This semester, I taught Jérémie Dres’ We Won’t See Auschwitz. I read Dres’ book last year in Norway, after I visited Warsaw, and it made me think about various things, mainly about the ways that we remember and construct the past. This is one of the recurring themes in the books that we are reading this semester, and it is one of the main reasons I chose We Won’t See Auschwitz as one of the course’s texts. Today, I want to look at some of Dres’ books, specifically a few of the pages and panels that explore both memory and identity.
We Won’t See Auschwitz is deceptive. Dres’ illustrations do not approach the realism of say Kristin Radtke’s in Imagine Wanting Only This; they are more cartoonish. However, that does not mean that Dres is not doing a lot with his style. One example of the intricacies in Dres’ style appears when he illustartes a story that Anna Przybyszewska Drozd relates to him about man who came to her at the Jewish Historical Centre’s Geneological Learning Centre searching for information about his family’s ancestry seeking to answer questions about his identity.
The man enters with a suitcase full of materials and tells Anna about his ancestry, notably that his grandfather came “from Galician Jews going back many generations.” He tells her that after the war his grandfather married a non-Jew. These materials and information cause the man to ask, “Am I Jewish?” Anna replies, “I’d say you’re of Jewish descent.” Anna’s statement does not sit well with the man and he gets up, walks out the door, and leaves his materials in the office. Anna tells Jérémie that the man left before shoe could “explain all his options from expressing his Jewishness.”
One of the main themes running throughout We Won’t See Auschwitz has to do with identity, and that is part of the impetus or the journey that Jérémie and his brother Martin undertake when they go to Poland. The man expected one thing in regard to his Jewish identity, namely that he was in fact Jewish. Yet, Anna tells him that may not necessarily be the case, claiming that he is “of Jewish descent.” What makes this page interesting is the fact that over the course of the six panels we never see the man’s face.
When he enters, he wears a hat and we see him from behind. In the second through fourth panels he sits in a chair facing Anna, hat removed, and we see him in profile. We do not see his eyes or mouth, just a blank profile. In the fifth panel, we see him turned towards the reader, but the hat covers his eyes as he walks towards the door. We do see his mouth. The final panel shows Anna sitting in her chair at the desk.
Dres’ depiction of the man, not allowing us to see his facial features, makes him anonymous to a certain extent. This choice plays into the man’s search for his identity and some way to express that identity. Once Anna counters his assertion of his identity, he does not truly know who he is anymore. He has built up in his head one idea about his Jewish identity, but Anna presents him with something else. This causes him to loose his sense of self, and the fact that we do not see his face throughout the exchange with Anna drives this point home.
Jérémie searches for his own identity through retracing his grandmother’s history and her her family’s and through connecting with Jewish organization in Poland. He and his brother end their trip at the Jewish festival in Krakow. While there, he listens to the Bester Quartet and gets whisked away into his thoughts and journeys through what he has experienced over the past few days.
The panel where he starts the metaphysical journey recalls an earlier one where he and his grandmother, Téma, sit at the table drinking and she begins to tell hi about his great grandfather. Here, his great grandfather’s face wafts up from the steam emanating from his grandmother’s cup as she relates the story. A similar image occurs as he listens to the quartet. The musicians rise up in clouds and a guide appears out of the clouds beckoning his to “Come!”
The next two pages show the guide taking Jérémie away from the concert and to a rural town and past. We know that this is the past because the people on the ground, representing the quartet, are dressed and depicted as Dres depicts other sections set in the past. Above the landscape, the guide tells Jérémie, “Get off! This is your home. You’ll find the answers to your questions.” This panel appears at the bottom of a page, and the ground looks solid. So, when Jérémie hops off, we expect him to land on terra firma.
The next page depicts Jérémie jumping off the cloud. We see him as he falls, and when he reaches the landscape, he falls straight through. It is not solid ground; instead, it is a cloud, ephemeral and fleeting. He tumbles through it as he descends further down the page screaming to the guide, “But why?” The guide simply responds, “Because what you seek no longer exists.” At this, Jérémie wakes up back in the concert.
These pages are powerful because they highlight that what we look for in the past is not really the “reality” of the past and facts about what actually occurred. Rather, they are the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we form, similar to looking at a cloud. When we look at a cloud and see a shape, the shape does not remain fixed. As the cloud drifts, the shape changes. The cloud may disappear or reform into something else to our eyes. The past acts in a similar manner. Jérémie falling through the ground (cloud) drives this fact home.
At the end of the book, Jérémie goes to visit his Téma’s grave at the cemetery in Paris. In the course of his journey, Jérémie found the graves of Téma’s parents in Warsaw. On the final page, he talks about the fact that when Téma moved to France the préfecture changed both her last name and her first name, and he states, “She will never have the same name on her grave as her parents.” Here, he shows a closeup on Téma’s grave with her Frenchified last name, “Baran.”
The final panel shows Jérémie standing in front of his grandmother’s grave. On the left is the headstone for Téma’s father and on the right is her mother. On Téma’s grave, he changes her maiden name back to Barab, her family name. The narration reads, “Tragic, how these tiny acts of carelessness can impact a family’s destiny forever. Perhaps this story will help put things back in order.”
Jérémie works to tell his grandmother’s story, and by extension his own story. What occurs at the end is not necessarily the facts of what happened in the past. We do get that, but by rectifying the French government’s changing of Téma’s name and connecting her with her parents, Jérémie constructs his family’s story in relation to what really happened and in relation to his journey to find that story. While what Jérémie seeks might no longer exists, he exists, and his existence creates that story and his identity. That is what we do with the past. That is what we do with stories. That is how we make sense of the world we inhabit.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
If you enjoy what you read here at Interminable Rambling, think about making a contribution on our Patreon page.