We Won’t See Auschwitz

Jérémie Dres; Edward Gau­vin, trans.
  • Review
May 23, 2014

Join­ing a grow­ing body of nar­ra­tives about Jews exam­in­ing their East­ern Euro­pean roots, We Won’t See Auschwitz is a graph­ic mem­oir about a French­man, Jérémie Dres, who is prompt­ed to take his jour­ney by the death of his grand­moth­er. He recalls his time with her, his con­fi­dante,” and the unique atmos­phere” that sur­round­ed her, thick with her Yid­dish accent. After her death, he explains, a major land­mark dis­ap­peared from my life…”

Against some of his fam­i­ly’s wish­es and some­times accom­pa­nied by his broth­er, Dres explores War­saw and its out­skirts, vis­it­ing syn­a­gogues and ceme­ter­ies, study­ing maps, and ask­ing ques­tions. He makes it clear from the out­set that he is search­ing not just for infor­ma­tion about his fam­i­ly, under­go­ing his own roots trip,” but some­thing larg­er as well: he is attempt­ing to reori­ent him­self, a French Jew, in rela­tion to what he knows and what he learns of his grand­moth­er’s Poland and its fraught rela­tion­ship to Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture. What Dres learns is not always clear or sat­is­fy­ing, to him or to his read­ers. He encoun­ters tales of anti-Semi­tism and para­noia, cul­tur­al revivals and sup­pres­sions. He is remind­ed, many times, that his is one of many jour­neys, by Jews and non-Jews alike roam­ing Poland in search of their his­to­ries and grop­ing for fad­ing or fad­ed land­marks to help them feel con­nect­ed to some­thing larg­er than themselves.

The graph­ic mem­oir is full of most­ly sim­plis­tic and some­times detailed black-and-white sketch­es orga­nized into short vignettes, and it reads, at times, like an ency­clo­pe­dic trav­el nar­ra­tive. It might take the read­er a while to warm up to the jour­ney, as the first half of the book rig­or­ous­ly doc­u­ments the many frag­ments of infor­ma­tion and his­to­ry that Dres col­lects from the peo­ple and places he comes across. But by the time he unex­pect­ed­ly locates the first mate­r­i­al trace of his grand­moth­er — her moth­er’s grave­stone in a War­saw ceme­tery — the nar­ra­tive inten­si­fies as Dres starts to recall, in depth, his grand­moth­er ani­mat­ed­ly recall­ing tales of her child­hood. Mix­ing straight­for­ward doc­u­men­tary with melan­cholic rec­ol­lec­tion, We Won’t See Auschwitz is an accu­rate and ulti­mate­ly mov­ing tale of what hap­pens when what you seek no longer exists.”

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