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.”