At first glance, it doesn’t seem likely that Christopher Huh, a second-generation Korean-American Christian teenager living in suburban Maryland, would have such a close relationship with Ari Kolodiejski, a Polish-born Jewish grandfather who survived Auschwitz, dysentery and a death march.
Yet Christopher knows the elderly man quite well — which isn’t surprising given that the 14-year-old created him for a graphic novel he published earlier this year.
The 170-page “Keeping My Hope” (Amazon CreateSpace) juxtaposes Kolodiejski with his contemporary family as he tells his Shoah experiences to his granddaughter, Sarah. Kolodiejski’s Holocaust story begins when he is an 18-year-old in Lomza, Poland, shortly before the Nazis’ September 1939 invasion, and continues through his escape from a death march and rescue by a farmer in early 1945.
A budding author and self-taught artist who has been doing pencil drawings since he was about 6 years old, Huh became interested in the Holocaust during a seventh-grade English class unit called “Voices from the Past.” Among the readings were “Voices of the Holocaust,” “Friedrich” and portions of “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.”
“I thought it was an interesting subject to learn,” says Huh, an eighth-grader at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg, Maryland. “Kids these days, they don’t really want to learn. They don’t pay attention to things that are important,” he says with the air of an adult. “I thought what better way” to teach about the Holocaust “than through a book with words, with pictures.”
Once he decided on his project, there was no stopping him. Huh estimates he spent about 1,000 hours from December 2011 until early February this year, working nearly daily to research, write and sketch, referring to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website for much of his information. He’s been to the Washington, DC, museum itself twice. “The actual bunks, the clothing, the archives — it’s like walking through history,” he says.
‘I was pretty impressed with Art Spiegelman; it’s not everyday you can see a book like that’
“Keeping My Hope” brings to mind Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust that features animal figures as stand-ins for humans. That book’s existence came as news to Huh when a teacher mentioned it to him sometime after he had begun working on his own book. “I started writing before I knew about Maus,” Huh says. “I was pretty impressed with Art Spiegelman; it’s not everyday you can see a book like that,” he says, adding that while Spiegelman’s is an adult book, his is intended for those in middle school and older.
“I want kids my age and up, even adults to read this,” says Huh, who like his protagonist is the youngest of three children, plays piano and has an optimistic outlook on life.
Huh explains he focused his novel on a grandfather talking to his granddaughter, a girl about his age, in the hope that kids his age will relate to the story. “If kids are reading this, they could think of their own grandparents,” he says.
He’s never met an Auschwitz survivor, although he has met relatives of people who had been in the camps, as well as a man who survived the war after being sent from Vienna to England on a kindertransport. Huh said he thought it important to focus on someone from Poland since that had Europe’s largest Jewish population prior to the Holocaust.
His seventh-grade English teacher sings her student’s praises. “He is extremely talented and has empathy and maturity beyond his years,” Denise Stup says in an email.
“I was amazed at how he captured the emotions of the characters both in writing and visually,” she says, noting that as a member of the county’s middle school text Evaluation and Selection Committee, she plans to nominate the book for curriculum inclusion.
As for Huh, he’d like to earn enough money from the book so that he can visit Poland and see Auschwitz for himself.
His father, who said the book brought tears to his eyes, has a different idea for the proceeds. “I hope his book becomes popular and maybe we can translate it into Asian languages,” Gary Huh says. “In Asia, people don’t know much about the Holocaust.”
What did Chris’ friends think about his project? When he initially told them he was working on the book, the reaction was, he reports, “OK; that’s cute.”
Once the book came out: “Whoah!”