The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz: A Pow­er­ful True Sto­ry of Hope and Survival

Thomas Geve

  • Review
By – December 20, 2021

In his illus­trat­ed mem­oir, Thomas Geve ren­dered in sim­ple col­or pen­cils on paper a child’s pic­to­r­i­al tes­ta­ment from his mem­o­ries of con­cen­tra­tion camps short­ly after his lib­er­a­tion. His adult under­stand­ing of the events that he illus­trat­ed, in a new and enhanced text based on ear­li­er vol­umes, com­pletes this unusu­al doc­u­ment. In com­bin­ing a child’s response to the hell he encoun­tered in Auschwitz, Gross Rosen, and Buchen­wald with the wis­dom of an old­er man, Geve offers read­ers a spe­cif­ic under­stand­ing of suf­fer­ing and sur­vival dur­ing the Shoah.

Geve, the pseu­do­nym of Sim­cha Cohn, was born in Ger­many in 1929. He nar­rates the ear­ly part of his life as a hap­py child with no sense of the impend­ing dis­as­ter that would over­take his fam­i­ly. His par­tic­i­pa­tion in a Zion­ist youth group gave him a feel­ing of empow­er­ment, but this effect was short-lived. Geve’s writ­ing style is vivid and hon­est, with­out nos­tal­gia, as he describes the past and ana­lyzes the depth of his losses.

After he is deport­ed to Auschwitz as a thir­teen-year-old boy, his life becomes an end­less series of assaults by hunger, dis­ease, cru­el­ty, and ter­ror. Even as a child he remarks upon the Ger­mans’ iron­ic obses­sion with keep­ing detailed records and impos­ing order on a uni­verse gov­erned by irra­tional hatred. At the same time, the adult Geve looks back on his past and rec­og­nizes how he had tried to main­tain what­ev­er integri­ty he could, cul­ti­vat­ing sur­vival strate­gies and learn­ing whom he could trust for help. He main­tains a care­ful bal­ance between describ­ing his attempts to escape death and nev­er attribut­ing his ulti­mate sur­vival to any­thing but luck.

Geve had begun draw­ing on scraps of paper in Auschwitz, but these pic­tures were lost. He resumed his project with col­ored pen­cils and with a set of water­col­ors, the gift of an Amer­i­can sol­dier. Pho­tographs and maps pro­vide an accu­rate con­text for the events depict­ed. These indeli­ble scenes from Geve’s mem­o­ry are not sophis­ti­cat­ed in tech­nique, yet this very sim­plic­i­ty evokes the courage of a sen­si­tive child. In one pic­ture, Geve draws dif­fer­ent foods and metic­u­lous­ly records the num­ber of grams pris­on­ers were allot­ted of each item. In anoth­er, he draws and labels the arm­bands dis­tin­guish­ing dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of pris­on­ers, includ­ing Jews, Roma, and polit­i­cal dis­si­dents, each assigned a dif­fer­ent role in the Nazis’ hier­ar­chy of hatred. From the monot­o­ny of work details to the sadism of pub­lic exe­cu­tions, Geve was com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing the truth in his art, and to ensur­ing that no one’s life end­ed in oblivion.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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