By JOE KUBERT
In the spring of 1926, my mother, father, and my 2-year-old sister Ida left the small town of Yzeran in eastern Poland and attempted to board a boat in Southampton, England, for transport to America. I was there, too, but not in an ambulatory status. I was in my mother’s belly, waiting to be born. And because of my mother’s condition, my parent’s request for a visa and subsequent passage to America were rejected.
But the Kuberts were a persistent lot.
I was born on September 18, 1926. Within two months after my birth, my mother, father and sister Ida were once again at the port in England. At two months of age, I was still not ambulatory, but this time I was permitted to accompany my family as a fellow passenger. Permission was given for the Kuberts to come to the New World. America.
I’ve often heard my father describe the boat trip. My sister Ida, who was two-and-a-half years old, stayed close to my mother. Before any of us were permitted aboard, we were required to shower and change into clean clothing. My father carried me in his arms into the men’s shower, where soap and cold water did a reasonably good job. We were directed to steerage with all the other immigrants, a full boat load. My mother tells of diapers lasting only until Ellis Island in New York harbor was sighted. When we landed, my Aunt Helen (Mama’s sister) met us and was shocked to see her nephew diaperless.
I grew up in East New York, in Brooklyn.
I started to draw as soon as I was old enough to hold anything that would make a mark. When I was three or four, neighbors would buy boxes of penny chalk for me to draw pictures in the streets. In the gutters, actually. The sidewalks were rough concrete, but the gutters were smooth black macadam. Better than a slate blackboard for chalk.
I’ve always wanted to be a cartoonist.
From the time I saw my first comic strip in the newspapers, before I could even read the words, the pictures pulled me into a world I came to love. Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, Bringing Up Father; Jungle Jim, The Phantom, Tarzan, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, The Katzenjammer Kids. These cartoon characters were alive to me. They weren’t two dimensional, brightly colored (often off-register) drawings outlined in black. Not to me. And this is what I wanted to do. To draw stories with figures that were alive. When Tarzan leapt through the jungle, I was right by his side. When Prince Val cut a swath through his armored enemy, I was breathing over his shoulder. If I could learn to draw pictures like that . . . kind of magic. . . that’s what I wanted to do.
I was lucky.
My father always encouraged me, from the first time I started to draw. Unusual, since most people from the “old country” would dissuade their children from “wasting time scribbling,” instead of aspiring themselves to something that would earn them a living, like being a plumber, or a carpenter, or an electrician. Forget about doctor or lawyer. That was for families who could afford college. I guess Mama and Papa recognized my love for drawing, and knew it would be a lost cause to try to stop me. And they gained a pride in my ability, and the compliments of family and strangers on my drawings.
I got my first paying job as a cartoonist for comic books when I was eleven-and-a-half or twelve years old. Five dollars a page. In 1938, that was a lot of money. By 1940, I was making more money than my father (who was a Kosher butcher). I have never been unemployed—for even one day—since that time.
I am lucky.
During the last few years, I’d given thought to the idea of what might have happened if my parents had decided not to come to America in 1926. In 1939, I was thirteen years old, attending the High School of Music and Art, in New York City. In 1939, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland. Two million Jews were swept up in the net of Hitler’s Final Solution. The elimination of all Jews in Europe and Russia had begun with a vengeance.
Between 1940 and 1942, I was still in high school. Wonderful things were happening to me. My dream of becoming a cartoonist was coming true. I was drawing for comic books on a regular basis, illustrating characters like Hawkman, the Flash, and Zatara. I was experiencing the thrilling exhilaration of seeing my work published, knowing that hundreds of thousands of people were looking at it, maybe with similar feelings that I had when I saw comic strips for the first time.
At the same time in Europe, people were being led into the gas chambers and fed into the ovens.
During the early years of the war, I recall some visitors my parents later told me had come from their hometown in Poland. I remember discussions in hushed tones. Words that I was not permitted to hear. Later, after the visitors left, I pressed my father with questions. He told me that terrible things were happening in our hometown of Yzeran, in Poland. Mass killings. Men, women and children, slaughtered in the streets. Families running like headless chickens, carrying whatever possessions they could, not knowing where to go. To me, they were fairy tales! These stories were not to be believed. Horrible fairy tales.
It was only after the end of the war that these “fairy tales” were proven to be true. And the truth was far worse than anything my father had heard or could have imagined.
If my parents had not come to America, we would have been caught in that maelstrom, sucked in and pulled down with the millions of others who were lost.
I remember while growing up, my parents often described their life in Europe, in the small Eastern Polish town of Yzeran. My sisters and I (I have four sisters, one older and three younger) would listen by the hour, around the kitchen table. While my mother was cooking, she’d reminisce and tell of the differences comparing life in Europe and here in America. Sometimes, how much better it was in Europe. In the early ‘30s, the United States was recovering from a terrible depression. Jobs were tough to get, and Papa and Mama struggled to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. But, I don’t remember being hungry or feeling poor. And they were never sorry that they came to America.
Based on the stories I heard from my parents, the things I read and available historical data, I wrote and drew this book. I’ve incorporated information in letters my parents received from survivors and relatives during and after the war. I backtracked and reread authenticated references concerning dates, times and places. The experience was very personal, a little scary, and sort of cleansing. It was something I felt I had to do.
The, usual procedure in cartooning is first, to do the initial drawings with pencil, then to apply ink over the pencils with brush and pen. The pencil drawings are then erased, leaving only the ink rendering.
The drawings in this book are pencil renderings. My original intention was to first pencil then ink my drawings. But, with my first preliminary sketches, I felt an immediacy in my pencil drawings that I wanted to retain. Also, I wanted to convey a sense that these drawings were in Yossel’s mind, even though he may never have had the opportunity to put them all to paper.
This book is the result of my “what if-?” thoughts. It is a work of fiction, based on a nightmare that was fact. There’s no question in my mind that what you are about to read could have happened.
Excerpted from YOSSEL by Joe Kubert. Copyright 2003. Published by ibooks. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.