When I went to Poland on the March of the Living when I was sixteen years old, my mother told me to lie. Tell your grandparents you’re going to Israel, she said. It will hurt them to know that you’re going to Poland. They’ll be afraid; they won’t understand. My grandparents were both survivors. They had wrapped their trauma in layers of silence to protect my mother and her children. They would not have been able to stand the idea of their granddaughter going to Poland; they never, ever would have believed that it was safe. It was strange to take this trip–my way of trying to learn part of the story they would not tell–while actively deceiving them. I told them I was going to Israel, which was half of the truth; when I came back, tan and sobered, I fielded my grandmother’s eager request–had I had fun? They were the only people I wanted to talk to about what I’d seen, and they were the only ones I could not tell.
Miriam Katin’s new graphic memoir, Letting It Go, published by local comics press Drawn and Quarterly, tells a similar story about the legacy of the past for Holocaust survivors, and the challenge to that legacy by a younger generation. Her first graphic memoir, We Are On Our Own, narrated her childhood flight with her mother through occupied Hungary in 1944-1945. In a feathery, shadowy dark pencil, the book filters traumatic history through the naïve perspective of a child, and marries a sweet pictorialism with a dark, painful story of escape, suffering and survival. Published when Katin was 63, We Are On Our Own is a troubling, gut-wrenching and beautiful book.
Letting it Go picks up Katin’s story many years later. This book is lighter than her first; done in colored pencil and mostly without panels rather than in black and white, set in the present rather than the anguished past. It focuses as much on mundane anxieties and pleasures as it does on traumatic memory. The story begins with Katin’s search for a new subject for her next book. She wrestles with procrastination, and with the everyday frustrations of city life in Manhattan. Her plot arrives when her adult son skypes her from Berlin. He’s met a woman; he’s moving to Germany; he wants his mother to secure him EU citizenship through helping him acquire a Hungarian passport. Suddenly, Katin is thrown back into a maelstrom of fear, resistance and memory as she confronts her unresolved feelings about Hungary and about the war, and wrestles with the possibility of her son’s return to Europe.
This is heavy material, but Katin’s approach is humorous and ambivalent. Katin is a charming narrator: candid, complex, unvain. She goes to Berlin to visit her son, and is torn between the pleasure she takes in the city, and the darkness of her associations. “The world has changed,” her son says to her, and you can see her struggle with whether or not she can allow Germany to be a changed and less haunted place. She is so distressed that she has psychosomatically induced diarrhea in the hotel, her body expressing all the fear she cannot suppress. One of the more powerful pages in the book shows her giving birth to her son. As walks him to the Hungarian consulate many years later she says, “Somehow every step I take I feel like I’m unravelling. Something like unbirthing.” It is difficult to send her child back into that crucible of terror. Difficult, too, to allow that it may no longer be the same place she fled.
“They have a word for it,” her son Ilan’s German girlfriend says. “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung. Coming to terms with the past.” For Berlin, which has the fastest growing Jewish community in all of Europe, coming to terms with the past is a work of ongoing importance. As Katin’s book suggests, it is going to be a messy and painful process. But there is something waiting on the other side, something less saintly than forgiveness and more insistent than closure, something like letting go.
Ariela Freedman is an Associate Professor at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College. She lives in Montreal where she battles a big reading problem. You can check out her blog at thephilosophicalbrothel.