Spider-Man, Superman and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust really do have something in common.
“Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust,” a Pittsburgh-based publication, has turned the lives of Pittsburgh Holocaust survivors into cape-wearing Upstanders — a term for people who took positive action to stop hate crimes from happening and who risked their lives for the sake of humanity. The comic book’s launch party this past Thursday brought hundreds of people together to engage with the book’s creators at the Toonseum in downtown Pittsburgh.
The plan for a comic book was broken down into three parts.
>> First, The Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh would serve as a host to a multipanel art exhibit illustrating the lives of the Upstanders, a phase of the exhibit that also included engagement with this summer’s Three Rivers Arts Festival, where visitors to the “Chutz-Pow!” tent crafted their own superhero masks.
>> The team then decided to create an actual comic book to further tell the story of some of the Holocaust heroes displayed at the Center and Arts Festival.
>> Next, stage 3 will promote an ongoing educational component through the Holocaust Center, set to be utilized in middle schools and high schools as an aid in teaching about the Holocaust.
Its writer, Wayne Wise, jumped in feet first.
“I was contacted by Zach Zafris at the Holocaust Center last fall and asked to serve on the steering committee for this project,” Wise said of the November 2013 meeting. “At the time, I was brought in primarily as comic book historian, [as] many of the creators of the first comic books and characters in the 1930s and ’40s were Jewish.”
He soon began writing a full-fledged comic book and called on area artists to bring his words to life.
Marcel Walker was brought in to illustrate a panel based on Malka and Moshe Baran’s lives. Malka, who lived in Squirrel Hill’s Maxon Towers until her death in 2007, was 15 years old when she and her mother were sent to live and work in a Nazi labor camp. Walker portrayed Malka in the same way she would have told her own story — as a humanitarian who seized the human goodness aspect of each situation in which she was placed.
“I feel that Malka Baran’s story is the emotional epicenter of the “Chutz-Pow!” comic book,” Walker said. “There’s a panel I drew of her draping a blanket around a child … to imply a superhero and her cape.”
Walker takes the humanity angle very seriously.
“I am not Jewish, [so] while the stories depicted in “Chutz-Pow!” do not relate to me directly in a religious [or] cultural way, they do relate to me in a human way,” he said. “As a citizen of the world, it is important to embrace the messages of resilience, compassion and survival embodied in these stories. This is everyone’s collective history, and that is a takeaway for everyone: Do not let one’s story and one’s history disappear or be diminished.”
Christopher Moeller is an artist on the comic book team and is also not Jewish, but he vehemently supports empowering groups of people who need advocates, and he referred to one famous United States president as his inspiration in this regard.
“[Abraham Lincoln] is one of the most quotable of presidents,” said Moeller, who has been drawing for “Chutz-Pow!” since the beginning of the year. “Here’s one of my favorites: ‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,’ [which to me] expresses my idea of democracy; whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
“I was a history major in college so I was aware of not only the Holocaust but a lot of the history of the world,” said Wise, who is not Jewish. “In the course of researching these stories [for the comic book], I was drawn into the Jewish culture, [and] I felt it incumbent on me as the writer to try to fully understand the experience — not that anyone who didn’t live through it could ever fully understand it.”
The Upstanders bravery struck him.
“They represent the pinnacle of the human spirit, and I feel one of the main lessons of this project is exactly that,” Wise said. “Everyone can make the choice to stand up to injustice and evil; everyone can be a real-life hero.”
One such example is Fritz Ottenheimer, a real-life character in the comic book who told Wise his story as they sat together in Ottenheimer’s Pittsburgh home. His parents, Ottenheimer said, were the true heroes against the Nazis, as they helped to smuggle some 200 to 300 Jews from Germany into Switzerland when he was just a boy. That bravery was transferred to him, as he continues to tell his story through many outlets, including a book he wrote, “Escape and Return.”
“When you’re acting as a superman, you’re teaching your children to be supermen,” Ottenheimer said.
Bee Schindler can be reached at email@example.com.