The Jewish Brigade, a British military unit of Jewish soldiers from both Palestine and Great Britain, fought to defeat the Nazis from 1944 to the end of World War II. After the war, some members of the unit worked to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine, and also to avenge the deaths of Europe’s Jews by pursuing war criminals and killing them. The story of the Brigade challenges the unjust image of Jews as passive victims, and defies the stereotype of weakness that stigmatized them for centuries.
In Marvano‘s graphic novel, British Jew Leslie Toliver, and his colleague from Palestine, Ari, see combat in Italy, but their mission does not end with the Germans’ surrender. Committed to transforming Jewish vulnerability into Jewish strength, they confront the opposition of British leadership and of Arab residents in the land they see as a home for the world’s Jews.
Toliver is relentless in his convictions that retribution and progress are inseparable. In the novel’s first episode, he tracks down a former SS officer disguised as a Catholic priest, and responds with contempt to the war criminal’s plea for mercy. Much of the text is terse, sometimes with dramatic tropes reminiscent of Hollywood films about the war. Toliver’s gruff commanding officer counters his skepticism about British compassion for the Jews with a personal self-defense: “I’m a member of the human race. Do you have a problem with that?” This story is not a revisionist approach, but rather an affirmation of history and the inevitability of a defiant response to mass murder. Readers expecting a more nuanced exploration of guilt, revenge, or Zionism itself, will not find it here.
One of the novel’s strengths is its panoramic view, integrating the personal tragedies and global destruction that culminate in the fight for a Jewish state. There are graphic scenes of killing, but also sequences highlighting camaraderie, both rendered in earth colors. Selected images of concentration camp victims appear in gray shades, reinforcing the cinematic tone of the text. A single frame of a showerhead releasing poison gas, a photo of emaciated bodies, and the revelation that Toliver has suffered personal losses within the global catastrophe, build towards a conclusion of improbable optimism. When Toliver and Ari joke about the universality of antisemitism, they underscore the sense that history has made paranoia obsolete.
Marvano’s narrative, both powerful and disturbing, demands attention to difficult truths. The Holocaust decimated the majority of Europe’s Jewish population. The author leaves no doubt that the world’s abandonment of the Jews — whether because of hatred or indifference — will not control them.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.