Rutu Modan Explores Post-WWII Poland in "The Property"

Rutu Modan was one of the leading cartoonists in Israel and a member of the noted artists collective Actus Tragicus when Drawn and Quarterly published her debut graphic novel "Exit Wounds." The book received a 2008 Eisner Award and was acclaimed as one of the best books of the year. Since then, Modan has created numerous short works, including an illustrated blog for the "New York Times" website, a serial comic for the "New York Times Magazine" and the children's book "Maya Makes a Mess," which was released last year. Modan also drew "War Rabbit," a one-off webcomic collaboration with the journalist Igal Sarna.

Modan's latest book is "The Property," a graphic novel which focuses on a young Israeli woman, Mica, who travels with her grandmother to Poland, ostensibly to reclaim property that was seized from the family during World War II. It is a beautiful and thoughtful story that looks at the complex web of relationships between property, memory, money and nostalgia, while taking a look at the subtle intricacies of family and people who have more in common than they would sometimes like to admit. "The Property" is very personal and specific while simultaneously being a universal story of family and the ties that bind.

CBR News: Where did "The Property" begin for you?

Rutu Modan: Sometimes it's difficult to trace back exactly, but after "Exit Wounds" was published, I got a request from the "New York Times" website to write an illustrated blog. Since I had to produce a new story every month I decided not to invent stories -- which takes longer, for me at least -- and write stories about my family members. Each one was about a different member of the family, and I wrote stories about my grandmothers. They were both from Poland and they came to Israel from before the war. They were both from Warsaw. They were always fighting between themselves. I wrote these stories, and when you write about someone, you have to understand them. You cannot just write from your point of view. The stories got good reactions in the comments on the website from people who said, it reminds me of my grandmother, we had the same relationship. It was really a surprise for me because I think of my grandmothers as very Jewish, very Israeli.

At the time, I was looking for an idea for a new novel. I was living in England but I came to Israel for the holidays. I went to a family dinner and my uncle was speaking about property that we had in Poland. After the war, Poland was under the Communist regime, so you couldn't get the property back because all the properties were nationalized. Only in the '90s was Poland open. People here really were angry about Poland and the Polish people. My grandmothers didn't want to visit. They referred to it as one big cemetery. In the last few years, things have changed. We had this family dinner, and my uncle was speaking about it and all of the family and they started talking about how wealthy our family was in Poland, but it was just nostalgia. It was dreams about how good the past was. It was a combination of things starting to connect in my head, but I didn't know what the story was going to be about. I had to discover the story I was going to write.

Had you traveled to Poland before?

Never. I was never even interested in Poland because of how bad my grandmother used to speak about Poland. They almost didn't speak about the past and the family that stayed there. What they described was negative, if they spoke about it at all. I didn't even think about Poland as a country. For me, it was a place where the concentration camps were. No more. The first thing that I did when I had this idea was to open Wikipedia and read about the history of Poland. It's strange, because my father was born there. He came to Israel when he was eight. It's not so long ago. But I was never thinking about it until I had the idea for the story and then I went to Poland.

Early in the book, there's a line where Mica is asked if she had visited Poland, her grandmother says that Mica didn't want to go and Mica says, no, you didn't want me to go. I was wondering if that was true.

Not in my generation, but in the last fifteen years or so, almost every teenager is going to Poland on school trips. They take them to see the concentration camps and memorials and things about the Holocaust. What I wanted to explore is that people lived there. World War II took six years, but Jews lived in Poland for hundreds of years. For me, it feels strange that all the thoughts we have about Poland are about these six horrible years. I understood the experience was more complicated than just that.

Did your visit to Warsaw shape the story?

Yes, of course. Before I went to Poland, I didn't even have an image in my head. If you go to Paris, even if you've never been to Paris, you have some image of it. I also tried to meet lots of people. I also talked with people who lived in Warsaw before the war. I wanted to understand what was the relationship between Jews and Poles before the war. I read books. The visit was interesting because it had changed, but I felt very comfortable in Warsaw. In many ways, it reminded me of Tel Aviv when I was a child. It's estimated that sixty percent of Israelis have Polish origins and so maybe the way that things are arranged in shops or how close you stand to a person when you speak to them -- I don't know. Something. I felt that Israeli culture is much more influenced by Polish culture than I imagined.

The book is about a number of characters who are trying to revive and relive the past, except Mica. She's the only one not there for that purpose.

You described it exactly as I would.

And yet, I would argue that she manages to reconnect to Poland and to the past in a greater way than anyone else.

Yes. That it was also a subject I wanted to deal with -- memory and what we do with memory. This sad and grotesque desire to revive the past or relive the past. Of course, Mica is not innocent. She's just interested in the property, an apartment, but it's also a home. There is a scene at the end of the book when she discovers that the apartment was sold. Now that she thinks that the property doesn't belong to her family, then she wants to see the apartment because suddenly it's no longer property, it's no longer about money -- it's suddenly something emotional. And the woman won't let her in. The change is at this point when her attitude towards the property is more emotional, not so practical. In general, she's very practical young woman.

She's the practical one saying, okay, we'll do this, and it's only at the end that Mica gets emotional about the situation.

In the beginning, what helps her be active is her grandmother suddenly says that she doesn't want to look for the apartment. So Mica says, okay, she's going to find it herself. You have to remember that she came to Poland in a very emotional state because she lost her father just months before. She's trying to be very practical and very cold, but in fact she's not as strong and practical as she's pretending to be. She's in an emotional state and it's very easy for her to change.

I loved the relationship between Mica and her grandmother, which I could relate to because of my relationship with my grandmother. We're close, but I can see her having a huge secret on this scale that she's just kept from everyone for decades.

[Laughs] Is your grandmother Jewish?


Here's what I've found out: All grandmothers are Jewish grandmothers. It's a state of mind. [Laughs] It's based on my relationship with my grandmother and some of the relationships in my family. They are fighting, but the relationship between them is strong at the same time. Like in the first scene of the book in the airport, Mica is on the side of her grandmother and not the rest of the people in the airport. She has an obligation to her grandmother even though they're fighting all the time.

I really liked Mica's line at end about how the only thing that Jews love more than money is spite. That's true for all of us.

[Laughs] The stereotype of Jews and money is still very strong and so when I was writing I liked the idea of playing with the stereotype of Jews and money. I wasn't completely aware of this but I found out in Poland that's still strong. I was in England and a neighbor was from Poland and I wanted to ask about Poland. I didn't tell her what the book was about and minutes after we started talking she said that her parents live in a house that belonged to a Jewish family before the war and they are frightened the Jews will come back and take their home. So this is not only a subject here in Israel, but this relationship between Poles and Jews and the past and the present is something that's alive in Poland, too.

Reading "The Property," I couldn't help but think of it as a story about contemporary Israel. It's about property and ownership and nostalgia and the past and groups who have a much closer and much more complicated relationship than many like to think.

You saw the resemblance to the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Very much. Like the Poles and the Jews, the Israelis and Palestinians share a very complicated story in every sense that we like to simplify.

At some point, I thought maybe people won't think about it and I was tempted to put it directly into the mouth of one of the characters, but I didn't want it to be too didactic. I didn't want it to be so, "I have this message." It really made me think about it, because you have people who were forced to leave their house, who lost their property, who lost their home and now, after seventy years, people live in these places and they feel it is their home. I don't understand why Israelis don't see the connection. Some of the same Israelis who are speaking about property in Europe that they want to seize, and about their right to get it back, they don't see the resemblance to the Palestinians who had to leave their homes and how many Israelis don't see why Israel owes them anything. If you ask them, they will try to explain to you that there is a difference. Of course there's a difference, but beyond the differences, what I see are people who are fighting about the past and about their pain and history and ruined lives.

What I also see is how difficult it is to find a story that the same story. When I went to Poland, I think my biggest surprise as an Israeli was to find out the Polish have a very different story about the past from what I was taught. I was taught a narrative about happened in the war to the Jews, and how Poles are. When I meet young Germans, I think we have more or less the same story. There is general agreement about who are the good guys who are the bad guys, what happened when, and from that point it's very easy to find we have the same story and we can make peace. With the Poles, I had this feeling all the time that I wanted to tell them what really happened, but I understood that I can't. Their story, for them, was true, just like mine. We have to accept that they have a different narrative. Israelis and the Palestinians have that problem. We don't share the same narrative about the past. It's really difficult to make peace when we are still arguing about the story -- about which story is the best story or the more accurate story.

I'm curious how you work, because in the back of the book you list a number of Comic Actors.

When I tell the story, I rely heavily on body language because the characters are very important and the personalities of each character are very important. I don't use captions, I use only dialogue, so I try to make each of the people have their own way of behaving and moving, not just their own way of speaking. When I worked on "Exit Wounds," I used models. Afterwards, I did a short project and I asked a friend of mine to model for me. She's a professional actress and I found out how different it is to work with an actor. It's not like a regular person because they have the ability to express themselves with the body, and they do. They don't just model, they become the person. It's amazing.

I had the idea to work with actors. I had a storyboard for the whole book, so I knew exactly what was going to happen in each panel. I had the whole book in a very rough sketch, and then I hired the actors. I even dressed them, and then they acted the whole book. Just the main characters. The extras, I invented. [Laughs] It was a very low budget production. We took the photos in my apartment. It was like children playing. It was a very fun process. I took photos, and when I went to Poland, I took photos of locations and I combined them.

You teach at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, which is where you attended art school. What you enjoy about teaching and what you try to do that you wanted as a student?

I was actually quite happy in the Academy when I was studying there. I had a really good time and I enjoyed it very much. In Israel, because of the army service, the students are much older than in other countries, so they're more mature, they know what they want. They don't come to the academy to have fun. They come to work. The academy changed a lot because it's much bigger now. That changes the way you teach, but the relationships between the students and the teachers are still close and strong. I teach many of them in the first year, and then again in the third or fourth year.

I like to be an illustrator and comics artist. I spend ninety percent of my time alone in my room and I don't see anyone. I don't work with anyone, so I have the opportunity to go out of the house for one day and go to a different city and meet young people and speak with them. I learn from them. They bring books and they show me artists I don't know. They ask me questions that force me to think about answers I hadn't thought before. I think it keeps me fresh -- I hope. And it's fun to help other artists to find their way. I like to give advice. [Laughs] It's nice to tell people what to do. And they have to listen to me!

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