Graphic novelist Bernice Eisenstein ponders the meaning of her heritage
Bernice Eisenstein’s first graphic novel is a rich, sinewy nugget of personal reflections and public observations. The title – I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors – lays out the theme but doesn’t begin to hint at the particular note of humour Eisenstein strikes, nor her self-deprecating charm and insight.
It’s impossible not to read I Was a Child as Eisenstein’s autobiography, a daughter of Polish refugees who settled in Toronto in the late 1940s. She writes the tome in the first person, draws her own likeliness as a child in a way that resembles the author’s photograph at the back of the book, and in many ways it’s a confessional.
The main thing confessed in an obsession: the Holocaust. The little girl on the page grew up with a black cloud over her head, which germinated like a vine to intertwine with her developing ego. Both her parents were prisoners of Auschwitz; in fact, that’s where they met, that’s where her father proposed to her mother with a ring she had found in the pocket of a coat and managed to save for months in her shoe. It’s a heavy load to bear, for them of course, but also for their daughter. The child is awed by the unspeakable darkness in their past, by the nightmares that haunt her father and the victimization they have suffered. As a Canadian Jew, growing up in a sheltered community in Toronto, no less, she knows none of the hate they have experienced. She struggles daily to somehow attain her own cultural self-justification.
I Was a Child offers an intimate voyage through a cultural reality that isn’t always visible to all, but that exists and affects countless nonetheless. How does a whole generation survive the emotionally crippling experience of mass hatred? How can the subsequent generation expect normalcy from them?
The answer Bernice Eisenstein offers through her delicate art and clever words is to build, nurture, observe and revisit relationships with one loved one at a time. Whether they are a child of the Holocaust or not.