What Is Ester?
Ester is a collection of novels and a teaching material, its most important feature being a series of dramatized and illustrated stories about the Jewish victims killed in the Sajmište Concentration Camp (Judenlager Semlin) near Belgrade in the beginning of 1942. The stories focus on young victims and their families, their pre-war lives, and their lives under the German occupation and during the Holocaust. The stories are based on true historical events and the people who experienced them.
In the course of creating this program, experts from Serbia, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries were consulted, while a team consisting of expert historians, teachers, specialists on Jewish culture and tradition, Holocaust survivors, as well as a group of illustrators from Serbia and the Netherlands who were working together on its implementation.
Ester consists of four novels:
– The Archivists and the Forgotten Boxes (available in Serbian and English)
– A Story About the Red Race Car (available in Serbian and English)
– The Running Shoes (available in Serbian)
– The Family Photo (available in Serbian)
Ester is available in Serbian and English at the website www.ester.rs
Director of Terraforming
Author of the Ester concept
Dramatization of History
The events depicted in the Ester novels are true, documented events corroborated by relevant historical sources, testimonies of survivors, witnesses, and other documentation. While creating the novels, one of the important goals was to find the correct balance between a certain degree of necessary liberty between the dramatization and the historical facts.
Ester graphic novels were created as a reconstruction and dramatization of history based on available fragments of personal stories, keeping in mind a certain target and age group. Taking this approach, while keeping historical events and facts as central in the stories, we placed the main focus on the human aspects, feelings, and thoughts of the main characters, with the aim of engaging students on a different level by creating a purposeful tool for teaching and learning about the Holocaust.
Particular segments of the stories were created specifically to better present the Jewish culture and traditions and the pre-war Jewish life in Serbia.
In some cases we used experiences of several different individuals and families by blending them into one single story. For instance, it might have been another father who, just a few days before he was shot, gave his cap to his son during his son’s last visit to the Topovske Šupe Concentration Camp. But it is a matter of historical fact that there really was a father who did it.
In order to present specific aspects or subjects, such as collaboration, resistance, helpers, refugees, looting of Jewish property, etc., some otherwise historically accurate details are implanted into the stories, usually by placing some of the main characters at a particular location and time. For instance, in one of the novels, one of the main characters is present during the Volksdeutsche march through central Belgrade in September 1941. We cannot know if this boy was there that day, but – he might have been. On the other hand, the event itself is a well-documented historical fact, and it was important to present it to the students. Having in mind the educational purpose of the novels, we believe that such adaptations were justified.
It is important to emphasize that all interventions and dramatizations were made in accordance with historical sources and under the supervision of expert historians in order not to jeopardize the crucial and important historical facts.
In some cases we used experiences of several different individuals and families by blending them into one single story
Methodology – An Overview
The concept consists of several elements, which allow a flexible approach to the work while leaving space for creativity both for students and for teachers.
Graphic novels about the Holocaust
Time, Date and Location on a Map
Learning at the Historical Locations
1. Stories about the Holocaust through the language of graphic novels
The storytelling of Ester novels is based on illustrated scenes. Each novel consists of 12 to 15 scenes. Each scene combines the visual language of illustrations with the narrative text. Each scene is additionally enriched with the relevant historical photographs and maps, confirming in that way the veracity of the illustrations and emphasizing the historical accuracy of the story itself.
For many reasons (time limitations, availability of teaching materials, etc.) when teaching about the Holocaust, the segments related to everyday life before the persecutions are often not sufficiently presented to students despite the fact that it is an inseparable part necessary for better understanding of the Holocaust. Storytelling based on illustrations provides students with better insight into the everyday life of Jews, simple and common situations, family life, dwellings, clothing, food and cuisine, fun, traditions, religion, etc. Particularly in the case of Serbia where the Jews were well- integrated into mainstream society, this helps students to recognize the elements of everyday life, similar and shared among the Jews and other groups, and more easily identify with the main characters.
Graphic novels are attractive for students, and as an art form of storytelling they stimulate students’ curiosity and creativity. Also, their spirit of enquiry is encouraged in this way.
Learning about the everyday life before the persecutions is an inseparable part necessary for better understanding of the Holocaust
2. Recognizing well-known locations, landmarks, and sites
The storyline is set at well-known locations in Belgrade and other Serbian cities. The illustrators were instructed to pay particular attention to depict the city landmarks, significant buildings, and familiar public spaces in such way that students would easily recognize them. By learning about the lives of the main characters and the historical events at very familiar places, recognizing the landmarks and streets of their own cities, the students become aware that the Holocaust happened right here, that the people described in the stories used to live right here – among us, and that these historical events are an inseparable part of our own history with an everlasting impact on the present and visible traces that could be recognized here and now.
It happened right here!
3. Time, Date, Location marked on each scene
Each scene is marked with the exact time, date, and location (address), and the location is also presented on the enclosed map. Besides serving as an additional interface to track the timeline and places, it brings another layer of accuracy and credibility to the story, as well as further perspectives on the fact that the historical events presented in the novels took place right here.
4. Historical Documentation: photos, historical newspapers, archival documents
Among additional materials there are historical photographs as well as the other documentation and archival material which were used for reconstruction of the scenes and events presented in the stories.
5. Investigating tasks for students
Each scene is accompanied with a range of investigating tasks prepared for students to work on individually or in groups. Most of the tasks propose research of available online databases of historical newspapers and archival materials, or a visit to the location where the scene took place.
6. Glossaries – lists of lesser-known words
Glossaries – alphabetical list of lesser-known terms or words, usually related to Jewish tradition, culture, and religion are added to several scenes.
Students are referred to research the available online databases of historical newspapers and archival materials
7. Educational exercises based on illustrations
Illustrations are used as a main resource for educational exercises in several ways:
Hidden “puzzles” in the illustrations
Illustrations were designed having in mind particular educational exercises. Certain visual details were intentionally added to create small “puzzles.” Students are familiar with similar storytelling and problem-solving settings from video games. As soon as students realize that there are important “hidden” elements placed in the illustrations, they start to pay more attention, recognizing and discovering even more details. Many of the prepared investigating tasks for students are based on such details.
By carefully studying the illustrations, students can find the information that refers to the characteristic aspects of a given historical period. Their search can focus on gathering data, detecting the layered shades of details and reading the information presented in the illustration, purposely not explicitly elaborated in the textual narrative that accompanies the illustration. What is happening? What are the different characters doing? How do they feel? Where are they? What is written on that poster on the wall?
Other characters that appear in the illustrations
Certain characters are reappearing in several illustrations, having an active role in the story even though they are not part of the textual narrative of the novel. For instance, the Roma shoe-cleaner appears in several illustrations but is not mentioned in the text. Also, the same Serbian gendarme appears in several illustrations, while he is mentioned only at one scene in the text. Students can follow and analyze these characters, their roles, and their destinies as a separate layer of the story.
Introduction to Historical Research
Through these tasks students are introduced to historical research, available databases of historical documents, and other resources. At the beginning, this research focuses on simple topics, such as fashion, sports, technology, music, movies. This also serves as an introduction to the historical period and to life in Serbia at that time. But later, as the stories develop, the tasks are increasingly focused on the war that is already ongoing in Europe, the worsening situation for the Jews and Jewish refugees that are coming to Serbia from other countries, growing antisemitism, and finally – declarations and orders issued by the Nazis in occupied Serbia.
Small historically accurate details for further investigation
Many features of the illustrations are based on specific time-typical and accurate historical details. For instance, each poster on an advertising pillar on the street, each billboard at the car exhibition, every front page of the newspapers held by people in the crowd, all such elements depicted in any of the illustrations are accurate historical details of that place and time. Many of these elements seem to be unimportant details. However, many of the investigating tasks for students involve further research of these details, revealing further layers of important and relevant historical facts.
For instance, in one of the illustrations there is a poster announcing an art exhibition of a famous Serbian painter, Sava Šumanović, who was later killed by Croatian fascists. This groundbreaking exhibition historically took place exactly at the same time as a particular scene in the novel. One of the tasks for the students is to research more about this painter and his destiny.
Another example: in one of the illustrations depicting a scene dated May 1940, a person in the crowd is holding a daily newspaper. There is an article on page 11 about Charlie Chaplin who is currently “in great secrecy” filming his new movie and describing difficulties he had while filming “a complicated scene about a long speech.” The Students’ task is to investigate, by reading the original article in the historical newspaper archive and using further sources, what was the movie Charlie Chaplin was filming, and what was that “long speech” about? Obviously, it was “The Great Dictator” – a political satire comedy-drama about a ruthless fascist dictator and a persecuted Jewish barber. Such students’ tasks open many possibilities for further discussion in the classroom and in the follow-up tasks.
Discovering historical sources used for creating the illustrations
Many times during the research tasks, students will discover historical photographs that were used as sources for creating the illustrations. Also, students will find information about some of the characters as well as certain details about their lives. This will corroborate and further confirm that the novels accurately describe the historical events and people in the stories.
Comparative analysis of the illustrations: same location – different time
Comparative examination of the illustrations of identical places in different periods is similar to the familiar format of a “spot the difference” exercise. The focus is usually on the same characters, illustrated at the same locations, but at different times and under different circumstances. For instance: analyzing an illustration of a Shabbat dinner in a Jewish home in Belgrade before the war – and then again during the Nazi occupation, opens many possibilities for further discussion in the classroom.
Comparative analysis of the historical sites and the illustrations
One of the research tasks for the students is to analyze the historical sites in their current state and compare these with the illustrations that depict the same places during different times. What has changed? What remained the same? Are there recognizable traces of pre-war Jewish life, the war, the Holocaust? Is there a memorial plaque, a monument, or a sign of acknowledgment of what happened or what used to be at this site? This opens a path for interesting investigative tasks that can include making photographs, videos, and interviews with passers-by about their knowledge of historical events that took place at that location. Further on, it brings to light the question and further awareness about unmarked or endangered historical sites
8. Parallel Timelines: Europe and Serbia – the wider historical context
Parallel timelines of historical events in Europe and in Serbia are available on a separate page. The aim is to present, follow, and compare relevant events in Germany, in Europe and in Serbia in order to help the students to better understand the historical context of the stories, putting the events depicted in the stories in juxtaposition to the events that happened simultaneously at other places in Serbia, Germany, and Europe.
When creating investigative tasks for students we took into account other important historical events that took place elsewhere in Europe. For instance, one scene takes place on 30 September 1941 at the Topovske Šupe Concentration Camp just a couple of days before the mass shootings of the Jewish inmates were to begin. One of the tasks for students is to investigate one of the worst massacres of WWII that took place on that very same day, far away in Ukraine. This way the students will learn about the massacre in Babi Yar, and be introduced to broader perspectives of the Holocaust setting the Holocaust in Serbia within the framework of a wider European context.
Putting the events depicted in the stories in juxtaposition to the events that happened simultaneously at other places in Serbia, Germany, and Europe
9. Various Formats
The teaching material is prepared for digital presentation on a large projection screen in the classroom, or to be used online on a computer, iPad/tablet, or saved in a PDF format suitable for printing. All formats are available for download on the website.
10. Teaching and Learning at the Historical Locations – or “walking the story”
Schools are encouraged to organize group visits and teaching at the important historical sites presented in the novels. Also, with the maps available in the material, there is an option to “walk the story” – visiting all the places depicted in one of the novels, starting from the pre-war living locations and then finishing the tour at the site of the Sajmiste Concentration Camp.
11. Other Resources
There is a comprehensive introduction to the material, rich with maps and infographics, covering subjects such as:
– Why Do We Remember the Holocaust and Learn About It?
– A Historical Overview: The Belgrade Fairground, The Occupation of Serbia, The History of the Sajmište Concentration Camp and its victims, Jewish victims in Europe, Yugoslavia, and Serbia, Collaboration, Resistance and Helpers;
– Remembrance, Memorial Days, and the Future Memorial Center at Sajmište;
– The Role of Historians and Archivists in Revealing the History of the Holocaust in Serbia;
– A List of Selected Teaching Materials Available in Serbia.
Who is Ester?
Ester is one of the characters that appear in two of the novels as a young Jewish girl from Belgrade’s Dorćol neighborhood. Most of the main characters in the novels are real people we learned about through research of the archival and historical documentation. Ester represents all the victims whose names and other details about their lives we do not know.
In the novel “The Family Photo,” Ester is present among many guests during the Shabbat dinner at the Demajo home in November 1940.
In the novel “The Archivists and the Forgotten Boxes,” Ester emerges from a pile of the forgotten documents in the Historical Archives of Belgrade, saying to the archivists: “Halo, my name is Ester, and I waited patiently for 70 years to tell you that once I used to be alive!”
The entire program is named after Ester.
Ester is our homage to all the nameless victims of the Holocaust.
By bringing Ester to the novels we wanted to make students aware that there are many more untold personal stories of numerous people who once used to live right here among us before they were destroyed together with all traces of their very existence.
Among other aims of the educational concept is to present the students with the roles of archivists and historians, their work and tasks in the frames of Holocaust research, commemoration, and education in order to promote these professions as crucial for saving all unknown people and their untold stories from fading into oblivion.
Who is Ester? Can you tell us more about her? The answer is: no, we cannot. We don’t know anything about her. But in order to find out more about Ester we need more historical research.
Our hope is that some of the students will become inspired to continue this work as a next generation of historians, archivists, or in some other roles, carrying on future Holocaust research, commemoration, and education.
© Terraforming 2016