I really dig Dave Sim’s work, which is to say that I dig Cerebus. I’ve ploughed my way through most of the Cerebus trades (this is them on my shelf) and I’ve been wanting to see what he would come up with next, as the only other work of his that I’ve read was that issue of Spawn he wrote back in the day. And now he’s emerged from his hiatus with two projects. Glamourpuss is sitting here on a pile of comics that I need to batter through, but I decided to go for Judenhass first.
Judenhass means “Hatred of Jews” and the book opens with what I find to be a strange conceit, namely that every creative person should consider doing a work about the Holocaust. Sim came to this conclusion following the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschitz, in 2005. Was he not aware of the Holocaust before that point? Was there something about that anniversary that particularly provoked his need to write a comic about it? And why is it specifically the Holocaust that creators need to write about? Why not the dropping of the atomic bombs? What about the 20 million Russians that died in the Second World War? Are there any other historical tragedies deserving of a comic?
He seems to be saying that since many of the pioneers in the comic book industry were Jewish, it’s therefore the duty of comic creators to approach the Holocaust. It’s a tenuous logic, to me at least. Sim continues to open the book with seven pages where he talks directly to the reader. His artwork moves slowly from the train tracks outside a concentration camp towards the gates that so many went through, never to return from, while telling us that the Holocaust was not some one-in-a-million happenstance and Nazi Germany wasn’t the only regime it could have happened under. He’s saying that the Holocaust was unthinkable, yet inevitable.
From there on the book’s artwork is harrowing and moving, as he depicts the horrors of the concentration camps in his photo-realistic style. The problem I have is with the text. It’s basically a bunch of quotes lifted from throughout history about people hating Jews. This includes words from Nazis like Hitler, Goring and Himmler. However, there’s nothing too revelatory in the fact that Hitler had it in for the Jews. There’s also quotes from, among others, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Martin Luther, HG Wells, a line from the founding charter of Hamas and some unattributed Russian proverb.
What all the quotes lack though is context. There’s a line from Winston Churchill in 1937 where he says: “We seem to be moving toward some hideous catastrophe.” That’s it. I dn’t think there’s anything especially prescient about that, I don’t believe Churchill could envision the Holocaust back then. I believe he was acutely aware of the war clouds gathering over Europe, but that’s all. Putting the quote next to an image of skeletal bodies piled high is ingenuous. That’s not what Churchill was talking about.
In one of the most uncomfortable images in the book Sim shows medics cutting open a concentration camp prisoner alongside the statistic that physicians joined the Nazi Party at a higher rate than any other profession in Germany. It seems to me the implication is every doctor signed up in order to perform experiments on Jews, which is surely a huge over-simplification of the facts. A twisting of the facts, even.
For someone who has often bemoaned the fact that his own words are taken out of context, I find it incredibly hypocritical that he would present so many quotes from other people out of context. And I don’t see how a ragtag collection of quotes from disparate sources throughout history (including, bizarrely, Marlon Brando) proves that the Holocaust was inevitable. Nothing is made of the millions who gave their lives to defeat Nazi Germany, putting an end to the Holocaust.
Randomly, the last page of the book even throws in a line from a previously-unheard-of Soth Korean comic book artist called Rhei Won-Bok who says: “The Jews are an invisible force that controls the US.” The significance of this is lost on me, but immediately the book then veers off on a hopeful tone, concluding with Lao-tzu’s: “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Judenhaas is an odd book. Of course every decent-minded person can agree that the Holocaust was abhorrent and should never be forgotten. Sim’s premise that the Holocaust was inevitable seems simplistic, as does the way he collects a disparate hodge-podge of quotes to back it all up.