and Edmund Duffy.  Dr. Seuss, however, is still a household name and one of the most powerful cartoons in the book (see illustration) is his 1941 creation, drawn when he was chief cartoonist for the PM newspaper. In it a mother, drawn in typical Seuss fashion, with the words "America First" on her shirtwaist, reads the story of "Adolf the Wolf" to her children and the caption contains  the immortal sentence:: "...and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones, but those were Foreign Children and it really didn't matter…"  One can cut the sarcasm with a knife.

Seuss Holocaust cartoon
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Another compelling cry is a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty holding a sign saying "Keep Out" to Europe's Jews sailing by on a refugee ship. where they can probably read Emma Lazarus' invitation to the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, that is, as long as they are not Jewish... It turns out that one of artists, Eric Godal, knew that his elderly mother was on the ill-fated St. Louis and that another, Arthur Szyk, illustrated the Bergson Group's ads and later lost most of his family in the camps. And as for FDR, about whose anti-Semitism and indifference Meddoff has written scathingly in the past, he is shown for what he was when he refused to take a stand on the proposed bill to take in 20,000 Jewish children, dooming it to fail – and possibly dooming Anne Frank as well, since she could have qualified as one of those 20,000.

Can political cartoonists today learn from their colleagues' examples? Does this book have value other than showing us the incisive cartoons created during the Holocaust, a worthy goal in and of itself? Cartoons are a powerful tool that have more than once exposed the lies, criticized the failings, and affected the decisions of leaders and policy makers, so I would like to hope so. However, although the artists whose works appear in this book were decent and honorable men of integrity, they were the exception. Perhaps hope lies in using the powerful messages in the drawings, as the authors suggest, to educate students about the Holocaust in a way that will galvanize them to make sure it never does happen again.

And a word to the West, which once again allows Jewish students to be threatened on its campuses and speakers to be shouted down in those bastions of free speech, is in order: The hate that begins with Jews never stops there. It has happened before, most recently in the middle of the last century, when the heavy price for ignoring Nazi anti-Semitism was paid by the world. The writing then was on the wall, drawn clearly by a handful of courageous cartoonists. We need them again.

(Available from Amazon)






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