The War­saw Ghet­to in Amer­i­can Art and Culture

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

In this illus­trat­ed vol­ume, Baskind presents and dis­cuss­es the many forms of media that brought the bru­tal­i­ty of the War­saw ghet­to to the atten­tion of the Amer­i­can pub­lic. She exam­ines the ways in which tele­vi­sion pro­grams, cul­tur­al events, art, books, and comics all depict­ed this Jew­ish ghetto.

Baskind high­lights the fact that Amer­i­can Jews and Israelis deployed the 1943 War­saw ghet­to upris­ing to dis­pel the idea that Jews pas­sive­ly went to their deaths like sheep to their slaugh­ter.” She goes on to dis­cuss two pop­u­lar nov­els that were pub­lished after the end of the war and appear to have been writ­ten direct­ly against this notion of pas­sive vic­tims”: John Hersey’s The Wall and Leon Uris’s Mila 18. Both depict­ed hero­ic acts of resis­tance and por­trayed what Baskind calls the mus­cu­lar Jew.” The Wall focus­es on fam­i­lies cre­at­ing com­mu­ni­ty in the ghet­to in the face of hor­rif­ic cir­cum­stances, empha­siz­ing their indomitable spir­it and the hope that held them togeth­er. Mila 18 tells the sto­ry of the ghet­to resis­tance fight­ers, which Baskind analo­gizes to the sto­ries of both David and Goliath, and the Masa­da Fortress. She quotes Uris: From rub­ble of the ghet­to they avenged and redeemed their hon­or as a peo­ple.” Point­ing to cov­er illus­tra­tions for Mila 18, as well as oth­er pub­lic­i­ty for the book, Baskind iden­ti­fies a delib­er­ate intent on the part of Uris to rein­vig­o­rate post­war Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and pos­i­tive­ly influ­ence oth­ers’ per­cep­tions of Jews.

In the 1960s and ear­ly 70s, the tele­vi­sion series The Twi­light Zone includ­ed sev­er­al episodes on the Nazi peri­od, some bet­ter-received than oth­ers. The show’s cre­ator Rod Ser­ling was crit­i­cized for pre­sent­ing nuanced Ger­man char­ac­ters and for fea­tur­ing non-Jew­ish Nazi vic­tims. Nev­er­the­less, Baskind points out that episodes such as In the Pres­ence of Mine Ene­mies and Deaths-Head Revis­it­ed remain cen­tral depic­tions of the Holo­caust in pop culture.

Baskind’s chap­ters on the painter Samuel Bak and graph­ic artist Joe Kubert focus on the more than 1.2 mil­lion child vic­tims of the Nazis. The oft-repro­duced pho­to­graph from the Stroop Report of a lit­tle boy with his hands in the air inspired more than sev­en­ty paint­ings by Bak, him­self a child sur­vivor who spoke of his trau­ma as a heavy shad­ow.” Oth­er famous artists who used the Stroop Report pho­to in their work include Judy Chica­go, Audrey Flack, and Jack Levine. Baskind goes on to explore the poten­tial for exploita­tion of the ghetto’s his­to­ry and its inhab­i­tants through art.

Kubert, mean­while, who worked as DC Comics’ Direc­tor of Pub­li­ca­tions, was known for pro­duc­ing some­times-con­tro­ver­sial sto­ries with Ger­man pro­tag­o­nists and end­ings that dif­fered from his­tor­i­cal fact. His graph­ic nov­el Yos­sel: April 19,1943 imag­ines what his fate might have been had his par­ents not escaped Poland when he was a child.

Baskind ends the book by reit­er­at­ing her dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between the ghet­to and the death camps and why the for­mer, with its spir­it of hope, con­tin­ues to inspire cre­ative out­put. The ghetto’s use in art as a vehi­cle to uplift, per­suade, edu­cate, remem­ber, and even enter­tain — both in its real­i­ty and in its exag­ger­a­tions — has formed the core of this study,” she writes.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions