Celebrating Jewish Literature: Graphic fiction and nonfiction

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

  • A memoir: “We Are On Our Own”

When is a memoir not exactly a memoir? In the case of “We Are On Our Own: A Memoir” by Miriam Katin (Drawn and Quarterly), it’s when the graphic artist is really telling her mother’s story, more than her own. Her memoir recounts the events that took place from 1944-45 in Hungary, when Katin and her mother hid from the Nazis in plain sight. 

Esther Levy is just realizing how difficult things are going to be under the German invaders, which is not made easier by the Hungarians who are happy to see Jews forced from their homes. Although she wants to wait for her husband to return from the army, Esther realizes she has no choice but to find a way to escape. This means lying to her daughter, Lily, about everything from the order to give their dog to the Nazis to the many horrible things that happen to her when she tries to keep the two of them safe. Lily has only a child’s understanding and wonders what happened to the God who was supposed to protect her. 

“We Are On Our Own” is not only about the evils that befell Jews under Nazi rule, but the horror the conquering Soviet army perpetrated on the Hungarians they were freeing. What the work does show is Esther’s resilience and her desire to protect her child at all costs. The majority of the drawings are done in black and white with blurry lines and unclear outlines of the figures, which fits the tone of the work. The few color pages show the Nazi flag or reflect on Lily’s future. Parents should note that this is not a work for young children, but “We Are On Our Own” is a welcome addition to graphic works about World War II.

Above: Pages from “We Are On Our Own” by Miriam Katin (Used with the permission of Drawn and Quarterly)


  • A novel: “The Blood of the Virgin”

The desire to write screenplays and direct films seems like a compulsion in Sammy Harkham’s “The Blood of the Virgin” (Pantheon Books). Unfortunately, in 1971 Los Angeles, art doesn’t stand a chance when it come to commercial films, which Seymour, a 27-year-old Jewish Iraqi immigrant, discovers when his scripts are cut and filming abruptly stopped, or he is forced to work long hours chopping and assembling negatives for B-grade horror movies. 

Sammy’s home life isn’t much better: his wife, Ida, is exhausted and unhappy, which is not helped by the fact their newborn baby keeps the couple from getting enough sleep. The two don’t spend much time together, especially when they have difficulty finding a babysitter and Sammy must attend a Hollywood party as part of his job. Alcohol, drugs, cigarette smoking and promiscuity abound, which actually makes these parties and the people’s lives seem dreary and joyless, rather than exciting. Among the questions asked are whether or not Ida and Sammy’s marriage will survive. Although the graphic novel features several different versions of a movie called “The Blood of the Virgin,” it’s also unclear if Sammy’s film was actually made.

Harkham’s black-and-white drawings help portray the mood of what occurs, even if only to show time passing without much happening. That includes the few hours of sleep Ida and Sammy get before their baby wakes up crying. There are a few scattered sections in color, including one possible version of “The Blood of the Virgin.” The novel is definitely for adults and features some explicit sexual content. While it may not have been his intention, Harkham succeeds in making Hollywood and Sammy’s life unappealing. His method of doing so, though, was impressive. 

Above: Pages from “Blood of The Virgin” by Sammy Harkham (Used with the permission of Pantheon Books)