NEW YORK — Long before becoming a beloved children’s author, Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel wielded his pen for more sober reasons: He wanted to alert the American public to the horrors of the Third Reich.
In fact, Geisel belonged to a small but determined cadre of American editorial cartoonists who, as early as 1933, sounded the alarm about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Now the work of these legendary cartoonists is featured in Dr. Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe’s new book, “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”
But beyond resurrecting these cartoons from history’s margins, the book upends the narrative that Americans were unaware of the mounting barbarism.
“There is a popular misconception that what Hitler was doing was not known to the American public until the camps were liberated,” Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, told The Times of Israel. “When you look at the newspaper coverage at the time you see a great deal was known long before that. And the number of editorial cartoons further illustrates how widely known Hitler’s atrocities were before the end of the war.”
That cartoonists addressed the threat of Nazi Germany so early fits in with how they view their role in society, said Yoe, an Eisner Award-winning comics historian and the former creative director for Jim Henson’s Muppets and Nickelodeon.
“Cartoonists are often progressive. They give a voice for people who are struggling and they can speak for those who need a voice. They care about social laws and issues,” he said.
Through more than 150 rare political cartoons, historical explanations and commentary, the authors tell how these cartoonists implored American politicians and private citizens alike to act against Nazi Germany and save Jewish lives.
Readers will view Kristallnacht, book burnings, the voyage of the doomed refugee ship St. Louis, the struggle over America’s refugee policy, the gas chambers, the cattle car trains, and the Nuremberg Trials, through the eyes of watchdogs such as Herbert Block of the “Washington Post,” Jay “Ding” Darling of the “New York Herald Tribune”, and Edmund Duffy of “The Baltimore Sun.”
As the authors write in the book’s introduction, successful editorial cartoons poke, prod and provoke. Not only did they command attention in the US, they drew a response from Nazi Germany.
“In fact Hitler put out two volumes of cartoons showing what the world was saying about Nazi Germany. They collected cartoons from abroad as a way to say, ‘They’re lying about us and about what is really happening.’ It was their way to refute the accusations being made against Nazi Germany,” said Dr. Steven Luckert, Senior Program Curator at the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education, part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Without choosing a favorite cartoonist, Yoe said he’s long been drawn to the work of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Daniel Fitzpatrick, who worked in charcoal. His 1935 cartoon “Swastika Over Germany” depicts a swastika formed by a bent and chained person.
“He drew very simple, yet very forceful cartoons. You have to be a very good artist to get an idea across like that,” Yoe said.
As the author of 16 books on the Holocaust and Jewish history, Medoff said the cartoons offer a fresh way to teach the story of the Shoah.
“One important point that strikes me again and again is it’s really hard for teens to relate to the Holocaust because it seems so long ago, so very far away,” said Medoff. “They read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and often Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night,’ but this sticks in their minds in a way a 250-page text book does not.”
Luckert agreed, saying cartoons offer a succinct way to convey an argument. As such, cartoons often feature in the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Many of the cartoonists were Pulitzer Prize-winning muckrakers. Some were the targets of racist mobs. And some, like Eric Godal and Arthur Szyk, were Jewish refugees whose parents were trapped in Hitler’s Europe.
“That added a poignant twist. I thought I was writing a book about well-meaning cartoonists who were trying to make a difference. I didn’t realize how they [Godal and Szyk] were personally impacted,” Medoff said.
Originally from Germany, Godal narrowly escaped the Gestapo in 1933 and after settling in the US started working as a cartoonist for several publications. One of his cartoons in 1938, “The Wandering Jew” showed a Jewish refugee crisscrossing the globe, according to the book. A year later his own mother, Anna Marien-Goldbaum, and 936 other German Jewish refugees boarded the “St. Louis,” hoping to be granted safe haven in the US.
She sent two letters, from an aged mother on the wandering steamship to her son Godal the artist in New York. She wrote of holding out hope that President Franklin D. Roosevelt “and other influential people will help us… I shall not lose courage until the happy end is reached.”
Roosevelt did not help and the “St. Louis” returned to Europe. Many of the passengers, including Godal’s mother, perished in Nazi concentration camps. Later Godal would pen one of the harshest critiques of Roosevelt in a cartoon captioned “Refer to Committee 3, Investigation Subcommittee 6, Section 8B, for consideration.” It shows an apathetic Roosevelt passing off a memorandum about how the Nazis were murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews monthly.
More than 70 years after the war ended, it’s difficult to gauge the impact cartoons had on public opinion and policy — for while the US government didn’t intercede on behalf of Jewish refugees, individuals such as Reverend Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Martha rescued an anti-Nazi member of the Czech parliament by sneaking him out of a hospital morgue in a body bag.
“Even if you can’t measure it in an obvious way it doesn’t mean the cartoon didn’t have impact,” Medoff said. “The public’s appreciation of editorial cartoons is still great, they still really pack a punch and can be taken seriously as political commentary.”