Making the Holocaust Unforgettable – Through Cartoons

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

By a quirk of the calendar, Holocaust Remembrance Day and National Cartoonists Day both come out on May 5 this year.  At first glance, one might assume that solemn commemorations of the Holocaust would have nothing in common with cartooning, which is typically associated with humor or fantasy.

But in fact, cartooning offers a powerful new way to teach about the Holocaust.

Consider what cartoons can teach about the ill-fated journey of the S. S. St. Louis, the ship carrying 937 German Jewish refugees which was turned away from Cuba in 1939.  The St. Louis then hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping to be granted haven in the United States.  Denied refuge, the ship was forced to return to Europe.

Holocaust educators today are often drawn to the voyage of the St. Louis, a powerful and compelling story that has come to symbolize both the desperation of Europe’s Jews and the callousness of those countries that shut their doors and closed their hearts.  But, like other aspects of the Nazi era and the Holocaust, it is not always easy for teachers to convey the extent of the horror.

Film offers one method of communicating such experiences, and the 1976 movie about the St. Louis, “Voyage of the Damned,” was certainly a step in the right direction.  Despite the flaws that are inevitably part of a Hollywood dramatization of history, the film helped make the plight of the St. Louis come alive in a way that history books find difficult to match.

But the one image which most simply and dramatically summed up the abandonment of the Jews was an editorial cartoon that was published in the New York Daily Mirror on June 6, 1939, at the peak of the St. Louis crisis.  Drawn by Fred L. Packer (who would later win a Pulitzer Prize), the cartoon shows a tiny boat, the words “Jewish refugee ship” coming out of its smokestack, sailing past the statue of liberty. At the base of the statue are the famous words, “Give me your tired, your poor … Send those, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,” but from her upraised torch hangs a sign reading “Keep Out.”  Lady Liberty’s face is turned away from the refugee ship. The cartoon is headlined “Ashamed!,” and an accompanying editorial described Lady Liberty as turning away in shame over America’s anti-immigration policy.

Packer’s cartoon is featured in a new exhibit of cartoons from World War II-era U.S. newspapers, “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust: Art in the Service of Humanity,” created by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.  After the exhibit was recently displayed at a school in Rockville, Maryland high school senior Atara Mayer told a local newspaper that the cartoons provided “a new way of looking at what happened.  You could see it. It just made things a lot easier to understand.” 

Another particularly striking cartoon in the exhibit was drawn by Eric Godal for the New York City newspaper P.M. in 1943.  It shows two State Department officials engrossed in reading the “Washington Society” page of the daily newspaper.  One official is handing the other a newspaper with a headline about 100,000 Jews being slaughtered by the Nazis each month, and is saying to his colleague, “Refer to Committee 3, Investigation Subcommittee 6, Section 8b, for consideration.”

It was a jarring commentary on the State Department’s indifference to the Nazi genocide.  It was also an admirable attempt by a cartoonist to use his art to influence public opinion in favor of rescue.

In our own time, cartoon art is emerging as a powerful means of Holocaust education. Art Spiegelman’s book Maus, which tells about the Holocaust through cartoons and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, was a pioneer in this new field.  More recently, veteran DC Comics artist and editor Joe Kubert wrote and drew the critically-acclaimed Yossel: April 19, 1943, which depicts the life of a Jewish child artist in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Speaking at a recent Holocaust studies conference, Kubert emphasized that cartoon illustrations “can, with just a few strokes of the pen, convey an image or an idea that will remain in the readers’ minds for years to come.”

The coincidence of Holocaust Remembrance Day and National Cartoonists Day reminds us that in considering how best to teach young people today about the Holocaust, new methods, such as cartoons, may be particularly effective.  That image of the statue of liberty with the “Keep Out” sign is literally unforgettable.  And making the Holocaust unforgettable is our generation’s duty.

May 2005