Jewish Book Festival presents a collection of vivid graphic novels

Three graphic novelists worked with Holocaust survivors to tell their stories

lllustration from But I Live book cover of two boys holding blankets in a forest with a blue colour scheme.
PHOTO: University of Toronto Press

By: Aditi Dwivedi, News Writer

Every year, the shelves of the Cherie Smith Jewish Community Centre’s Jewish Book Festival, one of Vancouver’s “leading cultural and literary events,” are filled with powerful narratives, knitting together a community of prominent and emerging writers dedicated to vocalizing the lived experiences of the Jewish community. This year’s festival features But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, a collection of graphic novels that recount haunting experiences in vivid detail.

But I Live is a unique curation of graphic memoirs, historical essays, and lived experiences. Edited by Dr. Charlotte Schallié, chair of German and Slavic studies at the University of Victoria, it’s a collaborative attempt to approach testimonies of Holocaust survivors in a rich way. Dr. Schallié believes “graphic novelists are not just illustrators” and insisted they “actively co-creating the history with the survivors.” Three graphic novelists were paired with people who were children during the Holocaust to help interpret their memory into art that leaves a legacy.

In an interview with The Peak, Miriam Libicki, who developed the illustrations in the story, A Kind of Resistance with David Schaffer, opened up about how the production of the novel was very different from her usual process. Unlike her solitary explorations of artistry, Libicki embarked on a creative journey, interpreting Schaffer’s vivid recollection of his harrowing childhood. The story recounts how his family was “deported to Transnistria in the Ukraine and how [they] struggled to survive.” Using murky watercolours, Libicki helped develop the visual narrative of their long journey towards home in Vama, Bukovina, after Ukraine was liberated by the Russian forces in 1944. 

Invoking the fantasy art style of Edmund Dulac, Libicki aimed to “immerse the reader in the past,” and constructed a world unique to Schaffer’s voice, juxtaposing the visceral reality of his life with surreal nature imagery. What captivates her readership is not just her unique illustrative technique, but the subtle shadows of But I Live co-creators, Barbara Yelin and Gilad Seliktar’s artistry imprinted on the pages of her work. Her gratitude towards her co-creators reflects in every panel, like Yelin’s lesson to “take up more space.”

According to Dr. Schallié, “Visual storytelling in graphic narratives is especially effective for life stories of survivors who were children during the Holocaust, as images often tend to be deeply imprinted in a child survivor’s memory.” But I Live presents a colourful alternative to the faded black-and-white film reels of distant, faceless figures of millions of Holocaust survivors, captured in a “dehumanizing light” by cameras in the hands of their oppressors. It re-claims their narratives and gives them a space to express their lived experiences. 

In the preface to this woven net of memory and evocative history, Bernice Eisenstein quotes an old Yiddish saying: “Ink dries quickly, tears do not.” 

Some moments of human experience need to be kept alive, no matter the passage of time. But I Live is proof that our legacy is marked not only by wars, loss, and grief but also by hope. 

But I Live is available for sale at Indigo. Attend the But I Live panel discussion on February 12 at 12:00 p.m. at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver to find out more about the novelists’ “unusual artistic process.” Tickets are available on the Eventbrite page. Find out about other exciting events for the JCC Jewish Book Festival on their website.