Israeli Graphic Novelist Rutu Modan Draws On Her Family's Secret History

In 'The Property,' Artist Explores Her Polish Roots

Graphically Inclined: Rutu Modan, author of “Exit Wounds” and “The Property,” co-founded a collective of avant-garde comic artists. She now lives in central Tel Aviv.
Courtesy of Rutu Modan
Graphically Inclined: Rutu Modan, author of “Exit Wounds” and “The Property,” co-founded a collective of avant-garde comic artists. She now lives in central Tel Aviv.

By Tal Kra-Oz

Published July 18, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
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Modan, who is of Polish descent on both sides of her family, had very little interest in Poland growing up. Like all Israelis, she knew that Poland was the land of the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But after receiving warm reactions, from Jews and non-Jews alike, to autobiographical strips featuring her almost stereotypically Polish grandmothers, she decided to explore her family’s origins. Around the same time, there was talk of retrieving lost property, something that for many years, under Communist rule, had been out of the question.

With her grandmothers long dead, Modan never went on a journey like the one portrayed in her book. Besides, she said, “my grandmothers never wanted to go back. They had no interest in seeing how the city had changed. For them it was one giant graveyard.” For Modan, “The Property” was an opportunity to imagine what such a trip might have been like. Regina, a grand Polish matriarch of the sort that has become a veritable institution in Israeli culture — an object of both ridicule and admiration — is in many ways an amalgamation of Modan’s two grandmothers.

Stemming from her ambivalence to the Holocaust-centric tours of Poland that so many Israelis take, Modan pledged that on her research trips to Warsaw she would avoid the concentration camps and memorial sites, and seek out the Poland of today. But those sites quickly caught up with her. On her first visit to Warsaw, her younger sister suggested a hip-looking café she’d spotted in a guidebook. “We took a cab there,” Modan recounted, “and discovered that the café was right in the heart of the old Jewish ghetto.” They chatted with an Israeli couple that warmly recommended a visit to the Majdanek camp, “because it’s much scarier than Auschwitz.” That line found its way into the book.

The more Modan learned, the more Poland, and Israelis’ perception of it, fascinated her. “We are angrier with the Poles than they are with the Germans,” she said. “The Germans share our version of what happened, and that makes it easier to move on.” But the Polish narrative was completely different: “They play down their history of anti-Semitism and cooperation with the Nazis, which are the main things we remember about them. They view themselves as the victims, and that makes it that much harder for us as Jews, as Israelis, to get their story.” Tomasz, a cartoonist who befriends Mica in the book, is at work on a comic-book retelling of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, a subject of national pride, while Mica, like most Israelis, is only familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. Despite the different narratives, Modan felt comfortable in Warsaw, which reminded her of the Tel Aviv of her childhood. “But I felt no nostalgia there,” she said. “I have no trouble giving up Poland, it isn’t my lost homeland. But perhaps that’s because I’m not a very nostalgic person.”

The book’s epigraph is a quote by Modan’s mother: “With family, you don’t have to tell the whole truth and it’s not considered lying.” Modan says that her family’s secrets inspired her story. Her maternal grandfather abandoned the family when her mother was very young, and growing up, Modan had never met him, until, when she was 13, she attended a family wedding. “We were standing by the buffet and suddenly my mom pointed out a man and said, ‘You see him, that’s my father.’ After my mom introduced us, he nodded and walked off. That was the one time I saw him. It was a defining moment for me, because it was then that I realized that blood relations can sometimes be meaningless. That a family member loving you is in no way a given.” Modan said she had no qualms about exposing family secrets in her work because, she said with a smile, her relatives usually have trouble recognizing themselves.

There is a rare humanness to her characters that Modan says she can’t take full credit for. After storyboarding her book, she hired local actors to play out the scenes. The actors’ body language was incredibly helpful in conveying subtleties, particularly in a medium where facial expressions are usually limited to a few basic emotions. Dvora Kedar, the octogenarian who played the part of Regina, gave a particularly powerful performance. Kedar is beloved by Israelis for her role in the hit ’70s film “Lemon Popsicle,” in which she portrayed what was to become the quintessential Polish mother in Israeli cinema.

These days, Modan is on a “vacation from creativity.” She said the year she spent working on the 220-page book felt more like two, because of the 12-hour days she spent working on it. She is hopeful that despite the book’s specificity, readers around the world will be able to understand. After all, she said, “Everyone has grandmothers. These sorts of relationships, that kind of nostalgia for the past, the drive to get rich quick — are things everyone can relate to. Questions about loss and how we remember lost loved ones are universal.”

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer and law student living in Jerusalem.


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