Tablet Magazine Review's Rutu Modan's The Property and Makes Some Interesting Connections!

“Holocaust Graphic Novels Give Israelis a Way To Connect to a Past Not Quite Theirs” / Tablet Magazine / Anat Rosenberg / July 31, 2013

"The words Holocaust and graphic novel generally bring to mind Art Spiegelman and his trailblazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning work Maus, which got its start as a three-page comic in 1971. Fifteen years later it was published in book form, paving the way for an unlikely new genre. In the more than two decades since the publication of the granddaddy of Holocaust graphic novels, Anne Frank’s diary has been published in comics form; the story of the Warsaw Ghetto has been turned into a graphic novel, and other children of survivors have embraced the genre to recount their families’ histories—pointing to the fact that, tragically, Spiegelman’s father wasn’t the only one to “bleed history” (to borrow a phrase from the subtitle of Maus).

With two recent publications, Israel has further embraced the form of the Holocaust-related graphic novel: The first is Michel Kichka’s memoir Second Generation: Things I Never Told My Father, which was originally released in French and, like Maus, recounts growing up in the shadow of a Holocaust survivor. The second is Rutu Modan’s The Property, a fictional account of a young Israeli woman and her grandmother who travel to Poland to reclaim an apartment belonging to the family before the war, published simultaneously in Hebrew and English.

At first, these two works appear to be united solely by the fact that they both fall into the “Holocaust graphic novel” category—one is autobiographical, the other is fictional; one is drawn in stark black and white, the other bursts with vibrant color. Yet while profoundly different in narrative and graphic style, Second Generation and The Property have more in common than meets the eye: Both center on family bonds, secrets, and intrigue; both feature journeys to reclaim something tangible or intangible that was lost; both are characterized by a bittersweet intensity and off-kilter humor.

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Perhaps there is a happy medium, Rutu Modan seems to suggest in her latest graphic novel, The Property. Loosely based on her personal experience of meeting her estranged maternal grandfather, the book opens with an epigraph attributed to Modan’s mother: “With family, you don’t have to tell the whole truth and it’s not considered lying.”

That sentence sets the stage for the fictional story of Regina Segal and her granddaughter Mica to unfold, as the two feisty women travel from Israel to Warsaw ostensibly to deal with prewar property issues. Soon enough, the seemingly straightforward plot thickens into a yarn that’s part love story, part whodunit, part screwball comedy, and part exploration of Jewish-Israeli identity. Modan even uses different typefaces for the different languages—Hebrew, Polish, and English—spoken throughout the novel, adding a graphic element to the drama.

Modan has a knack for using small stories about interpersonal relationships to explore bigger issues: Her first full-length graphic novel, Exit Wounds (2008), delved into complicated life in contemporary Israel, in a tale about a taxi driver who gets a call telling him his estranged father was killed in a suicide bombing. The Property also taps into the zeitgeist of modern-day Israel, where the Holocaust is a perpetual undercurrent and where ever more Israelis embark on “roots trips” across Europe to reconnect with their family histories and, in some cases, recover lost assets.

From the start, Modan depicts the ambivalence that sometimes accompanies such trips. On the plane to Poland, when a guide accompanying Israeli students on a March of the Living trip tells Regina how moving it is to be able to show Mica her old haunts, she responds, “Warsaw doesn’t interest me. It’s one big cemetery,” adding that they’re going simply to claim their property.

Once in Warsaw, however, Regina’s true motives for the trip emerge, as she stealthily tracks down an old love interest—a non-Jewish Pole named Roman Gorski who (spoiler alert) fathered her son, Mica’s late father, before Regina fled to Mandatory Palestine to escape the Nazis. Mica, meanwhile, treks all over Warsaw in search of the lost property; she is alternately accompanied by a gentile tour guide of Jewish Warsaw, with whom she becomes involved, and shadowed by a family acquaintance driven by his own motives.

Unlike Kichka, Modan doesn’t explicitly depict Holocaust imagery in The Property. Instead, her clear drawing style, which is often compared to that of Hergé’s Tintin books, switches from vividly colored panels to sepia-toned ones when characters discuss the past or flash back to it. The only Nazis pictured in the book appear when Mica inadvertently gets “caught” in a reenactment of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is rescued by the wily family friend.

Fittingly, the action comes to a head as all the characters unite in a Warsaw cemetery on Zaduszki (All Saint’s Day), the day that souls of the dead return to visit their homes, according to Polish tradition. This not only echoes Regina’s remark about Poland being one big cemetery—it also underscores the fact that family skeletons often have a way of creeping back to life despite painstaking efforts to keep them buried."

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