Perhaps the most surprising detail about “Keeping My Hope,” a new, self-published graphic novel about the Holocaust, is its author: Christopher Huh is only 14 years old. The second most surprising detail is that he’s not even Jewish. He’s a second-generation Korean American from suburban Maryland who was only vaguely aware of the Holocaust before his seventh-grade English teacher led a unit on the subject.
Christopher’s class had been reading Hans Peter Richter’s Holocaust novel, “Friedrich.” “I was pretty shocked by what the teacher was telling us,” he told me when we met over lemonade at La Madeleine, near the Bethesda metro station. (Unlike Bethesda, Christopher’s hometown of Germantown doesn’t have a sizable Jewish population.) “I mean, I’d heard of the Holocaust before, but I didn’t know it was this extreme. I couldn’t believe some of the things I was hearing. But then when I looked around to see what other students were thinking, they weren’t really paying attention. They were just talking and chatting and not really listening.”
Christopher says he wanted to teach the Holocaust “in a different way.” He conceived of “Keeping My Hope” as a tool to introduce kids to the Holocaust: “I wanted the book to be easy to read, but I also wanted the subject to be taken seriously. I want people to realize that I can handle this stuff, and other kids can, too.”
From that point on, Christopher devoted himself wholeheartedly to his project. Though the characters and plot evolved as he worked, Christopher never doubted that “Keeping My Hope” would be a graphic novel. He’s been drawing for as long as he can remember. “Always with pencil,” said his mother, Yoon Huh. “Before he even started writing, he was drawing. But only in pencil — never crayons.”
“Keeping My Hope” draws on Christopher’s considerable talents both as an artist and as a storyteller. It begins with a grandfather in something like contemporary America telling his granddaughter about his childhood in Lomza, Poland, before the war. The main character’s name is Ari, which Christopher chose “because it means lion, strength. I chose that name and set it up as I did so that people would know that he survives.”
Christopher estimates that he spent more than 1,000 hours researching the events narrated in Ari’s story, and indeed he crams quite a lot of history into the novel’s 170 pages of black-and-white drawings: from the first glimmerings of anti-Semitism to the Soviet occupation of 1939, then the ghetto, the liquidation of the ghetto and the transport to Auschwitz. A good half of the book is devoted to Ari’s time at Auschwitz, which ends with the death march that kills his last remaining friends.