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Thursday morning at Comic-Con, sitting quietly in a wheelchair, the 90-year-old Sax described her ordeals at three Nazi concentration camps and told what helped her family survive emotionally — hope.
Scores of people were left outside a packed Room 4 (occupancy 280) as Sax, her daughter and three others described how history’s worst supervillain may have sparked two American Jewish boys to devise the ultimate do-gooder — Superman.
Unlike other panels in that 1:30 p.m. slot — dedicated to more traditional topics such as monsters, Geek fashion and fairy tales — “Art During the Holocaust” had a darker mood.
Yet the overflow crowd at the San Diego Convention Center surprised and pleased Sax and fellow panelists.
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As Sax shared her life story, daughter Sandra Scheller projected illustrations on how comics were used as propaganda against Jews. And also how Americans created images of superheroes crushing Adolf Hitler during World War II.
Scheller, who called her mother a “superhero without a cape,” has written a book about their experiences, “Try to Remember: Never Forget.”
During the panel, Scheller showed a female cousin’s drawing of a school. Kitty left it under her pillow. She was killed at Auschwitz.
She shared never-before-seen drawings made by American soldiers of hundreds of Jewish partisans killed in a cave.
Examples of German propaganda showed the world’s ills blamed on Jewish people.
Sax, who now lives in Chula Vista, recalled seeing drawings in the anti-Semitic German newspaper Der Stürmer.
“We were shocked and surprised by the propaganda and the way Jewish persons were portrayed,” she said. “I remember being scared, wondering: How could this be? It was something we could not run away from.”
The author-daughter also spoke of her mother’s art teacher, whose fingers were cut off. He was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was killed. Sax later used her art skills to be a clothing designer after she was liberated.
And while illustrations in German schoolbooks and posters demonized Jewish people, a counter creation appeared in the United States at the same time.
“Nazi racial propaganda might have played a role in the genesis of Superman,” created and published shortly before the outbreak of WWII, said panelist Esther Finder, president and founder of Generations of the Shoah — an organization based in Las Vegas.
Finder drew parallels between Moses as a baby being sent down the Nile river to save his life, and Superman as an infant being sent in a capsule to start a new life on Earth.
Finder believes that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Cleveland teenagers in the mid-1930s, may have been aware of what was happening in the world at the time and were following Jewish tenets.
“Jews are taught do good for its own sake and to heal the world,” Finder said in another comparison, “which is what Superman ultimately tries to do.”
By contrast, the Nazi superhero is an amoral Aryan who uses his powers to destroy others, she said. The Aryan philosophy was survival of the fittest, with clear classifications of what groups are superior and which are inferior.
Igor Goldkind, a comic writer and author of “Is She Available?” said comics deal with how we as a species turn to art and expression as a way of coping and managing — and making sense of our suffering.
He warned about the future.
“The ideas that fueled this horrific episode in the 20th century are not ideas that have diminished,” he said. “These ideas still circulate.”
He also spoke of today’s Jewish humor — that it doesn’t come from the 18th century or 2,000 years ago.
“It comes from the Holocaust, because gallows humor is what people do to make sense of extreme suffering,” he said. “You make art and you make jokes and try to stay sane.”
After the panel, speaking in the hall, Goldkind told of historic parallels that he sees today. He said he is bothered by the way undocumented immigrants are labeled as “illegals.”
“You can’t dehumanize a person and say because you don’t have proper documentation, that makes you illegal,” he said. “To me that is a symptom, an echo of the same kind of dehumanization” of the Third Reich.
Sax shared her story at the beginning of the hourlong panel.
Sax saw Hitler once from her balcony window and by 11 was taken from her comfortable life as an only child in Czechoslovakia. Nazis stormed into her family home, seizing valuables and the family car.
By 1941, Sax would be taken by train to Theresienstadt, the first of three concentration camps were she was held from age 13 until 17. She was separated from her parents.
She worked in a munitions factory in Oederan in 1944-45 — but added sand to the guns, so they wouldn’t fire.
But Sax wasn’t part of the panel just to describe her past. She sought to promote knowledge of the horrific time in history and warn about the future.
Could it happen again?
“Absolutely,” she said after the panel. “Look what’s happening in Syria and Iraq. They’re killing children. We still have the Nazi party.”
“Look at our politicians. What do they do? Nothing.”
But she also spoke of hope.
As a child in the death camps, she said a prayer taught by her grandmother.
“People used to say, ‘Oh, you’re praying. Did God hear you?’ And I said, ‘God created such a beautiful world. Only people make it so miserable.’”
To pass the time, on Friday nights she and a group of girls would pretend that they were cooking or swimming. She also made jewelry for her mother and herself out of bullet pieces or bread combined with spit and any colors she could find on the ground.
She called herself living proof of how hope can pull a family through “one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world.”
“Yes, my mother, my father and I made it through the Holocaust, only to return to our bombed out city, where we were the only surviving family unit,” she said.
Sax said she wasn’t aware of Superman while interred. All communication was cut off.
“Maybe had I known about Superman, I might have had more hope and faith that I would be saved one day,” Sax said. “Although my prayers were answered, it took longer than I thought.”
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