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  • Writer's pictureDani Kachorsky

Author Interview: Frank Baker discusses 'We Survived the Holocaust'

Updated: Apr 1



This episode features an interview with Frank Baker, author of We Survived the Holocaust.


Portrait of Frank Baker. Middle-aged, white male in a suit and tie with glasses.

 Frank Baker is an internationally recognized media literacy educator. He maintains the Media Literacy Clearinghouse and Close Reading the Media websites. His lifelong work in media literacy was recognized in 2019 by UNESCO, and he is the author of Close Reading the Media and Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom. He currently resides in Columbia, South Carolina.


 

Note: The following transcript has been edited for coherence. Excessive "ums", unnecessary "likes”, and such, have been removed for your convenience. Fragmented sentences and missing words have been edited to make the podcast transcript more readable. Additionally, for this particular episode, there were several issues with the wifi signal, so some audio was garbled. We have done our best to address these issues in the transcript.


[Opening Music]


Dani Kachorsky

Hi everyone. Welcome back to Reading in the Gutter, [a podcast that bridges the gap between comics and education]. I am your host for today, Dani Kachorsky.


Today, we are with Mr. Frank Baker. Frank Baker is an internationally recognized media literacy educator. He maintains the Media Literacy Clearinghouse and Close Reading the Media websites. His lifelong work in media literacy was recognized in 2019 by UNESCO, and he is the author of Close Reading the Media and Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom. He currently resides in Columbia, South Carolina.


Frank, welcome to the show. Welcome to Reading in the Gutter. We're so happy to have you.


You have in your bio that you are the author of Close Reading the Media and Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom, but you are also the author of We Survived the Holocaust, a graphic novel, and selfishly, that's why we invited you here today, to talk about the graphic novel.


Frank Baker

Thank you.


[00:01:06]


Dani

You are welcome. We're going to just launch right into this and we'd like to know what prompted you to create this particular book and share this particular story.



Frank

Well, the book was really an evolution. It did not really start out as a book. So the backstory is important.


In the year 2000, the late Felix Goldberg--blessed memory--spoke at our synagogue during the annual Yom HaSoah Day of Remembrance ceremony. I'm sitting in the audience with hundreds of others. I had read Holocaust stories, I'd seen documentaries, I read books, but to hear him tell this story in person had a profound effect on me, and I didn't really realize the effect until years later.


But this Yom HaSoah ceremony was probably an hour long, and at the end of it, I just had to go over and embrace him and tell him how much his story impacted me. I mean, he elaborated on being born Jewish in the small Polish town and how he got caught up in Hitler['s Regime and] of the horrific things many of us have heard about. As we finished the conversation, he was holding his speech, and he said he knew I was an educator. He said, in this beautiful Polish accent, "Frankie, Frankie, do something with this."


Wow.


Dani

Yeah.


[00:02:45]


Frank

I thought, I really don't know if I'm qualified. That speech went to the top of the pile on my desk--I think you could probably relate--and then [it] went to the middle of the pile and the bottom of the pile. And for years, years, literally, I thought, I've got to do something with this. And finally, I approached the family and said, "I'd like to build a webpage for educators about your father and your mother's story."--both of them miraculous survivors of the war and the Holocaust.


They agreed and they delivered to me a box. These were things that had survived the war. So this website is called StoriesOfSurvival.org and I put so much energy into it. I knew that they had been interviewed previously and news articles and I took all the assets and I put them onto this website. But now, here's a box of things that I'm not even aware of, and I pull out Felix Goldberg's Buchenwald ID card that has survived the war. There in that box was a small photograph of him in the striped uniform that we've all become accustomed to seeing. I'm digging through lots of documents and I come upon the manifest of a ship that brought the Goldbergs from Germany to New Orleans and eventually [to] Columbia, South Carolina.


So two and a half years ago, we unveiled the website and I was sharing it with Holocaust teachers who meet here in South Carolina regularly and with teachers at the state Social Studies Teachers Conference and getting lots of positive feedback and as an educator, very satisfied to give these educators another tool in their toolbox.


But then I woke up one day and I said, what have I done for the young people, many of whom we now understand or rather ignorant, lack essential knowledge about the Holocaust. A recent survey by the Claims Conference indicated how little young people tend to know about the Holocaust. I started asking social studies teachers that I know, "Why are our students so apparently lacking this knowledge?" And they said, "Frank,"--all of them said the same thing--"We don't have the time. We can't devote the amount of time that we need to." But a colleague of mine said, "Frank, it's not time. It's making this a priority."


A colleague of mine at the University of South Carolina had written her own graphic novel. I picked up the phone and called her and I said, "Karen, look at this website. I think the story"--which we had told through the website, the website is divided into three parts before the war, during the war and after the war. She said, "Frank, absolutely." She put me in touch with an editor and a publisher who offered me a contract the next day, and I had not yet written a word.


[They] partnered me with an award-winning illustrator, and in September of 2022, We Survived the Holocaust was published. I'm extremely proud of this graphic novel, but I have to tell you, I'm even more proud of a companion teacher guide that we offer free to educators on our website: WeSurvivedTheHolocaust.com


[00:06:22]


Dani

That's amazing.


You said that you went through the website iteration and the graphic novel came later, but why that particular format? Why not write a prose novel, for instance, or I don't know, create a series of documentary videos or something to that effect? Why was the graphic novel the one that you chose for connecting with younger people?


Frank

Well, previously I worked in Orlando for the public school system in the district media department where my clientele, if you will, were school librarians. I was frequently in those libraries working with educators. And if I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times, "Frank, the graphic novel gets checked out and often doesn't come back."


I'm absolutely--this is 20 years ago--I'm fascinated--more than 20 years ago. I'm fascinated by this aspect. I recall specifically going to Barnes and Noble and I picked up the 9/11 Commission Report. Can you imagine? It was this thick! But then I learned there was a graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report endorsed by the 9/11 commissioners. And I began to recognize, appreciate the non-fiction graphic novel.



When I speak to audiences today, most of them are adults and they don't have a clue what a graphic novel is or how important it is as a genre, as a format for literacy today. So I knew that if Holocaust Education is not reaching young people the way it's being taught, we've got to break that mold and try something new.


I was aware of Maus, I was aware of the impact of a decision by a library*, I believe in Tennessee, to ban it. So all of this led me to say, the graphic novel is the way to reach young people. I'm really pleased to say readers, adult readers have taken pictures of their children or their grandchildren and sent them to me. As an author, just seeing that is extremely satisfying.


Dani

Oh, I cannot imagine. That sounds like... You put all this work and all this effort and so much of yourself into something to see it being received that way has to be very, very satisfying.


Something that you said brought up a question for me. You mentioned that you were aware of Maus, which is arguably, probably the most famous graphic novel. I mean, it won a Pulitzer. Obviously, it's about... It's a Holocaust story. It's a memoir, in and of itself. Your graphic novel is rendered in black and white art. It has, arguably, a similar style. I mean, your characters aren't drawn as mice and cats, but it's got that kind of stark black and whiteness that we've grown familiar with from Maus. Did you read Maus in advance of creating this? Was there any inspiration that you drew from that text? If not, why the black and white?



[00:09:59]


Frank

I did not. I did not really want to be influenced.


I knew my illustrator--and I'm going to shout, I'll give a shout out to Tim Ogline who was an award-winning illustrator before we met on this project--I knew that his style was exactly what I think the treatment that this story needed.


Interestingly enough, my editor, John Shableski, and my illustrator, Tim Ogline, both were swept up in the story of the Goldbergs, but they said, "Frank, we need to back up just a minute. I think we need to give the reader some context at the beginning about antisemitism." And I said, "You're absolutely right." Felix and Bluma weren't born and then antisemitism started. It was already there, and it's important that we give students, and all readers, the backstory. In other words, what happened before September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland? It's important to know those things and I totally agree. So, in this book you'll come upon a reference to the Treaty of Versailles. How many students know what that is? What impact it had? So forth and so on.


I'm going to give a second shout out to Tim. He was more than just an illustrator. He was more like a co-author and a fact checker. To give you an example, Felix Goldberg worked in a coal mine and marched from the camp he was in every day and every night back and forth. One night, they came back to the camp to discover--Felix said--that the portions of the camp had been bombed by the Americans. Well, in fact checking that statement, we found it was in fact bombed by the Soviets. And so, if you're going to write a story about the Holocaust, you definitely want to get your facts straight. In many cases, Tim and I went to other sources to fact check, to make sure that we had it correct because we want this book to be used in classrooms.


I have already heard from several educators, "Frank, I'm now using your book with Anne Frank's diary. I'm now using your book with Elie Wiesel's Night." As an author, that pleases me more than you can know.



Dani

You've mentioned the fact checking, and I think--especially in sort of the disinformation age that we're living in today, that's an incredibly important point that you've made. You also did a couple of things--or your illustrator, I don't know who had the majority of the decision-making here in terms of the images--but there's certainly some places where you've layered maps and to show, like you mentioned, context and how much the history and the context matters. These, for me, speak to other forms of media. When you're watching a news story on CNN or your outlet of choice, when they're talking about the Ukraine War, there's usually a map kind of showing you that. So how much of your background in media literacy influenced the way that you went about writing this and what you presented to the audience here?


[00:13:44]


Frank

I think greatly.


Let me touch on the map issue. When I listened to videotape testimonies of the Goldbergs, they mentioned towns in Poland and in Germany that I knew teachers and students would not have a clue where they are. There is a historical map on our Stories of Survival website, so that laid the foundation for us to include the maps in this book. I was insistent on it. And Tim, again, was very good about fact checking. Where were the borders of Poland at the time the war started and how did the borders change? Why did they change?


My background in media literacy makes me question everything. I think that's a critical thinking skill that a lot of our young people have not been prepared for.


Reading a graphic novel involves visual literacy, pure and simple. I think if teachers have been trained how to incorporate a graphic novel and they understand some of the textual features that an illustrator might use--a bolded word or an italics word or a thought bubble or a talk bubble--these are things that those of us who know graphic novels... It's like brushing our teeth. We don't think about them. But for students and for teachers who are not familiar with that format and that genre, they need to be schooled. I think that's really, really important to help them understand all of that.


So media literacy to me... I'm going to question what I'm reading. I'm going to try to verify it, in the book and on the website, sources. What was the source of this material? Who published it? What was the date of the publication? To give educators and students as much information as possible so that there's no question and people can go back to the source if they need to.


[00:16:00]


I pulled a quote--I've been using it in my personal face-to-face presentations--a quote from Elie Wiesel, which said--I'm going to paraphrase it here because I'll probably get it wrong, but: To listen to a witness is to become a witness. We're talking about Holocaust survivors who we want students to listen to.


If I could back up a minute. Years ago in my workshops with educators, I was a big fan of Edward R. Murrow. A lot of people don't know Murrow's history, premier broadcast journalist who made a name for himself during World War II. Murrow was at Buchenwald when it was liberated. Typically, he would broadcast live. It took him three days to get his thoughts together because it has such a profound impact on him. I've been using the Buchenwald Murrow broadcast and the transcripts of the same with teachers and students because he was a fantastic writer and a writer for the ear, and all of that is so important. General Eisenhower was at Buchenwald when it was liberated--so when we want to talk about media literacy--he said, "I want to see every nook and cranny." And after he did, it had such an impact on him that he had messages sent to the American and British governments: Bring your politicians and your media here to see this because somebody's going to say it never happened. How [percipient] was that on the part of Eisenhower? Because we live in a world of rampant Holocaust denialism and distortion, primarily because of social media. We've got to help young people begin to question everything they're exposed to in social media and not believe it just because it's on the internet.


Dani

Sure.


So you mentioned the couple of quotes from Eisenhower and those stood out to me very significantly. I don't myself recall from my own schooling about this in World War II, this moment in history in the Holocaust. I don't remember anyone ever quoting that to me or sharing that he had said these things. Why was it so important for you to make sure that that showed up in this graphic novel?


Frank

Well, in one of the videotaped testimonies of the late Felix Goldberg, in passing, he said, after being liberated from Buchenwald, "I met Ike." That's all he said. So we grabbed onto that so that we could elaborate on that. I actually went to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and said, "What photographs do you have of the General touring the camp?" I was looking for a needle in a haystack. Could I find Felix Goldberg talking to Eisenhower? I'm sure [Eisenhower] talked to many liberated prisoners. We didn't find it, but we thought it was important to put it in there because it is part of American history.


[00:19:14]


Dani

Yeah.


So you've mentioned a few resources that you've made for teachers. You've talked a little bit about why media literacy and critical literacy are so important in this day and age. So I think that is the start of the answer to my next question, but how are you hoping that this graphic novel, this text, is taken up by readers and teachers and students. What are you hoping this sparks for people?


Frank

Well, there are so many themes in here for a teacher to gravitate to and jump off to. I've already mentioned antisemitism, which unfortunately has raised its ugly head even more now in the United States, and we want young people to recognize that.


There is an image in our book. When Tim sent it to me more than a year ago--it's of Bluma and her family running from their home that was burned by the Nazis when they invaded her small town--and when I saw that image, I sat back, "Gosh, oh my God, this is Ukraine. This is exactly what's happening today in Ukraine." The people in Ukraine and the people in World War II are chased from their homes. They don't know where they're going to go to sleep tonight. They don't know where their next meal's going to come from. They don't know if they'll see the sunrise the next day. And I wonder how many of them questioned: God, where are you? God, where are you?


I think it's extremely important, also, for educators to recognize there is rhetoric and there are actions in 2023 that are eerily similar to Nazism and fascism. We say never again about the Holocaust, but the truth is it has happened again, atrocities over and over and over again. So, I hope teachers will gravitate to several pages, a theme...


Recently, somebody said to me, "Young people hear the number '6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.' That's an incredible number to fathom." But, if you say, "Let me tell you the story of a 13-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy who were caught up in the Holocaust and before they got caught up, he played soccer. She skied in the winter. They were no different than any other teenagers. But then, Hitler came calling and their lives changed forever. They lost family members. They lost their homes."


But this story has a very happy ending. Bluma and Felix met in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and these places were perfect places to get reacquainted and learn a new skill, meet someone. I mean, they lost six or seven years of their lives. Here they are in the displaced persons camp. They got married, applied to immigrate to the United States and were successful in doing so.


[00:22:33]


Dani

It's a fantastic story. It's very powerful. I thought it was interesting, too, that you kind of connected this story to other stories that students might already be familiar with. You mentioned Anne Frank and her diary. You mentioned Elie Weisel in and his memoir, Night. So was there a reason to do that kind of shout out to show how these stories are interconnected? Why not let this piece just stand alone?


This image is the cover for 'Night' by Elie Wiesel. The background is a gray, blue abstract brush pattern that is probably intended to represent night or darkness. The author's name is centered on the cover within a tan box. Under his name is an illustrated line of barbed wire.
Night by Elie Wiesel | Published 2006 by Hill and Wang

Frank

I don't think anything stands alone. I think anytime you write, you are making a reference to something else, something in the past, maybe something in the future. And we want readers, teachers, students to try to make these connections, which is why we had a teacher guide created. Because it's going to say, "Go to this page. Take a look."


I think we all know that [The Diary of Anne Frank and Night] are the cannons that most teachers have used in the past, but I'm hearing loud and clear that we need to move away from just teaching the Holocaust by way of the Anne Frank story. And so what is the answer? Well, the answer is we have so many other sources.


I recently wrote a blog post MiddleWeb.com entitled 'The 12 Ways We can Teach About the Holocaust.' I really wanted to reach out to teachers, and I've heard from lots of educators about those twelve different ways--and there are more than twelve, obviously, because our learners are diverse, and not everybody's going to get it from a narrative in a book, and not everybody's going to get it from a documentary. But the graphic novel, as we know, has so much appeal and we have the past history.


Fortunately for me, a colleague at the University of South Carolina who wrote her own graphic novel who was associated with John Shableski, who is known as Mr. Graphic Novel in the United States and recommended this award-winning illustrator. I mean, everything came together so nicely.


And I'll just kind of close by saying, the family members came to me and said, "Frank, you've put all your energy, time, and money into writing this book, what could we do?" I said, "Would you consider purchasing a copy of the book for every middle school and high school in the state of South Carolina? And that's what they did. Last March, at the South Carolina School Librarians Conference, the Goldbergs joined me at a table where we distributed the books. And if I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times, I heard these educators, these school librarians say, "First of all, thank you for writing this book. And secondly, my students are really interested in the Holocaust." So I think the timing is good.


[00:25:38]


Dani

Wow, that's incredible that they would do that for teachers, too. One thing I know that teachers say all the time is that they never have enough resources, so to have that given to them has to be incredibly helpful.


Frank

And if I could add, we have a teacher's guide, which is free as a download on our website. Of course, you can go to any bookstore and order the teacher guide in print, but we're going to give it to you for nothing. So I would say to educators, look at the teacher guide first, and if you think... That might be the catalyst for acquiring the book.


Dani

And I'll say for our audience, we will make sure that we link to the website so that anybody who wants to access that...


We've got less than a minute here. I just wanted to say thank you so much for joining us, and thank you to our audience for tuning in to listen and hear about your story and the Goldberg story. With our last few seconds here, are there any recommendations that you have for teachers or students of what to read next after they've read your book?


Frank

Well, I would say to any educator, if you want to connect with me or the Goldbergs, we are anxious to tell the story in person, face-to-face or Zoom, and so you can contact us via our website. There is so much to tell. We couldn't put it all in the book. But I love hearing from educators. I love to hear from those who've read the book.


*It was not a library in Tennessee that banned Maus. It was a school district.


 

[End Credits]


For information about Reading in the Gutter and resources related to comics and education, visit our website www.readinginthegutter.com, or follow us on Instagram @readinginthegutter.


Special thanks to our guests for their contributions to this show. For information about or to contact our guests and contributors, please visit the episode transcript on our website.


Reading in the Gutter is a podcast that is produced in a personal capacity. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent those of their affiliated institutions.


Post-production for this podcast is provided by Dan Perrine. Our intro and outro music are provided by the Alibi Music Library and licensed through PodcastMusic.com.

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