Last week I was given a gift of sadness, a gift of violence, fear, tragedy and suffering…

But it was also a gift of courage, extraordinary determination, unimaginable resilience, and ultimately triumph.

The gift came in the form of a recently published collection of three graphic novellas called But I Live. The book, based on interviews with four child survivors of the Holocaust, is edited by Charlotte Schallié, professor and chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria. It is a remarkable achievement bringing together four survivors with three writer/illustrators who help portray the harrowing journey of the survivors’ young lives.

Like any stories emerging from the horror of the Holocaust, these accounts are difficult to read. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed by the pain and injustice these narratives portray.

The brothers Nico and Rolf Kamp, David Schaffer, and Emmie Arbel miraculously survived circumstances no one, let alone a child, should ever have to endure. They each lost family members and friends to the Nazi death machine that ravaged Europe throughout the Second World War. They lost years of their own childhoods and had stolen from them much of the light and beauty they should have known in their adult lives.

No one survived the circumstances described in this book without an almost super-human level of perseverance combined with an inexplainable measure of good fortune and sheer luck, all aided by the goodwill of people who risked their lives to help families escape the grasp of the Nazis and their collaborators.  

But, despite the darkness of these stories, the narratives in this book are all characterized by a dispassionate matter-of-fact tone. The story-tellers often seem desperately sad, but never angry or vengeful. They simply tell the details of the circumstances they endured. At times there are even moments of humour.

The refusal to judge or condemn can be seen in Rolf’s story about the fate of his and his younger brother Nico’s pet rabbits. The brothers were hiding on a family farm when one day their pet rabbits mysteriously disappeared. Rolf tells the interviewer:

Christmas came around and the rabbits were gone.

The family said that they had escaped.

Later on, after the war, I realized that they ate them for Christmas dinner.

Having told the story, the adult Rolf and Nico, get into a friendly argument over their different memories of whether the rabbits were eaten for Christmas or Easter dinner.

David Schaffer’s story is perhaps the most harrowing of the three; it is filled with violence, danger and death. But even David’s story contains small triumphs, reflected in the title “A Kind of Resistance.” For all its darkness, David’s is not a story of defeat. The “Resistance” in the title is captured in the moment “One Saturday in 1940,” when David and his family were forced to flee their home.

As they leave their “normal” life, David says,

I saw my father break the rules of the Sabbath for the first time lighting a cigarette.

 The lasting trauma of “survival” in people who lived through the horrors of Nazi persecution, can be seen most vividly in Emmie Arbel’s reflections on her childhood experience of the Holocaust. Her narrative moves back and forth between past and present, with a touching air of the pervasive heart-break that the people who suffered through these events continue to experience even eighty years after they occurred. A haunting refrain runs through Emmie’s story as she repeats, “I had parents.”

But, even in Emmie’s story, there is a tone of hope. In the present-day narrative, a daughter arrives at Emmie’s house accompanied by her grandson. He greets his grandmother enthusiastically, calling out, “Shalom Grandma!” then sits at her computer singing… despite the horror, life goes on.

But I Live is a portrait of the indomitability of the human spirit. The real miracle of these stories is the “But”of the title.  In spite of all their suffering each survivor carried on in life. They have not been defeated. They continue to have the courage to tell their stories. They relate to the world of the living, even though surrounded by the shadows of the dead. They can go to a favourite restaurant for a cup of coffee and enjoy a joke or sit with a group of young people recounting the horrors of which human beings are capable. In spite of everything they “Live.”

Thank you to Schallié and her team for keeping these stories alive. Their work is an encouragement to live in tune with our better selves and avoid repeating the horror to which we are so often drawn with such tragic results.  

Schallié, Charlotte (ed.) But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022.