TIME.COM reviews WE ARE ON OUR OWN by Miriam Katin

“No Need for Sensationalism” / TIME Magazine / Andrew Arnold / June 1, 2006

While the reputation of traditional memoir publishing recovers from the scandal of partly or wholly fabricated tales of self-inflicted horror, two new graphical memoirs put such phony sensationalism to shame. Notably, both are by women, whose childhood stories have become increasingly visible in this medium thanks to the popularity of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a two-volume remembrance of growing up in post-revolution Iran. We Are On Our Own by Miriam Katin recalls the author's early childhood living secretly as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel takes place in suburban Pennsylvania, where the author's father led a secret double life. Though wildly divergent in setting, tone and approach, both books share a compelling interest in the consequences of a stressful childhood.

Miriam Katin's We Are On Our Own (Drawn & Quarterly; 128 pages; $20) can be read in less than hour, thanks to its page-turning true tale of life and death during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Still, the return on such a short investment of time is an unforgettable tale of a mother's courage in the face of nightmarish cruelty. Along the way, it explores the precarious nature of religious faith, which for some can be stretched too thin for suspension.

We Are On Our Own recalls Katin's mother, Esther Levy, who takes care of two-year-old Miriam alone in Nazi-occupied Budapest while her husband fights in the Hungarian army. The book opens with the urbane and middle class Esther sharing coffee with her best friend, discussing how the Nazi death trap was closing in. "I received an order to hand over the dog today," she says, as Miriam feeds ice cream to little Rexy. First denied their pets, the Jews of Budapest are soon commanded to leave behind all their possessions and report to the ghetto. Hearing rumors of round-ups from which no one returns, Esther buys fake papers that identify her as a village servant girl with an illegitimate daughter. She plans to flee the city, burning every personal identifier before she does. This includes, notably, the family Bible.

A Nazi Kommandante sets his eyes on the author's mother, in Miriam Katin's 'We Are On Our Own'

Once outside of the city, Esther stays out of the way by living on a farm. Trouble comes when the local Nazi Kommandant spies her. Suspecting she is a Jew, instead of turning her in, he forces her to become his mistress. Soon this horror gives way to another as the Nazis retreat from the advancing Russian troops. The Russian's vodka-fueled barbarism sends Esther fleeing into a snowstorm, pulling Miriam behind in an open suitcase. This intense sequence becomes the book's dramatic and thematic climax. While some may see the hand of a benevolent God in sending the snows and a shelter to protect them, for Miriam the site of a dog shot by the soldiers brings her to a different conclusion.

Between these scenes of grey-toned horror we witness flashes of Miriam's life, decades later, fleshed out in full color. Her son has reached the age of being entered into Hebrew school and Katin struggles with whether to send him, "to be with our own kind," as her husband says. "You mean to separate. Again," she replies. These flash-forwards reveal the lasting effect on Miriam, who barely remembers any of the events depicted in the book. For her, leading a purely secular life is the only answer to the atrocities she and her mother experienced. It's a bold theme in an American culture more used to books with theological bromides (see the Chicken Soup series) than existentialism.

You wouldn't guess that We Are On Our Own is Katin's first graphic novel. Having illustrated children's books and worked in animation, Katin has had a lifetime of practicing her visual narrative skills. Working mostly in graphite pencil, the monotone palate evokes the grey days of Nazi rule in a past desaturated of color. Instead, Katin uses shading to create detail and rich texture. She keeps the layout simple, with rarely more than six panels per page. When the action heats up, characters will burst out of their borders, making the page more dynamic.

Thankfully, in the second half of the book, Katin reminds us of life's kindnesses as the other side to life's cruelty. Still alive at the end of the war, her father returns to Budapest in search of his family, only to find them long gone. He begins his own parallel journey as Esther and Miriam take up residence with a family friend, the lonely scion of a local industrialist, whose family are all dead. A French governess provides a comic and blissfully domestic antidote to the earlier scenes of outrageous hardship. As the story winds up, it concludes with a bittersweet scene of love lost and found. Even as fiction it would be one of the best stories I've read in the last year, but as a memoir it leaves you speechless. Miriam Katin's We Are On Our Own should not be missed by anyone with an interest history, the nature of love and faith or anything human in between.

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