Aleksandar Zograf’s ‘The Letters of Hilda Deitch’

At Yad Vashem’s 10th conference on Holocaust Education, I had a privilege to introduce the academic community with Hilda Deitch and fate of Jewish communities from occupied Serbia during the Second World War. To accomplish this, the Embassy of Israel in Belgrade and Jasenovac Committee of the Serbian Orthodox Church have published in English and Italian artist Aleksandar Zograf’s graphic novel, Letters of Hilda Deitch.

Who was Hilda Deitch?
Hilda was born in Vienna in 1922, into a family of Ashkenazi Jews which immigrated to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, due to the rise of Nazism in Austria. Before start of WWII in Yugoslavia (1941-1945), she finished high school and enrolled at University of Belgrade. Hilda wanted to study architecture, but war interrupted her plans, so she volunteered to be a nurse instead. At first, she was stationed at the Jewish Hospital and later at Judenlager Semlin [Sajmiste concentration camp], a Nazi-run concentration camp in the Independent State of Croatia for the remnants of Jewish communities from military-occupied Serbia.

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Deitch had passed through the gates of Semlin on December 8, 1941, and was there through May 10, 1942. By then, Deitch, along with 6,000 women, children and elderly men were gassed by the gas van, a mobile predecessor of gas chambers. They were all thrown into mass graves at the outskirts of occupied Belgrade.

HER LETTERS

Today, we have four letters that Deitch sent to her friends, Nada Novak and Mirjana Petrovic. These are not just testimonies of her suffering within the walls of Semlin but, unfortunately, rare first-hand accounts of the Holocaust in the occupied Serbia.

Due to the uprising against Nazi occupation of Serbia – July-November of 1941 – all able-bodied men from Jewish and Roma communities were shot in reprisals (100 people for each killed German soldier, 50 for each wounded one.)
Furthermore, cooperation between different segments of the occupation administration in Serbia, when it came to the “Final Solution” were described as frictionless. As a result, except for testimonies of survivors, we have very few documents from the victims.

The first letter was written on December 7, the day Deitch left for the camp. Here, she disclosed to Novak her motivation behind the decision: “There are so many people in need of help that my conscience dictates to me that I should ignore any sentimental reasons connected with my home and family.”

The second and third letters, dated December 9 and 13, were addressed to Petrovic and Novak respectively. They give us insight into the conditions within the camp: “There are now 2,000 women and children here, including nearly a hundred babies for whom we can’t boil any milk as there’s no fuel, and you can imagine the temperature, with the cold wind blowing.”

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The last one was sent to Petrovic in February 1942: “All philosophizing ends at the barbed-wire fence, and this reality, which, far away on the other side, you can’t even imagine or else you would howl with pain, face one in its totality.”

THE GRAPHIC NOVEL

How does one, except the survivors, imagine unimaginable? Furthermore, how does one represent unimaginable horrors of Holocaust? Do we dare to disturb sterile sanctity of the authentic historical sources? The same question tormented scientists and artists alike, but no one has disturbed more the still waters of authenticity than Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Spiegelman drew the novel using his father Vladek’s testimonies, cross-referencing them with the relevant literature and historical sources, to represent memories of his father through the only medium he knew – the graphic novel. Therefore, Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf’s novel of Deitch’s letters is not without precedent. This allows me to compare Zograf’s work with the renowned Maus, where applicable, so I could introduce it to the wider audience which is acquainted with this type of Holocaust representation.

Spiegelman’s first rule of trade is draw what you know. But, Spiegelman didn’t know what the victims looked like in reality. So, he was “forced” to use his imagination and familiar symbols, which were impregnated with allusions, to represent events and people from the past to the readers. Spiegelman used iconic images of animals – Jews were mice, Germans were cats, etc. Zograf, similarly, drew upon the imagery of his previous graphic novels.

Another similarity one might find is in the fact that both Zograf and Spiegelman didn’t know much about the Holocaust. Although they were the second generation of survivors, the Holocaust was to Spiegelman a kind of taboo topic, often referred to simply as “the war.”

Yes, the “war stories” were horrific, but were often told without context and detailed explanations. Zograf didn’t know anything about Holocaust as well, nor did he know that before WWII Jews had lived in his hometown of Pancevo, until he became older. Yes, he knew Pancevo had been occupied, that people were shot by Germans, but he had no specific information – who, where and, most importantly, why.

CREATE THE MEMORY

So, what was the motivation behind Zograf’s graphic novel? In Spiegelman’s words, the goal is to retrieve the memory and, ultimately, to create the memory. A more simplistic explanation would be that the Holocaust is not the story that ended with the death of victims. On the contrary, Deitch’s letters, as the reflection of her personal experience, can communicate with readers to the point that they can reverberate through time. Zograf, as well as Spiegelman, believed that the graphic novel was an appropriate medium which enabled the eternal conversation.   

Stefan Radojkovic is historian and secretary of the Jasenovac Committee of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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