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We Are On Our Own

Written and illustrated by Miriam Katin
Drawn & Quarterly
140 pages, $19.95
ISBN: 1896597203

 

Miriam's mother is betrayed by someone who wouldn't even acknowledge his betrayal. Sequence from We Are On Our Own, ©2006 Miriam Katin.

 

Most of us here in the United States will never know real hardship. We are unlikely to find ourself under arbitrary orders to surrender ourselves to the government for transferral to a detention camp, unlikely to have to flee to the countryside for our lives while our neighbors assist in our persecution, unlikely to have to trade sex for security, unlikely to be left to the dubious mercy of invading soldiers, all while caring for a young child. For Miriam Katin's mother, a Jew fleeing the Nazi horror and dodging Soviet wartime brutality, all of these things were a painful reality. We know this because Miriam has set her mother's story down on paper as a graphic novel.

We Are On Our Own is, so far as I know, Katin's first work of comics, but she spent her life as an illustrator and animator, and the skill she brings to bear in this work is formidable. Her art style seems to sit in the sweet spot between Posy Simmonds and Eddie Campbell — the illustrations are delicate and graceful yet have a loose, sketchy feel, muddying slightly when more unpleasant scenes are depicted but still well-composed. Katin alternates between monochrome pencil drawings for the historical sections, occasionally switching to full color for the present day, as the now-grown artist experiences family life as a wife and mother, yet remains haunted by a past she was too young to fully comprehend. (In the afterword, Miriam reveals that she was unaware of most of the events she details until after she had grown up.)

 

How many people could survive bleak incidents such as this without breaking? Sequence from We Are On Our Own, ©2006 Miriam Katin.

 

As for the story itself: Perhaps the biggest horror it contains is that things could have been much worse. There was no shortage of people who meant Miriam and her mother ill, of course, and the compromises her mother made were choices no woman should ever have to face. Still, she was smart and resourceful enough to slip away when the Nazis ordered her to leave for the camps, and while the hardships that followed were often difficult to endure, she also met people along the way who helped her survive and keep moving, from the farming community that protected her to the Russian soldier who, not speaking her language, showed her a picture of his wife and children to reassure her that he had no intention of committing rape. That such simple acts of human decency could be considered lucky breaks is, in a strange way, more appalling than all the horrors catalogued by the Marquis de Sade; one finds oneself wondering what happened to all the people who didn't meet such good people along the wartime roads, let alone those who found themselves in the death camps.

Such incidents of nobility contrast sharply with the trials that Katin's mother endured as she fled the war and protected her young daughter from its worst abuses, but they also keep the book from sinking into hopelessness — this is the tale of a survivor in the finest sense of the word. Miriam Katin's chronicle of her mother's success in dodging and, in her own way, defeating monsters like Hitler and his minions can only be seen as a loving tribute from a grateful daughter, written in gratitude to the courageous heroine who saved her life. Despite its more harrowing passages, We Are On Our Own is a hopeful and uplifting work, and the events it depicts ultimately give lie to the title. We aren't on our own, and that is our saving grace as human beings.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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