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How Spirou makes it possible to understand everything about the Second World War

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How to discuss the Shoah with Spirou? Is this a subject that we can talk to children about? Is it possible to show the ingenuous bellboy in Auschwitz? So many complex questions at the heart of “Hope in spite of everything”, Emile Bravo’s masterpiece, which won an award at the Angoulême comic book festival in March, four volumes that retrace daily life in Belgium under the Occupation. The saga inspired at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, “Spirou in the turmoil of the Shoah”, an educational, fascinating, beautifully staged exhibition that explores the sources of comics and the historical facts related therein. This is the first exhibition in the archives center to have been designed for a family audience (with a children’s itinerary punctuated by labels drawn by Bravo himself). For the author, known in particular for being the mentor of Riad Sattouf, the event represents ” an approval ” of his story and “a consecration”.

(EDITIONS DUPUIS / SHOAH MEMORIAL)

How Emile Bravo reinvented Spirou

According to Didier Pasamonik, curator of the exhibition with Caroline François, “Hope despite everything” is “the most important work on the Holocaust since Spiegelman’s Maus”. We won’t contradict him: Spirou’s Emile Bravo-style version is fine, entertaining, extremely rigorous, sometimes burlesque, but above all it doesn’t look too high or spare its readers, whatever their age. “It’s a cartoon of appeasement”, says Pasamonik. “We describe the genocidal process without showing it, as in the film “Shoah” by Lanzmann, with a quality of narration and a very strong literary quality supported by flawless documentation and analysis. » No detail has indeed escaped Emile Bravo: for example that, until 1943, to conceal the purpose of the trip, the Belgian deportees were transported in passenger wagons. That the French did not open their border to Belgians fleeing the Nazis. That Belgian Jews wore a star stamped “J.” and not “Jew” as in France, out of simple respect for bilingualism: “J.” for “Jew”, but also for “Jood”, in Flemish.

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The Holocaust, Emile Bravo evokes it through a certain Felix, an allegory of the condition of the Jews in Belgium between 1940 and 1944. It was the meeting with this painter who made Spirou aware of the oppression and who leads to help him throughout the albums. The character was inspired by German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, who was in hiding in Brussels during the war. An artist in the current of New Objectivity, inspired by Van Gogh and Giorgio De Chirico, Nussbaum painted surreal canvases around the persecutions he suffered. A chilling “Self-portrait with a Jewish passport” and a yellow star. A nightmarish “Triumph of Death”, with a title inspired by Bruegel, a kind of macabre dance on a civilization in ruins which prefigures the horror of the concentration camp. It was, tragically, the last painting by Nussbaum, who died in 1944 in Auschwitz. “I treat Felix Nussbaum like a comic book character. It’s only at the end that I reveal that he is real. The reader must be shocked and realize that it is our world, it is us, as human beings, who have killed it”comments Emile Bravo.

Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait with Jewish Passport.  Belgium, around 1943.
Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait with Jewish Passport. Belgium, around 1943. (© MUSEUMSQUARTIER OSNABRÜCK, PHOTOGRAPHER CHRISTIAN GROVERMANN)

The Memorial exhibits six Nussbaum originals – unfortunately not the most famous, pearls from the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück which could not be moved – but also his identity papers and those of his wife, also an artist Felka Platek, crossed out with a stamp in red capital letters: “JUIF – JOOD”.

Felka Platek's ID card.  Belgium, 1940. From November 28, 1940, a German ordinance requires Jews to declare themselves to the authorities.  A stamp in two languages ​​(French and Flemish) is affixed to their identity papers.
Felka Platek’s ID card. Belgium, 1940. From November 28, 1940, a German ordinance requires Jews to declare themselves to the authorities. A stamp in two languages ​​(French and Flemish) is affixed to their identity papers. (© MUSEUMSQUARTIER OSNABRÜCK.)

During his research, Emile Bravo came across a strange coincidence. Felix Nussbaum, considered a “national of enemy powers”, was interned at the Saint-Cyprien camp in the south of France, just a few kilometers from the Argelès-sur-Mer camp, where Emile’s own father Bravo, Spanish refugee, stayed.

“What is a human being without conscience? » : Spirou against the Nazis

“Spirou”, cover of the resistance

The story of Spirou, this character who belongs to Dupuis editions, is a story with drawers. Because “the Journal of Spirou” itself had a leading role in the resistance, through the writer, journalist and scriptwriter of Belgian comics Jean-Georges Evrard, known as Jean Doisy. From its creation in 1938, Dupuis entrusted him with the editor-in-chief of the magazine for young people. In parallel, Doisy immediately founded the “Club des Amis de Spirou”, whose “code of honor” resonates like an education in resistance:

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“Ask yourself if you have respected your signature and your word by not revealing the key to the secret language”.

Publication was stopped dead in 1943, when the Dupuis family refused to welcome the occupier into their administration. Doisy, who does not lack resources, then creates a puppet theater, to continue to bring his characters to life, but also to animate his network of resistance. The magnificent idea was taken up by Emile Bravo in his comic strip, where Spirou and Fantasio travel the country with the Le Farfadet theater (it was his real name), while sending a few messages.

The original Farfadet theater puppets, used as cover for resistance operations during the war.
The original Farfadet theater puppets, used as cover for resistance operations during the war. (EDITIONS DUPUIS / SHOAH MEMORIAL)

Jean Doisy recruited, for the Committee for the Defense of the Jews, Suzanne Moons, alias Madame Brigitte, who contributed to saving 600 Jewish children, but also the sociologist Victor Martin, “the spy of Auschwitz”. This one, left clandestinely and under a false identity for Poland in 1943, was able to exchange with Jews of the “open” ghetto of Sosnowiec and French people enrolled in the STO near the camp of Monowitz (Auschwitz III) and discover the appalling truth. His report (a copy of which can be consulted on site), transmitted to the English secret services, further motivated the actions to rescue Belgian Jews.

Emile Bravo and Matthieu Bonhomme: “Comics are not drawing, they are theatre”

“The not so mysterious Star for the Jews…”

In addition to mentioning the “Aryanization” of French Jewish publishers such as Paul Winkler, creator of the “Journal de Mickey” or the Offenstadt brothers, publishers of the “Pieds Nickelés”, the exhibition shows the “slippages” of certain cartoonists, including Jijé, who , only once, indulged in drawing a caricatural film producer. And then there is the particular case of a certain… Hergé. We know that the creator of Tintin drew for “le Soir”, then requisitioned by the Nazis, and that this exhibition allowed his character to become the icon we know. Here are some proofs of his “incivisme” (Belgian term to designate the wets in the collaboration): a strip of “the Mysterious Star” in prepublication in the newspaper, with two explicitly anti-Semitic boxes. These two boxes do not appear in the final album – surely thanks to the wise judgment of an employee of Casterman. “The not so mysterious Star for the Jews…”, notes in passing Didier Pasamonik. Another curiosity seen on the spot, a notebook intended for the resistants to identify those who were compromised. Hergé was entitled to his page. A vision that is enough to make tintinologists shiver.

READ ALSO > Was Hergé, or not, fascist?

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“Here comes the “Mosquito” again [autre revue éditée par Dupuis, N.D.L.R.]. He doesn’t have a swastika shadow on his fenders, and that’s his best claim to fame.”, writes Jean Doisy at the Liberation. The exhibition is, among other things, a tribute to his fight, which his premature death in 1955 prevented from telling. As long as there are heroes, hope will be allowed, despite everything.

On February 3, 1942, Jean-Georges Evrard, known as Jean Doisy, was visited by the Gestapo and managed to escape.  The next day, he wakes up with suddenly white hair after the trauma.  The photo is from that day.
On February 3, 1942, Jean-Georges Evrard, known as Jean Doisy, was visited by the Gestapo and managed to escape. The next day, he wakes up with suddenly white hair after the trauma. The photo is from that day. (© EDITIONS DUPUIS)

Spirou in the turmoil of the Shoah. From December 9, 2022 to August 30, 2023. Shoah Memorial, 17, rue Geoffroy – l’Asnier, Paris 4th. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Saturday. Free admission.

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