By Justin Vellucci
A new illustrated book aims to combat bigotry and hate, while telling the story of what the United States did — and didn’t — do for European Jews during the Holocaust.
Barbara Burstin, a historian in Pittsburgh who teaches at both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, wrote the 16-page script for the book, “America and the Holocaust,” hoping “it might appeal to young people,” she said.
Burstin also launched a website, AmericaandtheHolocaust.com, to promote the book, which is written for middle- and high-school students.
She said the Holocaust and America’s response is “a subject I care about and know about,” and she wrote the book as a way to reach a broader audience.
The story is told through the characters of two modern- day students bouncing through the events of the 1930s and 1940s, interacting with key players as the story of the Holocaust unfolds.
“It seemed the logical thing — that’s something I wanted right away,” Burstin said. “And I wanted one to be a Black student to make this more than a Jewish issue … the message is, ‘Combat bigotry.’ Clearly, antisemitism is expressed. But it’s not exclusive.”
Burstin paired up with illustrator Frederick Carlson, a Carnegie Mellon alum and former illustration professor who was the first illustrator from outside New York City to be elected president of the National Graphic Artists Guild.
Carlson said “America and the Holocaust” — which runs 32 pages, some of them densely designed and lavishly illustrated — is less of a comic book or a graphic novel than it is an “illustrated book.”
“I said, ‘Look this is a time-travel novel — by the end of the book, these are kids of today,’” Carlson explained. “Every page has ethical questions posited. You could spend weeks and weeks and weeks reading through this.”
That’s true: The book encompasses a great level of nuance and detail, offering social and political commentaries from the period, as well as details some middle- or high-school history books on the subject might omit.
“Barbara’s very discerning about getting into the issues,” Carlson said.
Carlson, who cites Jack Kirby and Golden Age Marvel illustrators as influences, used photos he took of two track athletes at Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa., — real life teens Emma Sandor and Omarion Davidson — as inspiration. He then built the book around their interactions with the content. At one point, Davidson even asks FDR a press-conference-style question.
The illustration portion of the project took four months.
One thing the book seeks to show is how Hitler used the prejudices of Americans against the U.S. by flaunting the fact that Congressional leaders and members of FDR’s cabinet wouldn’t stop the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, Carlson said.
“That was one of the things I was glad we were able to unveil,” Carlson said. “I think Barbara did a great job walking people through the ‘30s and ‘40s.”
Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s executive director, said historical depictions of the U.S. involvement in World War II typically focus on battlefield heroism.
“That’s part of the story but there’s a lot more,” she said. “In what ways did American not help the Jews — then and now?”
Burstin is the author of five books, including “Steel City Jews 1840-1915,” “Steel City Jews in Prosperity, Depression and War 1915-1950” and “After the Holocaust: The Migration of Polish Jews and Christians to Pittsburgh after World War II.”
This tome, she admits, is a bit different.
“I’m trying to get this book into the hands of educators,” Burstin said, “where it can benefit people with something that’s an entry point into the Holocaust — from an American perspective.”
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. This originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.