April 20, 2006

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We Are On Our Own, by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)

What forces create an atheist and the firm belief that there is no higher power keeping his eye on things? In Miriam Katin’s case, it was the Nazis’ invasion of Budapest. Katin and her mother, a Jew, escaped on foot, posing as a Russian servant with an illegitimate child. Katin’s father, meanwhile, was at the front fighting for the Hungarian army.

Katin wrote her story as a graphic novel — pictures and word balloons illustrating a fearful flight, a search for refuge and the erosion of a child’s simple faith. Where is god and, if he exists, why did he allow the Nazis to come and the strange men to hurt her mother and make her cry?

Katin is 63 now and We Are On Our Own is her first novel. After the war, her family returned to Hungary but was forced to flee again during the 1956 uprising. The clan settled in Israel where Katin served in the armed forces as a graphic artist. She moved to New York City in the 1960s and worked as an animator for Disney and MTV. She’s also illustrated children’s books and drawn several short stories in comics form.

Her drawings are beautiful — rich in content and stark with contrast — a combination of her interpretations of her mother’s stories and her own dim childhood memories. The story itself is haunting, superbly told in words and images. Katin’s mother is a hero, protecting her child at all costs, even if it literally means sleeping with the enemy.

The Holocaust changed the world, Katin says, and the scars of the survivors are as deep as any wound ever inflicted. Even those who avoided the death camps, sometimes selling themselves to do so, will always live there in some way.

In exploring her own questions about faith, Katin seems to be saying that the greatest casualty of the war was innocence and trust. A

— Robert Greene


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