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Oct. 15—Joe Lee drew the illustrations. He also added words and dialogue to the scenes.
Still, Lee's new book "Forgiveness: The Story of Eva Kor, Survivor of the Auschwitz Twin Experiments" sprang from a source beyond himself.
"This is Eva's story," Lee said. "I'm just a translator."
Indeed, he translates the late Holocaust survivor's story into a unique format, as a graphic novel — or graphic biography, as Lee prefers to call it. Lee works as an illustrator, as well as a writer, turning his drawings and narrations into books on clowns, Italian philosopher Dante and Greek mythology, and into editorial cartoons for the Bloomington Herald-Times and scenery for Our Brown County magazine. Lee used the graphic novel as a way to bring Kor's legacy of survival and triumph through horrible atrocities to a young audience.
"It was a way I thought I could approach this story — in pictures — and make it accessible" to young people, Lee said by phone from his Bloomington home. "That is a primary motivation."
His drawings provide visual recreations of scenes that Kor described. Lee turned her words into depictions of the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching moments the Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust. Lee's book lets readers accompany Kor as she experiences Nazi brutalities, such as the days-long ride with fellow Jews, forced onto and packed into railroad cattle cars destined for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Once there, the Nazis separated young Eva and her twin sister, Miriam, from their parents and sisters. The Nazis kept the twins for twisted, torturous medical experiments, and executed their family in the gas chambers.
As a graphic novel, Lee's paperback tells the story through the eyes of a child "who suffered only because she was Jewish." Lee condenses the saga into a digestible 120 pages with vivid illustrations and captivating storytelling.
The book also explains the rise of Nazism and its diabolical leader, Adolf Hitler, in Germany as his regime began the systematic killing of more than six million Jewish people in Europe during World War II. And, it follows Kor after Soviet Union forces liberated the Auschwitz camp survivors in 1945. That journey ultimately led her to Terre Haute, where she founded the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and to eventually forgive her Nazi tormenters.
Finally, it details the last of Kor's annual return trips to Auschwitz, where she would guide an entourage of teachers, students and people from Wabash Valley communities and beyond through the remains of the concentration camp. Lee joined Kor on that trip in the summer of 2019. He'd considered waiting, but his wife Bess — who first encouraged Lee to meet Kor after hearing her speak at CANDLES — urged him to go.
"She said, 'If you're going to do it, do it now,'" Lee recalled, "and she was absolutely right."
Lee experienced the first day of the tour with Kor and the group. On the second day, July 4, 2019, Kor died at age 85.
"Being with her there, it's an incredible experience," Lee said. "You get a real sense of what happened and how it happened. And, you're standing in the place that it happened. And it's an incredible journey."
That includes hearing Kor describe not only the atrocities, the worst of mankind's deeds, but also her decision to forgive the perpetrators to free herself from the anger and pain.
Lee remembers "her energy, her dynamism" that day. Even with her physical ailments, Kor summoned again the strength to retell her story at the site of her deepest traumas. "She was cantankerous, too," he said, chuckling. "She was very much this human lady."
Kor read letters of forgiveness she'd written to her late parents, as the younger visitors listened. She forgave her father for treating a daughter harshly, and her mother for refusing to take the family from Romania to Palestine before they were captured and sent to Auschwitz. The people in the tour group wept as she read.
"Why are you crying? It's a happy story," Lee recalled Kor telling them. She reminded them that she'd survived, beating the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz's heinous doctor Josef Mengele and others. "I am here to tell my story," Kor added.
Lee was impressed. "There's so much personal and tragic loss, yet she found a way a sense of hope and a way to channel the anger," Lee said.
He returned for the CANDLES Museum's trip to Auschwitz in 2020, the first without Kor. It gave Lee another layer of insights and research for the book. Lee and member of the museum's group listened to voice recordings of Kor's past narrations as they toured the camp.
"It's different, of course. Eva is not there in a physical presence, but Eva's there in your ears," Lee said.
"Forgiveness: The Story of Eva Kor" offers another platform for keeping her message alive, thanks to its graphic novel format.
Leah Simpson, the education director at CANDLES Museum, had never read a graphic novel until reading Lee's book.
"I read it in one sitting and immediately turned my email on and told [Lee] I loved it," Simpson said. She believes it can reach a new audience. "I really think it will be a bestseller at the museum for years to come," she added.
It will become the fifth book about Kor offered in the museum at 1532 S. Third St. It's also available through Red Lightning Books (online at redlightningbooks.com), distributed by Indiana University Press. Lee is donating 25% of all proceeds to the museum.
The 68-year-old Lee is an artist, writer and trained clown. Born in Olney, Ill., and raised in Worthington, Ind., Lee not only grew up to graduate from Indiana University but also the Ringling Brothers Clown College, and still performs as a clown. "It makes a full life," he said.
That role also helps him understand the importance of connecting with a young audience. His graphic novel on Kor's story of overcoming hate and injustice aims to reach that same group. "So that it never, ever happens again," Lee said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.