Review of Keeping My Hope by Christopher Huh CreateSpace

Keeping My Hope. Christopher Huh. Delaware, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. ISBN: 9781479348831

When I learned that a 14-year-old author had created a graphic novel about the Holocaust I ordered a copy of the book immediately. I doubted, however, that a young person would have enough historical knowledge or possess the emotional maturity to successfully tackle such a complex history. I am pleased to say at the outset of this review that Keeping My Hope far exceeded my expectations in terms of content, accuracy and presentation.

Christopher Huh created a historical novel based on the Holocaust using a generous format that is guaranteed to engage a large audience. The graphic novel is at its most basic a book-length comic, which provides readers with sequential panels that contain striking images accompanied by a narrative that is often contained in cartoon speech bubbles. Graphic novels certainly run the gamut in terms of purpose and design, but one need only look at Art Spiegelman’s iconic Maus: A Survivor’s Tale series in order to grasp just how powerful this medium can be with regard to the transmission and understanding of Holocaust history.

Huh diligently references all of the significant historical events that constitute an age-appropriate pedagogic approach to the Holocaust using the graphic novel as his vehicle. Ari Kolodiejski is Huh’s storyteller, and it is Ari’s story of loss, pain and survival living as a Jewish teenager in Poland during the Nazi era that unfolds in Keeping My Hope. In the book’s first panel we are introduced to an elderly Ari in a modern-day family setting. We soon meet his daughter Miriam as well as his granddaughter Sarah with whom he speaks about his experiences throughout the book.

The author shares a good deal about the Kolodiejski’s family life in Lomza before the Holocaust, and it is this kind of background material that should be included in any study of the period. “Lomza is the name of the town I grew up in. I have many fond memories there. … You know, our family roots have been in Poland for nearly five hundred years,” Ari says. It is important to note that the Jewish people had rich lives and contributed to society in important ways before the Holocaust, and Huh’s treatment of this topic encourages educators to present the Jews as more than just Holocaust victims. Huh transmits this contextual information thoroughly and well, and what has come to be known in Holocaust studies as “Jewish life before” is an important part of the learning process that needs continued attention.

The book delves deeply into Holocaust history, and in just the first of Huh’s eleven chapters he covers the concept of Lebensraum (“living space,”) the Stab-in-the-Back Legend, Kristallnacht, boycotts of Jewish businesses, the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Additionally, and with great educational value, Huh augments this history with a detailed account of Jewish life in Lomza before the Holocaust, and he even includes an accurate drawing of the Great Synagogue that was destroyed by the Germans at the outset of the war. He also references pre-war Jewish-Polish relations, the issue of whether “to stay or to go,” and the importance of the radio as a link to the outside world. The reader is also asked to consider the fact that while Holocaust survivors often want to share what they experienced during the war, many people including family members are often not interested in listening to their stories.  In this chapter Miriam answers the telephone while Ari is speaking about Lomza. “Sorry Dad. Gotta take this,” she says.

Keeping My Hope is set in the city of Lomza, which is approximately 80-miles northeast of Warsaw, and 50-miles west of Bialystok, Poland. When asked why he chose to set the novel in this city Huh replied, “I chose the town of Lomza as the setting at first by chance, but then decided it was an ideal location for a reason. This was because I thought most people who know a thing or two about the Holocaust had heard of the Warsaw ghetto or Kristallnacht, but many don’t know what had happened to the numerous small urban towns that had Jewish history in them since the Middle Ages. It was to show that the Holocaust affected everyone everywhere.”

Huh’s book serves as an excellent overview of the period using Lomza as a point of reference. Readers learn about the bombing of the city, the short period of initial German occupation, the subsequent Russian occupation, the invasion of the Soviet Union by German forces and the implications that had for Lomza’s Jewish citizens. He also covers ghettoization, the order for Jews in Central Poland to wear white identifying armbands with a blue Star of David, Einsatzgruppen murder squads, anti-Semitism, and forced labor. As he proceeds with his historically based chronology Huh also considers deportations, the selection process, life and death at Auschwitz, the death marches and finally liberation.

All people did not experience the Holocaust exactly the way the citizens of Lomza did of course, but Keeping My Hope provides an excellent basic framework that can be used by educators to encourage critical thinking, further research and productive discussions. Huh’s successful character development along with his skillful drawings and meaningful dialogue help familiarize the reader with the important events that are necessary to begin a study of the Holocaust.

Over 1,000 hours of research, drawing, and writing went into this book, and the author spent at least half of that time studying the information available on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) website. This excellent resource provides valuable and up-to-date information, and Huh obtained a highly accurate overview of historical events that helped him create Keeping My Hope with the goal of helping others acquire a sound working knowledge of this complex history. Surprisingly, he also uncovered some of the more advanced concepts that relate to the Holocaust experience, and thus he brings an unexpected level of sophistication and nuance to the information presented in his book. In addition to utilizing the USHMM website Huh visited the museum twice, and he also spent time at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland where he was able to spend time with a Holocaust survivor.

Middle and high school students are the intended audience for this book, but it can certainly work in a college classroom as well. Using a precise and thorough historical approach that follows a fact-based chronology, Huh’s sensitivity along with his ability to comprehend and transmit much of this complicated history establishes his book as a reliable resource. Educators can use the book with confidence when looking to expand on other resources and materials they have chosen to teach this subject matter.

Huh first learned about the Holocaust in a 7th grade English class, and he was appalled to find out about the atrocities that occurred during the Nazi era. Left with a desire to know more, he wasn’t discouraged by the fact that most of his classmates seemed to be far less interested in this period than he knew himself to be. Armed only with paper and pencil Huh began to draw and research with great enthusiasm, and he sketched and jotted down his ideas in a composition notebook that was with him constantly. “I showed my work to people all around me and they thought I should write a book! After some thought, I realized that many people, especially those around my age, could benefit from learning about this part of history from a graphic novel,” he states.

The graphic novel has proven to be of value to the reluctant reader or even those with a limited knowledge of English. They often become page-turners, because the images by their very nature encourage readers through the format itself, which is inviting and in some ways effortless in the most positive sense. In a novel of this type the visual amplifies the author’s literary goals, and thus the learning experience is extended to many kinds of readers and diverse audiences. It is therefore possible to conclude that the graphic novel speaks a somewhat universal language making this genre very useful in a wide variety of classroom and other settings, because most readers are able to participate on some level.

For the intended age group the graphic novel format lends itself particularly well when it comes to sensitive issues, because much can be conveyed with the use of appropriate images and commentary. Huh doesn’t shy away from addressing difficult subjects such as the forced separation of mothers from their infants and children. These and similar topics are always presented tactfully, but without sacrificing historical truth. In this vein he considers the Judenrat, collaboration, suicide, the role of the Sonderkommando, collective punishment, sadism and many other contextual topics that can only enrich understanding and factuality. Using Ari’s voice Huh also addresses survivor guilt, and the emotional turmoil some Jews experienced during the Holocaust with regard to their Jewish identity. “I now had shards of broken glass on my cheek. I was covered with blood, had a black eye, and was shaking nervously. That was the first time ever that I was ashamed of being a Jew.” Ari says.

Throughout the book Ari’s journey is connected not only to events, but also to his family and many friends. Yisrael and Jakob are friends from Lomza who face different paths and unfortunate fates, and Saul and Stanislaw are with Ari during his experience in Auschwitz. Hans von Hermann is Ari’s pen pal before the war, and coincidence and circumstance bring them together at a crucial point in the novel. The many main and minor characters that Huh brings to life in Keeping My Hope literally crowd the graphic panels so that a reader almost can feel what it was like to live in an overpopulated and disease-ridden ghetto or a concentration camp. Important concepts such as these are conveyed through an underlying tension, which are successfully highlighted by Huh’s drawings and text.

There are several themes that Huh intended to relay in his novel, and primary perhaps is the idea that despite the suffering endured during the Holocaust, “through the darkest blizzards of terror,” friendship and trust provided sustenance and hope to the victims. The message that hatred and prejudice can infect populations, and divide them into groups of perpetrators, bystanders, and victims alerts readers to think critically at all times, hopefully inspiring them to become upstanders when it comes to their own choices. At the end of the book Ari tells us that he never thought that he would have another family after the war, and in this way Huh reminds us that despite the best efforts of the Nazi regime and their collaborators the Jewish people did survive.

Keeping My Hope provides a solid historical foundation from which an educator can stretch classroom discussions to include advanced concepts in addition to the basic history that constitutes a sound Holocaust educational program. I asked Huh why he named only ten of his eleven chapters, and he replied, “The reason why I left the last chapter blank is because I felt that it was not possible for me to sum it up with just a few words. I wanted the reader to interpret the book and the implications of the Holocaust the way they felt struck most deeply with them.” This book then is an invitation for all to participate in a very important discussion.

Reviewed by Penny L. Herbst, independent scholar
Edited by Jill Gaeta

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]