How comic books taught America about the Holocaust

Before high schools taught about the Holocaust, before there were dedicated museums and before “Schindler’s List,” kids learned about the horrors of Hitler from comic-book superheroes.

At a time when most adults considered such fare brain-rotting junk and the topic of genocide too taboo to discuss openly, the largely Jewish comic-book industry was quietly educating a new generation about the Nazis’ atrocities. Comic books featuring superheroes such as Captain America and with titles like “Blitzkrieg” and “War is Hell” — their covers splashed with exclamation points and sound effects — often tackled the deadly serious subject matter inside.

Now this often-ignored legacy has been pulled out from the plastic sleeves of history in “We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust,” a collection of comic-book stories about the Holocaust and interviews with some of the biggest names in the business.

“After the war, there were comic-book stories in regular publications that talked about the Holocaust when other people weren’t talking about it,” said Neal Adams, the enormously influential New York comics artist who created the book with Holocaust scholar Rafael Medoff and comics historian Craig Yoe.

“The comics industry is filled with Jews. Almost all of the artists and writers were Lower East Side kids who as teenagers got into comics,” he said.

“Comic people didn’t have too many shackles on them. You’d just say [to an editor], ‘I’d like to do a story on Rommel,’ ” he said, referring to Hitler’s field marshal Erwin Rommel, nicknamed “The Desert Fox.”

“We Spoke Out” features words and images from comics legends such as Stan Lee, former Mad magazine editor Harvey Kurtzman, “Daredevil” artist Wally Wood and “Sin City” writer/artist Frank Miller. It includes stories from both DC and Marvel.

“To get . . . DC and Marvel together on the same project shows what an important project this is,” says Yoe, an upstate resident whose IDW Publishing imprint, Yoe Books, released the hardcover collection.

The project grew out of Adams and Medoff’s own Holocaust comic.

The two men met while championing the cause of Dina Babbitt, an Auschwitz survivor who had been forced to paint portraits of gypsies by the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

In the 1970s, the museum at the former concentration camp contacted Babbitt — who had since moved to the US and married an animator — to say it had found her paintings. But the museum refused to let her take them home, and she spent the rest of her life campaigning for their return.

Adams and Medoff turned her story into a comic that ran in a 2008 issue of the miniseries “X-Men: Magneto — Testament,” which was set in Auschwitz and is the final chapter of “We Spoke Out.”

While working on the story, Medoff said, he recalled how he had learned about social issues such as racism and drug abuse from Adams’ work, especially his groundbreaking run with writer Denny O’Neil on the “Green Lantern” series in the 1970s.

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