Washington — Christopher Huh knew about the Holocaust when his seventh-grade English teacher began a two-week unit about the subject last year. But not much.
Huh had some experience drawing cartoons when he decided to draw a story about one Holocaust survivor’s experiences last year. But not much.
He had some idea what his story, which grew into a 169-page graphic novel published earlier this year, “Keeping My Hope” (AmazonCreateSpace), would look like. But not much.
For Huh, an eighth grader at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg, Md., a Washington suburb, everything he has learned about the Holocaust, about the publishing industry, about himself since he embarked upon his first book has been, literally, a novel experience.
Huh, now 14, is a second-generation Korean American. He calls himself simply “a Christian,” has no known Jewish relatives and has attended public schools with few Jewish students. He had never met a Holocaust survivor before his classes’ studies on the subject sparked his interest last year.
An expert on the Shoah was invited to speak to his class. Huh says he was fascinated. His classmates weren’t. “People weren’t paying attention. They were writing notes.” They are, after all, teenagers. “They were laughing,” acting disrespectful.
He found the speaker’s description of Jewish life under the Nazis “shocking. I didn’t know it was that bad.”
Despite the depravities of the Final Solution, “one of the worst periods of history,” man’s inhumanity to man, he thought, is not an exclusively Jewish issue. Koreans, he points out, had suffered at the hands of the Japanese during occupation in World War II; his grandparents had told him those stories.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, not Jewish,” he says. “I didn’t want this [lesson] to disappear.”
Huh, inspired, pulled out his composition notebook. “I love to draw. I love writing — it’s a very powerful tool.” With a mechanical pencil, he began drawing a story he composed, in rough form, in his head. It’s about Ari Kolodiejski, a fictional grandfather, a survivor of Nazi roundups and Auschwitz and a death march, who’s relating his life to his teenage granddaughter, Sarah.
“He carried his sketchbook around constantly and worked on it every free moment he had. I think he thought about it even more often than that,” says Denise Stup, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at Huh’s school. “I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and I’ve never had this experience. I’ve had many students share ideas for books with me, but most of them don’t actually finish their novels, and none of them have actually pursued publishing. The perseverance he demonstrated is very rare for a student his age on such a task.”
Huh spent a year and a half on “Keeping My Hope” (keepingmyhope.com), along the way visiting synagogues and Holocaust museums, meeting survivors, attending a seder, learning to play some klezmer and “Fiddler on the Roof” tunes, teaching himself the geography and basics of several European languages, reading Holocaust fiction and watching Holocaust films, and investing some 1,000 hours in his self-education project.
“I always had an interest in Jewish culture,” he says, speaking with an unusual poise and eloquence for his age.
After school, and on weekends, Huh would spend four hours a day working on his book. “We encouraged him,” his mother, Yoon, says. “It’s part of history. This is part of him.”
Huh’s classmates, he says, were initially dismissive of his nascent novel. “Oh yeah, that’s cute,” they would tell him. Now they’re impressed. Some ask for an autographed copy. “They’re really into it.”
“I think most of the students are in awe of him,” Stup says. “Even students that aren’t necessarily readers, realize how amazing his accomplishments are. I think it’s fabulous to see them awed and inspired by the work of a peer — it sends a much stronger message than I could ever send about the benefits of effective effort.”
And Huh’s teachers?
“Every staff member is ridiculously proud of Chris. I think we all have a bit of that star-struck feeling just to say he is a part of our school,” Stup says. “I feel very validated in my efforts to help students make personal connections to what they read and write.”
Huh sent a copy of his book to Elie Wiesel. “I am moved to learn of the efforts you are making to bring awareness to the Holocaust,” Wiesel wrote back.
One day, Huh says, he’d like to go to Poland and see Auschwitz with his own eyes, and to visit Brooklyn to meet more survivors.
He did all this work, he says, to tell the story of the Holocaust to his peers, other teenagers, in a language and medium familiar to them. “I felt they should listen to this.”
Adolescence, he says, is the time of forming personality and making decisions about how one will lead one’s life. The Shoah, he says, offers stark examples of good and evil.
The book, which Huh self-published with his parents’ help, joins the list of graphic novels about the Holocaust, most notably Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus,” which in recent years have introduced the horrors of the Third Reich to mostly younger readers who increasingly find standard novels and nonfiction books passé. (“Keeping My Hope” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.)
Huh did not discover “Maus” until he started his own artistic project.
Self-taught, he employs a simple sketching style that emphasizes his characters’ facial expressions. He also designed his own font to reflect his naïve drawing style. “It’s not a heavy novel.”
Huh started with Ari (Hebrew for lion, “a strong and courageous person”), a soccer-playing native of Łomża, a city in northeast Poland. “I based him on me,” an athletic, piano-playing kid with two older siblings. As he kept drawing, he added characters and plot. “I had a little bit of the ending” — adult Ari is surrounded at a family meal by the family he had created after World War II in mind.
Ari’s early life, typical of Jews of his generation, included a family business, a destroyed village synagogue, valuables hidden for bribing purposes, a cramped ghetto, cattle cars, an encounter with Josef Mengele, murdered relatives, cruel soldiers and a single, sympathetic German soldier who helps save Ari’s life. “There were some goodhearted soldiers at that time. It doesn’t matter where you are, there are always good people.”
Was it emotionally hard to write and draw about death and suffering? “In the beginning, yes,” Huh says. But he felt an obligation to bring realism to his work, to put himself in the place of the victims. “I had to feel what they felt.”
Stup calls Huh “a very unique person … he is very mature for his age. He possesses an empathy that very few young people have the capability to have at this time in their lives.
“As I teach this unit every year I see most of my students understand the injustice and become incited by the atrocities of the Holocaust, but beyond that, they don’t really believe they can do anything about it,” Stup says. “They just see it as a history lesson and hope it never happens again. Chris saw it as a human lesson and felt the need to empower others to think about so that we as a world community can prevent it from happening again.”
Huh says he’s gotten several e-mail messages from people who have read the book and appreciate its life-affirming message: “People have to be grateful for what they have.”
One day, Huh says, he will tell his own children the story of the Holocaust, just as Ari did that to his. “I can’t forget about it. You don’t forget something like that.”