Friday, May 30, 2008

Judenhass: Not really the place for jokey post titles

By Dave Sim

I think I tend to overuse the word "horrific" in my reviews when describing war scenes or depictions of gore, but I don't know if there is a more apt word that I could use in conjunction with this book. But it's not the kind of visceral revulsion that results from seeing some blood and guts splashed around a page; this horror is the kind that reaches right into one's soul; I was literally trembling by the time I finished reading it.

Judenhass translates from German as "Jew hatred", and the book is a study of exactly that, with an awful array of quotes from various world leaders of the last few centuries, all leading up to what would result from those sentiments in Germany in the 1940s. And as background to all of this, Sim fills the pages with images of dead Jews in concentration camps, recreated from photographs. But rather than just alternating pictures and text, Sim presents the images as a sort of comics-style collage or wallpaper that sits behind informational captions, quotes, and depictions of historical figures, with panels cinematically panning across piles of bodies, zooming in and out on haunting faces and emaciated body parts:

It's harsh stuff, imagery that you can't (and shouldn't) get out of your head. The near-endless repetition of images seems like it would become monotonous, but it actually works to cement them in place in your memory. Details sometimes seem indistinct, but they gradually become more and more detailed, until the full horror is revealed:

Seeing these terrible pictures again and again, and knowing that they are all too real, makes them impossible to ignore. This is real. This really happened, as disgusting and incomprehensible as it seems to us today. But that's Sim's point, as he states in the introduction of the first few pages: there was a historical record of anti-Semitism that stretched across the world, eventually leading to one of history's worst tragedies. It wasn't limited to Germany; that was just where it reached critical mass.

And that's the lesson that we need to take here. Hatred and bigotry are exactly that, whether in form of violent action or simple attitude. Some of the quotes on the pages might seem kind of mild, along the lines of "Oh, those Jews can be such trouble. It's best not to deal with them; after all, they did kill Christ". But while those sorts of sentiments might seem fairly harmless, the images behind them show where they can lead. Think of that, bigots, the next time you paint all Mexicans as lazy or all blacks as violent and ignorant (or all women as emotional, creativity-sucking basket cases); the images here are the logical endpoint of that line of thought. If you treat a particular category of person as subhuman, you might as well gather them up and systematically murder them.

I do take issue with Sim's assertion that non-Jews don't speak out against the Holocaust, or that they have to qualify it with statements that others were included in addition to Jews. As a gentile myself, I certainly don't feel that that is true. But at the same time, I am two generations removed from anybody who directly saw or experienced the events. It's good to get a wake-up call, reminding us what can happen if we let it. These days, the Holocaust is known more as fodder for movies or books that use the emotional resonance of the events for easy artistic affirmation. Sometimes we need to experience something that remind us of the true horrors that humanity is capable of, and pledge to do everything we can to ensure it will never happen again.