The Arty Semite

Comics, Americans and the Holocaust

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

The latest collaboration between Holocaust educator Rafael Medoff and comics giant Neal Adams is their most moving — literally.

“They Spoke Out: American Voices of Protest Against the Holocaust” uses “motion comics” — panels with scrolling text, voiceovers, and archival newsreel footage — to tell the stories of Americans “who raised their voices, marched in protest, or even helped smuggle Jewish refugees out of Hitler’s Europe.”

Medoff, the founding director of David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., has written extensively on the American response to the Holocaust. He and Adams, the legendary illustrator whose portfolio includes Batman and X-Men books, teamed on an acclaimed 2009 comic about Dina Babbitt, a Warner Brothers animator and Holocaust survivor.

Educational-video giant Disney Educational Products is distributing “They Spoke Out” as a DVD series; episodes are viewable online at

The Arty Semite caught up with Medoff by email from Washington, D.C., where the Wyman Institute is based.

Michael Kaminer: After “Maus,” comics by Holocaust survivors like Miriam Katin, and other graphic work that deals with the subject, what are you hoping to bring to the table with this body of work?

Rafael Medoff: The Wyman Institute is bringing America’s response into the story. Groundbreaking works such as “Maus” focused on the killers and the victims. We explore how the American government, media, and public responded to the Nazi genocide.

Disney Educational Productions is your partner on the project. Did teaming with an entertainment conglomerate present challenges as far as content goes? Were there directives from DEP?

The Disney Educational Productions team had already done a good deal of work in the area of Holocaust-related curriculum materials before we met. They’re talented, creative, and sensitive to the complexities of the subject matter. There were no directives. It has been a thoroughly cooperative and positive working relationship.

DEP’s web site refers to these as “little-known” stories. Why do you think these accounts of people who “raised their voices” haven’t attracted as much attention as other Holocaust stories?

The reasons vary. In some cases, it’s because these unsung heroes were extremely humble. Take, for example, the case of Harry Bingham, the U.S. diplomat in Marseilles who defied his superiors and helped Varian Fry smuggle refugees out of Vichy France. He never even told his family what he did. After he died, his youngest son found his letters from the 1940s hidden behind a closet in the old family home in rural Connecticut. In any event, it’s not surprising that most historians and Holocaust-related institutions have focused on the perpetrators and the victims; the Wyman Institute’s unique role is to focus on the response of Americans — both those who abandoned the Jews, and those who tried to help.

Disney says “motion comics are the newest, cutting-edge way to entertain and educate simultaneously.” How critical is it to entertain while we educate new generations about the Holocaust?

It’s important for educational material about the Holocaust to be interesting, to capture a student’s attention and hold it. The story of Varian Fry smuggling Jewish refugees over the Pyrenees, for example, or the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, are very compelling and students naturally will want to get to the end to find out what happened.

How was this collaboration with Neal different from your “Dina Babbitt” work together?

The writing of the Dina Babbitt comic strip was a more traditional comic book style of writing; creating a script for an animated short involved visualizing the progress of the story in a different way. In both projects, I have had the good fortune to have the guidance of one of the greatest comic book creators of all time.

By focusing on these “voices” rather than on people who suffered through the Holocaust, what are you and Neal hoping to achieve?

We hope to shine a spotlight on those Americans who spoke out and did the right thing, even though it was unpopular to do so. Those who raised their voices in protest should be moral role models for our own generation. Genocide did not end with the Holocaust — Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur demonstrate the need to teach young people today to speak out against mass murder.

Neal told one reporter “we’re not throwing the Holocaust at you.” What’s wrong with throwing the Holocaust at students?

The Holocaust is a difficult and complicated subject for teenagers to comprehend, so educators need to approach it in a sensitive, nuanced way and come at it from different angles — such as the American response — that will hold the students’ interest. Many students are very interested in the question of how our own country responded then, how America has responded to more recent instances of genocide, and whether Americans today are obligated to respond to human rights abuses around the world.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: They Spoke Out, Rafael Medoff, Neal Adams, Motion Comics, Michael Kaminer, Interviews, Comics

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.