A new illustrated book published in Pittsburgh aims to combat bigotry and hate, while telling the story of what the United States did — and didn’t — do for European Jews during the Holocaust.
Barbara Burstin, a local historian who teaches at both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, wrote the 16-page script for the book, “America and the Holocaust,” hoping “it might appeal to young people,” she said.
Burstin also launched a website, AmericaandtheHolocaust.com, to promote the book, which is written for middle- and high-school students.
She said the Holocaust and America’s response is “a subject I care about and know about,” and she wrote the book as a way to reach a broader audience.
The story is told through the characters of two modern-day students bouncing through the events of the 1930s and 1940s, interacting with key players as the story of the Holocaust unfolds.
“It seemed the logical thing — that’s something I wanted right away,” Burstin said. “And I wanted one to be a Black student to make this more than a Jewish issue … the message is, ‘Combat bigotry.’ Clearly, antisemitism is expressed. But it’s not exclusive.”
Burstin paired up with illustrator Frederick Carlson, a Carnegie Mellon alum and former illustration professor who was the first illustrator from outside New York City to be elected president of the National Graphic Artists Guild.
Carlson said “America and the Holocaust” — which runs 32 pages, some of them densely designed and lavishly illustrated — is less of a comic book or a graphic novel than it is an “illustrated book.”
“I said, ‘Look this is a time-travel novel — by the end of the book, these are kids of today,’” Carlson explained. “Every page has ethical questions posited. You could spend weeks and weeks and weeks reading through this.”
That’s true: The book encompasses a great level of nuance and detail, offering social and political commentaries from the period, as well as details some middle- or high-school history books on the subject might omit.
“Barbara’s very discerning about getting into the issues,” Carlson said.
Carlson, who cites Jack Kirby and Golden Age Marvel illustrators as influences, used photos he took of two Gateway High School track athletes — real life teens Emma Sandor and Omarion Davidson — as inspiration. He then built the book around their interactions with the content. At one point, Davidson even asks FDR a press-conference-style question.
The illustration portion of the project took four months.
One thing the book seeks to show is how Hitler used the prejudices of Americans against the U.S. by flaunting the fact that Congressional leaders and members of FDR’s cabinet wouldn’t stop the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, Carlson said.
“That was one of the things I was glad we were able to unveil,” Carlson said. “I think Barbara did a great job walking people through the ‘30s and ‘40s.”
Now, it’s Classrooms Without Borders’ turn at the bat.
The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit has worked with Stockton University historian Mary Johnson on a curriculum guide area teachers can use to further delve into the book as teaching material. The goal? For students to look for trends in events occurring locally and globally — as in the book — but also for those students to “become instruments for change,” according to Ellen Resnek, Classrooms Without Borders’ educational programs and outreach manager.
“This is something we do on a regular basis,” Resnek told the Chronicle. “One of the things that sets CWB apart is we ensure there are historians working on these curriculum guides so we can guarantee the historical accuracy as well.”
To that end, Johnson and the team have created a guide chock-full of primary references — things like newspaper clippings from the era, transcriptions of speeches and letters, such as one from Albert Einstein to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — to aid teachers as they work through the material in class, Resnek said.
“If educators want to expand this into a learning unit, they can,” she said.
The guide will be available for a free download, with registration, on CWB’s website. The group also plans to distribute hard copies of the book and its accompanying curriculum guide.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh also will be distributing copies of the book to teachers in 13 local districts, according to Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center’s executive director.
“[Burstin] had so much to teach and, really, a concern that if she doesn’t teach it, who will learn? And she thought, ‘Why stop locally?’” Bairnsfather told the Chronicle.
Bairnsfather said historical depictions of the U.S. involvement in World War II typically focus on battlefield heroism.
“That’s part of the story but there’s a lot more,” she said. “In what ways did American not help the Jews — then and now?”
Burstin is the author of five books, including “Steel City Jews 1840-1915,” “Steel City Jews in Prosperity, Depression and War 1915-1950,” and “After the Holocaust: The Migration of Polish Jews and Christians to Pittsburgh after World War II.”
This tome, she admits, is a bit different.
“I’m trying to get this book into the hands of educators,” Burstin said, “where it can benefit people with something that’s an entry point into the Holocaust — from an American perspective.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.