Balakirsky Katz on Aarons, 'Holocaust Graphic Narratives: Generation, Trauma, and Memory'

Victoria Aarons
Maya Balakirsky Katz

Victoria Aarons. Holocaust Graphic Narratives: Generation, Trauma, and Memory. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 256 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-978802-56-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-978802-55-1.

Reviewed by Maya Balakirsky Katz (Bar-Ilan University) Published on H-Judaic (April, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version: 

In her introduction to Holocaust Graphic Narratives, Victoria Aarons hooks her readers with the observation that the Holocaust has been good for comics. In the 1930s, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe entered the nascent commercial industry and helped to develop it into a thriving segment of American popular culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists used the Holocaust to mystify superhero backstories at the same time that the comic book slowly morphed into the more genteel “graphic novel.” But the story of Holocaust graphic novels specifically really starts with Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic narrative Maus (two vols. 1986, 1991)—the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Maus brought comics out of the publishing underbelly and into the literary mainstream (and into the academy). Jewish women entered into what had been a predominantly male field to forcefully contribute to the use of the graphic novel for trauma narratives. So powerful is this connection between Holocaust content and the graphic novel form that the University of Victoria has led a project that paired Holocaust survivors with artists to produce graphic novels on the Holocaust for the next generation.

As more and more Holocaust survivors pass from our orbit and the production of Holocaust graphic novels swell in an atmosphere of cultural ascendancy, Aarons has made an invaluable contribution in theorizing the relatively recent rise of the graphic novel for Holocaust trauma narratives in North America. Organizing her case histories according to the artist’s temporal proximity to the Holocaust, she spans the recent history of the graphic novel across the generational strata of Holocaust memory. She begins with the fragmented memory of the child survivor, moves to the inherited memory of second-generation perspectives and then to the third-generation traumatic imprint, and ends with those who neither directly experienced nor inherited an experiential narrative of the Holocaust.

Each of her case histories provides Aarons with different layers of memory through which to trace the artistic engagement with Holocaust history and its traumatic imprint. Throughout her analyses of specific graphic novels, she delves into psychoanalytic literature as it relates to the memory mechanisms that people experience not only in the wake of trauma but also in processing traumatic narratives. Beginning with Miriam Katin’s child memoir We Are on Our Own (2006), Aarons reaches for clinical studies on what happens to children too young to understand the meaning of their traumatic experiences at the time and too old to recall much of what had happened once they are developmentally capable of organizing those experiences. For her analysis of the second-generation graphic memoirs of Martin Lemelman and Bernice Eisenstein, Aarons draws on literature on relational trauma to frame the phenomenon of survivors trying to protect their postwar children from their harrowing experiences but nonetheless passing down their traumas in non-verbalized and affective ways. For her analysis of the third-generation perspective in Amy Kurzweil’s Flying Couch (2016), Aarons buoys the literature on the transference of trauma with the perspective of those who inherit Holocaust narratives generations down the line and attempt to own and shape their family histories in the present. In her analysis of the rest of us—those who must live with the image of the Holocaust they generate inside themselves—she pulls in Sigmund Freud’s dream theory, with its wish fulfillment and symbolic structures, to analyze Joe Kubert’s projection of his fantasized self into the counterfactual narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Yossel: April 19, 1943 (2003).

Throughout these various strata of memory processes, Aarons hinges much of her visual interpretations along the way on the psychoanalytic conceptualization of the dissociative states that trauma mobilizes to separate the trauma victim from their cognition of experiences that threaten their survival. For example, if the victim cannot consciously “know” that which will overwhelm and subsume their psyche, Katin’s representation of the repetitive stabbing of her doll is “an unconscious attempt to work through her anxieties, fears, and anger” at the center of Anna Freud’s theory of play in the therapeutic process (p. 26).

At the same time, in devoting chapters to both the late industry legend Kubert and his umpteenth solo production and the relatively young Kurzweil and her debut graphic memoir while referencing and contextualizing dozens more that have appeared after Maus, Aarons is making a case that the Holocaust graphic novel has grown into a sustainable field open to newcomers and achieved legitimacy as a field of Holocaust representation with significant implications on Holocaust memory in the twenty-first century. Thus, while film scholars in the 1990s have argued that the fear and repulsion that trauma evokes relegated emotional processing to the much despised genre of horror, Aarons sees the graphic artists post-Maus as taking hold of an upwardly mobile and popularly beloved medium to explore the shape of traumatic memory as we move further and further into the Holocaust’s future or as the Holocaust recedes further and further into our past. It is not so much that the traumatic narratives these artists tell are so repulsive that they must lurk in despised cultural pockets of “possession” and “devil-worship” or underground genres like horror as they once did. Rather, the processing of trauma as big as the Holocaust has risen, in the form of the graphic novel, to the cultural surface. Why? Because they offer an alternative to the predominant graphic image of the Holocaust—the documentary photograph.

That is, one of the reasons that graphic storytellers and their readers find the graphic novel so appealing is that Jews often find it difficult to find themselves in the authoritarian reign of documentary histories. Aarons acknowledges the ways documentary evidence often fails to draw emotional engagement precisely because of its authority as a referent to concrete events that participates in an already mapped-out historical narrative, whereas the graphic novel allows subjective voices to emerge. One could also add, in support of Aaron’s broader thesis, that much of the photographic archive on the Holocaust was taken by the perpetrators and the Allied victors, a topic recently explored in depth in Kathryn Hoffman-Cortius’s Judenmord: Art and the Holocaust in Post-war Germany (2018) (which I reviewed for H-Judaic).

Aarons shows how the graphic novel’s rich juxtapositions of text and image extends the monumental arc of the Holocaust’s photographic legacy from the immutable past into the subjective and ever-evolving present. She shows us that Katin redraws details in a photo-realistic style and gray scale that creates “a parody of a photograph” (p. 30). In reproducing actual family photographs before the war and hand-captioning them along with a hand-drawn hand (his? his mother’s?) across them in his graphic memoir Mendel’s Daughter (2006), Lemelman “creates a scrapbook effect” in which he is both burdened by and preoccupied with his mother’s memories (p. 64). In drawing a “posed” photograph of her mother, grandmother, and aunt with their outstretched arms exposing their camp tattoos in her graphic memoir, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2006), Eisenstein anchors herself and her paintbrushes to her female line by “bleeding” onto the two-page spread (p. 112). In evoking blurry photographs hidden inside an only partially opened family album that morphs into a hand-drawn house with the floorplan of her own childhood home, Kurzweil, a third-generation narrator, “calls attention to the process and artifice of storytelling, directing the reader to the value inherent in the transmission of the word as a foundation for continuity and identity formation” (p. 133). Taken together, whether scribbling across the photographic referent or defamiliarizing it in its redrawn form, Aarons demonstrates, when graphic artists insert photographic images into their work, they reassert themselves and their subjectivities within them.

As an alternative form of Holocaust representation, Aarons argues, the graphic novel is well-suited for the processing Holocaust narratives precisely because of its artistic range and narrative flexibility. With dissociation being the psychic mechanism at the center of trauma, she frames the flexibility of the form of the graphic novel as a fitting place for representing traumatic content. That is, Aarons seems to draw a parallel between the dissociative states that trauma evokes and the gaps and fissures within the graphic novel form. With its fractured and only loosely connected flashes of the story, its partial presentation of the field of vision, its imperfect connections between the verbal and imagistic worlds, and its repetitive format, the graphic novel provides a safe space to play out and work through trauma despite the mechanism of dissociation that separates a person from their experiences.

In Aarons’s hands, trauma and the graphic novel work alongside each other to represent experience despite disorganized and/or fragmented representation, fractured narrative, affective detachment, multiple self-states and competing perspectives, and perception and temporal disintegration. Aarons points out that even the authority of speech is relegated back to its imagistic origins (where trauma is initially processed) so that the artistic choices around text bubbles renders “narrative voice a visual artifact of memory” (p. 196). She offers a wide variety of analyses on this mode of visualizing trauma. Katin’s soft edges blur memory and Kurzweil’s juxtaposition of clashing topographic styles insists on the coexistence of various and sometimes competing perspectives, while Al Feldstein and Bernie Krigstein’s short story “Master Race” (1955), which Aarons sees as “an interpretive place of origin,” materializes and makes space for the silence that always hovers over trauma by dispensing with text altogether as the tortured soul at the center of the narrative either jumps or falls to his death (p. 177).

This is a book that educators will find especially useful. They might choose to assign the primary sources Aarons discusses because the form under discussion is one that appeals to younger readers and they will have a masterful critic at their side. For those who do choose to materialize Aarons’s analysis in the classroom, they will find a master lesson on the sort of engaged reading and looking that it takes to do “the memory-work” that trauma demands, whether it is the personal processing of trauma or the historical imperative to “never forget.”

Maya Balakirsky Katz is associate professor of Jewish art at Bar-Ilan University and a clinical psychoanalist.

Citation: Maya Balakirsky Katz. Review of Aarons, Victoria, Holocaust Graphic Narratives: Generation, Trauma, and Memory. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.