How I met my grandfather!
A graphic novel diptych
“Winter Will in Time Be Past” is a graphic novel in two volumes published by Futuropolis in France in 2010. The story is about a Jewish painter (precisely a Mischling in the German legal term) called Principius, who lived in Dresden (Germany) in the 30 ties. When Principius was young, he traveled to Poland and had an affair with a painter’s model. A child was born after that (a boy), but Principius never met him. For some years, he tried to get in contact with the boy in a very eccentric way: he got help from a medium, a kind of mountebank. This man failed to get any information about the boy, and he told Principius he was too impure to let the energies flow through space and time. This was his explanation of his own fiasco: either candles or incantations helped Principius to get in contact with his son in a “spiritual” way. But Principius was not only impure according to the mountebank: for the Nuremberg laws, he was impure because of his Jewish origins. So when the oppression from the Hitlerian regime got closer to Principius, he decided to search for his son in (the) real life in the year 1937.
On his way from Görlitz to Breslau (the actual city of Wrocław), the train transporting Principius had to stop in the middle of the forest, at the German border between Poland and Czechoslovakia. A gigantic tree had fallen on the rails, the locomotive could no longer continue. The authorities suspected a terrorist attempt and the SS police arrived on the scene. They were joined later by the German army, which had to clear up the place and escort the passengers by truck to their destination. But things were going weird. Due to the long time waiting, Principius started a conversation with the young man traveling with him called Benyamin Adler. They very quickly got intimate. Benyamin Adler told Principius that he had no father and that his mother was named Magdalena, exactly as the mother of Principius’s son. For Principius this was a shock and he starts to fantasize about the young man: could he be his son? Too shy to ask more, Principius tried to know the young man better. But at the end of the day, Benyamin Adler was missing and Principius was suspected. As a perfect scapegoat, he was even arrested for murder the following day.
The story of “Winter Will in Time Be Past” elapses on 48 hours. The first volume of the graphic novel happens on the first day and the second volume on the second day. During the adventure, the passengers from Principius’s compartment will reveal their true face. Aléthéia who seems in the first place to be a silly actress turns out to be a brave woman, fighting courageously to help Principius and to discover the truth. Rosa Ziegenbein and Hermann Braun (nicknamed the Robin) who are looking like a couple of old Bavarian bourgeois are in reality working for a resistance network, carrying money to the USSR to support their comrades in the Spanish Civil War. At last, Benyamin Adler seems to be an adventurous guy, willing to live fast and violently. Each detail from the story is a piece of a puzzle: the names of the characters have their proper meaning (for example Benyamin Adler means “the young eagle”), all elements from the scenery, like the big tree, are chosen on purpose.
The Story Behind the Story
The character of Principius is freely inspired by my grandfather (my father’s side), called Alfred (aka Fred) Prins. He was an orthodox Sephardi Jew, the son of a diamond dealer, born in Amsterdam in 1888 and working for the family company. He had the occupation of a painter. A big part of my Jewish family was deported, but another part already settled in Israel during 1920 (they were early Zionists). My grandfather survived World War II: after the deportation of his mother and sister, he escaped to New York, then went to Israel and after the war he got back to the Netherlands where he died in 1957.
He was not married to my grandmother, Johanna Egelberta Kuiper, who was a Dutch Protestant theologist and a writer. She was also a feminist and an anarchist. Fred Prins never met his son and this occurred to be a psychological injury for my father. Because my father was embarrassed to tell me more about this story, and also because he didn’t get much information about his genitor, I investigated about Fred Prins by myself. I was sure he always tried to look for my father during his life because he never got married and had no other children. I wanted to work out this phantom filiation from my father’s side. And if my father is not Jew because his mother was a goy, my sister and I got a Jewish filiation due to my mother. My mother’s women lineage is Jewish (her grand-grandmother was a Marrano) and we have a Jewish cultural heritage from her side, although I had no Jewish religious education. I remember that my mother told us frequently on Easter’s celebration we should eat matzo, for example. Jewish and Dutch culture used to be very close and mixed anyway.
The little I knew about my grandfather was quite romantic. He was a painter like I was! I wanted to learn more about him. My father and my mother used to be in contact in the 50 ties and 60 ties with the Prins family, but my father made up his mind and told me he did not want to search for more information about his genitor than what he already got. He thought this family would never recognize him as one of them.
So I started in the year 2002 to look for more by myself. I went to the city archives of Amsterdam and discovered the Jewish Museum and its exhibition about Charlotte Salomon! This was very moving, and sound like a sign: yes, I wanted to draw autobiographies. Thanks to my research, I got the address from where the Prins family was living in the early 20th century, found some old pictures of them and got confirmation that my grandfather went back to the Netherlands after the war. With all this evidence, I deeply got the impression that my grandfather did look for his son during years, but never succeeded in meeting him. Then I stopped my inquiry and got busy on other projects.
When six years later, I started to work on my graphic novel « Winter Will… », I wanted in the first place to succeed in making a detective story happening in the 30 ties. Then I remembered my own family and though it could be interesting to imagine a plot based on the story of a man looking for his son. I also wanted to describe a situation in which this man would meet his illegitimate son in an incredible way. I thought this situation could be able to heal my father’s injury: if he never met his father in real life, this could make him meet his father in a fictional or symbolic way. But I did not expect that I was going to provoke destiny!
A German Dictionary From 1935 Found in a Cellar
First of all, I had to figure out how Germany, its citizens, environment, equipment, and trains, were looking like in the 30 ties. Several books helped me to find proper documentation, and one of them was a German dictionary found in the cellar from my Parisian apartment in the 90 ties. The man living in my apartment before I moved to left many objects, especially some books related to or published during World War II. The dictionary was published in 1935 and was fully illustrated. It occurred to be an interesting document because it was not a propaganda object, but its content was directly related to the Third Reich regime propaganda. For example, one of the dictionary entries about the different ways to greet someone was showing a little girl making a bow and near her stand a man making a so-called German greeting, which was nothing else than the Hitlerian raised hand salutation. But the thing that puzzled me the most was the banalization of the racist and anti-Semitic government policies in the daily context. How could I show the banalization of racism and avoid banalizing racism at the same time?
I wanted to show the dark face of the German society of the 30 ties through common details and situations, because we had to face a new rise of extreme right and nationalist parties in the beginning of the 21st century in France and Europe. And I had the feeling that a lot of people didn’t really care about it. I wanted to talk about our collective blindness in relation to the racial hatred. Another book gave me a lot of explanation about the origins of the Nazi theories in the German popular culture. It is called “The Crisis of German Ideology. Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich” from G. L. Mosse. According to George L. Mosse, xenophobia, racist theories, and eugenics spread over in Europe in the 19th century through popular novels, newspapers and intellectual or artistic groups. The Third Reich’s racist state doctrine came as no surprise to him in a context of everyday anti-Semitism in European society. Even more horrible was the fact that the racist ideology was related to an idea of modernity and science. It wasn’t only the power of Hitler, his charisma, the early SA terror or the Nazi propaganda that made the Nazi’s barbarity possible to grow, but also racism and discrimination in each trivial detail of daily life; people generally don’t care or don’t see all these things, because they operate as a gray veil that darkens their vision of the reality.
Another interesting point in George L. Mosse’s book was his description of the Völkisch movement, a populist movement based on nature, German folklore and nostalgia for a fantasized German empire in the Middle Ages. The Völkisch movement described mankind as part of nature and universe, and mixed together notions as ethno-racial pureness, the back-to-nature way of life and belief in esoteric forces. The blood pureness is seen as a symbol of strength and beauty. It was not a homogeneous movement; conservative aspects coexisted with more revolutionary and left-handed concerns. As a fashion, it inspired writers and artists in their description of a romantic and fantasy world, promoting self-sufficiency and healthy lives. It became so popular during the 19th century in Germany that it-oriented people’s political belief instead of staying in a fictional trend.
Because of my own interest for ecology and new age practices in self-healing, and also because I went as a child in a Waldorf school in France, I was very alert on the dividing line separating the racist and hateful vision behind the Völkisch “back-to-nature” movement, and the progressive and noble-minded vision of a more sustainable way of living promoted by the new age and ecological trend I knew. But it seemed to me that in the 30 ties; it was quite more difficult to make this separation, especially because the progressive and the conservative political forces both called for the coming of a new era and a new man.
The Year 1937: A Milestone
“The Age of Aquarius” is a book written by Paul Le Cour, a French author, and astrologist, in 1937. This text is considered as the precursor in the new age theories and it’s also controversial because of its initial messianic anti-Semitic contents and prediction of the conversion of Jews to Christianity in a near future. As a matter of fact, Paul le Cour removed the anti-Semitic sections of his book three years later, when the German army occupied France. The book is a success and the idea of a change of era in the year 2160 with the return of Jesus Christ, and the advent of a new mankind became a widespread view in esoteric circles, probably because it announced a period of harmony and peace after the chaos. The period of destruction and violence is seen as transitional: the new humanity will be reborn on the ruins of the ancient world. Paul Le Cour’s book is undoubtedly bad literature, but it is interesting as an example of what we call today the “urban culture and beliefs.” It gives the idea of a moment, describes a zeitgeist.
All these spiritual ideas seem quite crazy but also banal to us who live in the 21st century. Nowadays, all kinds of spiritual theories are accessible on the World Wide Web and only a few people still think it could have a scientific value. But in the 30 ties, these theories were new and exciting. Julius Spier, who was Etty Hillesum’s psychologist and palmist, personifies the fancy approach mixing scientific knowledge with some popular beliefs. Julius Spier used to be an eccentric man. He learned psychology with Carl Gustav Jung and developed a personal healing method based on spirituality and body shape analysis. He lived in Germany until the year 1938 and went to Amsterdam (where he died in 1942) to escape Nazi persecution.
Therefore, the year 1937 sounded interesting to me: it is a year of transition in Germany and Europe. In 1936, due to the Olympic games in Berlin, the Nazi regime calmed down the persecutions a little. The Spanish Civil War starts in July, and the popular front establish a left-oriented regime in France. Somehow, activists or progressive people in Europe are founded to expect some social gains and won in the struggle against fascism. But in 1937, they had to face a strong backlash. In Germany, the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels will tighten up its propaganda methods and support the organization of an exhibition about Degenerate Art in Munich. Violence and street fights increased everywhere, while the economy and technology enhanced their performances.
After World War I, the modernization of the national railways became a priority in Germany. In 1920, the plethoric rail companies of the different German lands merge in the Deutsche Reichseisenbahnen. The high-altitude electrified railways were extending. The line that joined Görlitz to Breslau was electrified in 1929. The German manufacturers want to show their technical superiority. In this context, Siemens commissioned the first electric locomotive E44 in 1933. Strong and powerful, the E44 locomotive could ride 90km/h. Because it’s difficult for me to realize how things are in pictures, I went to the Deutsche Bahn museum in Koblenz (Germany) to see the machine in real.
Paint and Brushes
Last but not least, the catalog of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris with as subject the “fatal decade: 1929-1939“, gave me additional iconographic documentation. The paintings from Karl Hofer, Paul Klee, Max Ernst or Rudolf Schlichter, with their purple, gray and beige tones, were a good way to immerse into the ambiance of this epoch. In their paintings, they also give a vision of their fears and anxiety. Like the dreams that Charlotte Beradt collected in the 30 ties in Germany, the feeling of Nazi terror submerged the artists. In the paintings, I also got information about the way people dressed and the colors of their clothes.
I started drawing after this great research about the trains, costumes, ideas and fashion. I decided to place the story action near the city of Hirschberg (actual Jelenia Góra in Poland), which used to be German and located in Lower Silesia. The nearness of the mountains, the electrified railways, and the deep forests surrounding the place made this location perfect for the plot. Some of its elements are obviously metaphorical. The big tree is a metaphor of Yggdrasil, the life tree from the German mythology. It is lying on the ground and nobody can move it away! The electric train, the pride of the Third Reich and the symbol of modernity, have to stop and cannot continue. The names of the passengers are chosen on purpose and the situation they have to face forces them to reveal there true personality.
The two albums of “Winter Will in Time Be Past” are my eighth and ninth albums and since the first one I have exclusively drawn on paper with acrylic paint, brushes and color pencils. Because I wanted to stick to the art from the painters of the 30 ties, I also used collages and style variations in this diptych. Expressivity was the keyword of my technique. Except for the locomotive that has its proper color, I never think about a realistic model to define my color palette. I go and search in my deep feelings which color I want to use for each situation. The base line of the drawing is always made with the color pencil, and then I cover it with diluted acrylic paint. Step by step, I go to the detail with thicker acrylic and I finish the drawing with some additional touches of pencils. The choice of the first color line is very important. In this book, the first lines are often purple, in order to make the ambiance cold and weird.
A Family Reconnection
While I worked on this book things started to change between my father and me. He felt concerned by my project and he was willing to help me look back to his own story. The symbolic reunion I was depicting in my graphic novel about a man looking for his son reached him deeply. Coincidentally, my father moved back to Amsterdam (Netherlands) after a long stay in France and China at the time I started my project. My father reconnected with old friends in Amsterdam, especially a Jewish man called Samuel Segal who was saved as a child by my grandmother from the Gestapo during Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. Johanna Egelberta Kuiper my grandmother, and Klaas Abe Schipper her husband, were both very active in the Dutch Resistance against Nazi barbarism. They hid a lot of persons in the presbytery of the hamlet of Etersheim (North Holland) where they lived. Samuel Segal was willing to write his testimony about this period and he sent it to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem. Other testimonies joined his one. Yad Vashem honored Johanna Egelberta and Klaas Abe in 2015 as Righteous Among the Nations. This was a very beautiful and important moment for my family.
The honorific ceremony, which took place in Etersheim and Oosthuizen in the summer of 2015, brought together for the first time after 81 years the members from the Prins family and from the Kuiper and Schipper family. A mutual recognition between these families could at last take place a very long time after the death of the protagonists. Even if Fred Prins, my grandfather, did not recognize his son and never succeeded in meeting him, I could at the end recognize myself in him: we so much look-alike on the pictures I discovered from him!
Exhibition catalog, Les Temps Menaçants 1929/1939, Flammarion/ Musée d’Art Moderne Ville de Paris, 1997
Etty Hillesum, Une vie bouleversée, le Seuil, 1995
George L. Mosse, Les Racines Intellectuelles du Troisième Reich, Calmann-Lévy/Mémorial de la Shoah, 2006