In late January, Tennessee’s McMinn County School Board made international headlines when it unanimously voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s seminal Holocaust memoir, Maus, from curricula and libraries. Board members insisted, vociferously and apologetically, that their decision had nothing to do with the genocide itself, but rather the book’s inclusion of female nudity and curses that took the Lord’s name in vain.
To many casual observers, Maus is the comic that made the funny pages legitimate literature. But long before Spiegelman’s account of his family trauma won a Pulitzer and broke open establishment conceptions of what comics could be and do, artists were using the medium to talk about difficult nonfiction topics. During World War II, in fact, some comics creators even delved into the grimmest depths of the Nazis’ Final Solution.
In early January 1945, just before the liberation of Auschwitz, a small group of journalists and artists, many of them European immigrants, published a roughly 50-page pamphlet titled The Bloody Record of Nazi Atrocities. Printed by Arco Publishing Company, a small imprint based in New York, it combined previously circulated photographs, drawings and text with newly commissioned works documenting the mass killings of European Jews, Roma and Sinti. Though the victims’ ethnicity was the main reason the Third Reich targeted them, the pamphlet largely omitted this fact in favor of presenting a broader narrative of Nazi inhumanity that generated support for the Allied war effort.
Within The Bloody Record, a six-panel comic takes up an entire page. Titled “Nazi Death Parade,” it depicts the arrival of prisoners at an unnamed concentration camp. The inmates are stripped of their belongings and clothing and given showers to “open their pores for quicker poisoning” before being gassed to death. The last two panels show Nazi soldiers salvaging victims’ gold teeth and shoveling a corpse into an oven for cremation; the final caption notes that “the ashes are sold for fertilizer use.”
Kees Ribbens, a historian at Erasmus University Rotterdam and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, believes that “Nazi Death Parade” is the earliest known comic depiction of the horrible endpoint of the Shoah. He’s fascinated by the choice of medium. After all, why would one use “the funnies” to present this grim testimony?
“On the one hand, it was too terrifying to realize what was actually going on there,” Ribbens says. “On the other hand, people thought, ‘This can’t be true—it’s simply unbelievable.’”
Ribbens is equally invested in learning more about the man who created “Nazi Death Parade”: not a young American Jew, as one might expect of the period’s comics industry, but a classically trained Austro-Hungarian émigré named August Maria Froehlich—a man then in his mid-60s.
Froehlich illustrated movie posters in early Hollywood and created humorous cartoons for the German-language vaudeville circuit before moving on to comics, primarily adventure titles like Daring Mystery Comics (including one story written by Superman creator Joe Simon) and adaptations of classic literature, such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and Black Beauty. Records suggest Froehlich joined the studio of comic giants Will Eisner and Jerry Iger between 1939 and the early 1940s. According to research published by Ribbens in Beyond Maus: The Legacy of Holocaust Comics, the artist also worked for multiple “documentary-oriented comic magazines.”
Froehlich probably learned about the Holocaust from news coverage and the Jewish artists and screenwriters he met through his work in Hollywood and the comic industry. The Bloody Record’s editors “presumably” invited him to draw “Nazi Death Parade,” perhaps in recognition of his “specific experience as a (nonfiction) comic strip artist”; Ribbens is unsure exactly who “came up with the idea to document the murder process in a six-part image sequence,” but he notes that Froehlich also created several full-page, stand-alone illustrations of the killings for the pamphlet.
When Froehlich drew “Nazi Death Parade” in late 1944, information about concentration camps in general and the Final Solution in particular was available worldwide. But non-Jewish American readers weren’t engaging with the news on a wide scale.
Lawmakers and publishers alike worried about the appearance of indulging in propaganda that echoed the mire of the Great War or was seemingly sourced from the Soviet Union. Allied leaders also sought to distance themselves from anti-Semitic insinuations that by reporting on Jewish suffering, they were succumbing to Jewish manipulation. Nativism further dampened mass outrage over the Nazis’ crimes, with anti-immigration sentiment overwhelming calls to allow Jewish refugees into the U.S.
To universalize the horrors of the Holocaust for skeptical—and, in some cases, anti-Semitic—American audiences, Froehlich didn’t actually identify the victims in his comic as Jews. As Ribbens explains in Beyond Maus, “The compilers of Bloody Record tried to give the victims a retroactive place as human beings in the visual narrative of the Holocaust.” Still, “[e]mphasizing the utterly inhumane acts of the Nazis … seemed more important than identifying the prime victims of the Hitler regime.”
Froehlich’s inclusion of Zyklon B in his captions “shows how detailed the available knowledge on the Holocaust was by then,” writes Ribbens. Most artistic depictions, however, were limited to editorial cartoons, which typically take a single-panel format and respond more directly to current events. Cartoonists such as Eric Godal and Fred Packer, for instance, bitterly criticized the American government’s inaction regarding the Holocaust, including the 1939 decision to deny entry to the M.S. St. Louis’ 937 passengers, most of whom were Jewish refugees from Europe.
Ribbens suggests that the medium of “Nazi Death Parade” may have been something of a last resort for The Bloody Record’s creators. “[They] realized, if their message comes only in words, it’s not going to make any difference, because if people at the time really wanted to know, they could,” he says.
“Nazi Death Parade” “definitely was not the first depiction of a gas chamber as such,” says Ribbens, “but a comic which illustrates the entire process, that’s something new.”
Artists, filmmakers and educators have depicted the Holocaust for decades. Over that period, a visual language about its horrors has slowly codified. The shorthand includes leering watchtowers, striped prisoners’ uniforms, yellow stars and smoking industrial towers. “Nazi Death Parade” includes almost none of these elements, even though it was likely developed from eyewitness accounts of the Majdanek concentration camp outside of Lublin, Poland, which was liberated in July 1944.
Despite the absence of familiar pictorial themes associated with the Holocaust, “Nazi Death Parade” evokes strong emotions immediately. “The reader is always a participant in the comic,” says Sarah Mirk, a comics journalist and editor at the nonfiction comics website the Nib. “Your brain fills in the gaps between the panels and imagines what’s happening there, so you’re telling the story in your head as you’re reading the comic.”
Ribbens argues that readers of “Nazi Death Parade” imagine themselves as both victims of the gas chambers and enactors of the violence. In the margins of each panel, Nazis watch each step of the killing process. By the final two panels, none of the victims are left alive. Only the perpetrators—and the reader—bear witness.
“This entire pamphlet very much tried to convince the audience that [it was] worth it” for the United States to join the war, Ribbens says. “‘Yes, we are making sacrifices, but look at what the Nazis are doing. You can’t let it go unnoticed, you can’t let it continue.’” Unlike many history-centered or documentary publications, including comics like Maus, “Nazi Death Parade” and its container pamphlet were released with the explicit hope of stopping the horrors they depicted.
Froehlich and his fellow pamphleteers may have understood instinctively the power inherent in the comics format; less than a decade after “Nazi Death Parade,” the Comics Code Authority severely curbed what kinds of story elements and visuals were acceptable for readers. According to industry groups and Congress, violence, nudity and degeneracy had no place on sales stands, whether they portrayed real-life atrocities or not. By the 1950s, documentary, anti-Nazi comics like Froehlich’s may not have been published at all.
Because “Nazi Death Parade” was a comic, it could circumvent structural censorship more easily than other mediums. Mirk, who edited the 2020 anthology Guantanamo Voices, which shares ten stories from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, notes that access within the base is tightly controlled, so “there are a lot of moments that we just don’t have any record of.” Comics, she adds, “allow artists to fill in the gaps and tell really difficult and complicated stories in a succinct and emotionally powerful way.”
For survivors of the Holocaust and their families, processing the trauma of those years is intergenerational. Jewish artists like Spiegelman and Amy Kurzweil, author of Flying Couch, have turned to comics in particular to confront those legacies without limits on formatting, art style, length, point of view and staging. For some, expansive concepts and imaginative conceits are the only way they can wrap their minds around the Shoah. The most successful of these works avoid comforting audiences with gentile heroism and universal lessons, rejecting the narrative choices of such popular films as Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (deemed “dangerous” and inaccurate by Holocaust educators).
In her comics, including Unterzakhn and We All Wish for Deadly Force, third-generation Holocaust survivor Leela Corman deals intimately with issues of identity, history, trauma and family. “I actually tried not to do work about the Holocaust,” she says. “I tried really, really hard not to.” Her forthcoming book Victory Parade includes “not one but two Busby Berkeley death scenes,” in addition to deconstructed bodies, black-eyed Yiddish ghosts and hard-bitten women making do in complex immigrant communities.
“I was not indoctrinated into the Holocaust as a story that happened to other people,” Corman says. “Those people raised me. So while that generation of people has died, for the most part, the third generation, my generation, we have a job: making sure that the art you create is worth something to these people who you know you’re connected to and who suffered.”
Part of what draws Corman to these stories is the absence of explicit family accounts. She recalls her grandmother starting to talk about the Holocaust but stopping due to the traumatic nature of the memories. “I valued her emotional stability more than getting the story,” Corman says. “I don’t know more about their direct experience, but that was how it had to be. In some ways, I’m trying to imagine my way into a cultural memory that’s also a family memory.”
Telling stories about the Holocaust from victims’ perspective resists the Nazis’ own obsession with documenting and mythologizing their atrocities. It was a widespread instinct during the war, too: Art was created everywhere, from concentration camps to hidden attics to forests where partisans retreated. Filmgoers can now watch Charlotte, an animated account of the artist Charlotte Salomon, whose multimedia, semi-fictionalized record of her life prior to her murder at Auschwitz in 1943 has been called the “first graphic novel.”
That said, Corman cautions against elevating the medium of comics too much as a vector for Holocaust storytelling: “The effectiveness is in the creation itself, not in the format.”
At the Nib and in her own comics journalism, Mirk sees nonfiction comics as a means to change “the narratives we tell about ourselves, about our society and about the world.” By telling stories visually, comics can transcend language, age, and even time and space.
“I think [the news] can go over people’s heads when they’re just looking at text on a page,” she says. “What comics can do is create an emotional reality and an empathy in readers.”
Compared to current nonfiction or journalistic comics, “Nazi Death Parade” is straightforward to the point of remove. Mirk likens Froehlich’s statuesque figures to classical Greco-Roman mythology; Corman marvels at how healthy the victims look. There’s no hero to swoop in and save the day, as is often the case in World War II–era propaganda and popular comics. “This doesn’t feel nationalistic to me,” Mirk says. “And there’s no shining light at the end, saying here are nice people to save the day. It feels much more like a visual poem that doesn’t have a good conclusion to it.”
The Bloody Record of Nazi Atrocities was meant to have a sequel focusing on Japan, says Ribbens, but on publication, the pamphlet failed to generate significant sales and resonate broadly with the American public. “Unfortunately, as far as I could find out, it hardly had any impact whatsoever,” he says. Froehlich, too, remains largely a mystery; Ribbens is still trying to track down his death date.
“People were really hesitant to believe in the scale of the atrocity because it was just too fantastical,” says the historian. “I don’t think we should have very high expectations about what it actually meant to the American audience—but the intentions of the makers, we should try to take them very seriously.”