Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945

The exhibition Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945 has a number of unique aspects. To the best of our knowledge, it is the first time the story of the earliest Canadian encounters with survivors of the Holocaust and the evidence of the devastation of European Jewish life is being told in a public forum. Much of the narrative deals with the experiences of Canadian soldiers — including chaplains, of cial war artists, photographers and filmmakers — and the observations of journalists and aid workers. Moreover, the exhibition challenges the viewer to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between Holocaust survivors and their “liberators.” This is accomplished by displaying within the exhibition primary sources, such as the firsthand accounts of liberators, the testimonies and diaries of survivors, and photos, films, artwork, radio broadcasts and journalism produced by Canadians in the European theatre of war during 1944 and 1945.

Another distinctive aspect of the exhibition was our interest in presenting students visiting the exhibition at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre with a companion comic, something that could be taken home and shared. We were introduced to Vancouver comic artist Colin Upton who is, as he says, a history nerd with an interest in military history. We were also interested in the participation and viewpoint of a younger cohort and Colin was open to a reciprocal relationship in developing the storyline.

Developing the comic was complicated and challenging, but ultimately successful. A compelling work of comic art arose from a series of exchanges. In order to receive the feedback of a younger audience, Colin made several visits to UBC’s HISTORY 490Q (2015-16) class on Jewish identity in graphic narratives, taught by Richard. The students came from various backgrounds in art and history. They broke into groups with assignments to represent, in images and words, segments of the story told in the exhibition. Students received feedback from Colin and they generated ideas for Colin’s comic. We thank them for their valuable input.

Once in his studio, Colin drew three versions of the comic, beginning with rough sketches that we reviewed together for accuracy. From there, he moved on to a more detailed pencil version, and after another review session, the final inked rendering of the comic. He then produced the cover and suggested a powerful title. Producing the comic was a long process, all of it hand detailed by Colin the way it would have been in 1945.

Ultimately, what Colin wrote and drew is a work of imagination based on fact. His drawings have the power to evoke both the historical facts and an emotional response. We hope that Kicking at the Darkness adds to your understanding of a complex moment in our nation’s history, the moment when Canadians first encountered evidence of the Nazi attempt to annihilate vulnerable minorities.

Richard Menkis and Ronnie Tessler are researcher directors and writers of Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945.