The following is an interview with Joe Lee regarding the recent release of the illustrated biographical novel, Forgiveness: The Story of Eva Kor, Survivor of The Auschwitz Twin Experiments, from Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Books. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Lee about the creative process of sharing Eva’s story, how her story may resonate with readers, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent release of your new book! What inspired you to tell Eva’s story?
Joe Lee: Eva worked tirelessly to tell her story through public appearances and her CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, and had become a well-known survivor, especially in her home state. My wife attended one of her talks at the Museum in the summer of 2018 and told me I had to hear this dynamic woman speak. By the time I was able to finally hear her speak in person, I had researched her life and the historic circumstances that led to her situation. I conceived of the idea for doing a graphic novel/bio that would encompass the entire arc of her journey from a small village in Romania to Auschwitz/Birkenau to Forgiveness. Eva’s story is one of terrible tragedy, but most importantly of survival and the way to achieve it.
BD: What can you tell us about your creative process in bringing this story to life, especially given that you were able to speak with Eva before her passing?
JL: I draw pictures and I love using them to tell a story. It is something I have done in one form or another since I was six or seven years old. I believed that Eva’s story, which she had told in lectures, interviews, documentaries, and the written word, begged for a graphic depiction. I ran my idea by Leah Simpson, who was the interim director of the museum at the time, along with an illustration packet of my work. In the next couple of weeks, I created five sample pages of text and art for Eva and the museum staff to look at. I applied for a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission for the purpose of going with Eva on one of CANDLES’ annual pilgrimages to Poland and the IAC generously assented. This, unfortunately, was Eva’s final pilgrimage to the place of her terrible suffering and loss.
My hope was to be able to spend as much personal interviewing and listening time with Eva as I could. I was not able to have as much as I’d hoped because of Eva’s medical issues, but spending even a short amount of time with her was an incredibly rewarding experience and she had already left us a wealth of information in almost every medium.
Sitting with her on the selection platform and between the ruins of the two main gas chamber/crematoriums at Birkenau on the final complete day of her life was a profound experience. Hearing her recount the experiences of her life – experiences she had told and retold – in this place of genocide and her own personal horror was both deeply emotional and transcendent.
Eva wanted all of us to tell her story, the story of the Holocaust, so we could never forget and always work to keep this grim history from repeating. This is my way of doing it.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Eva’s story will connect with and impact readers?
JL: My greatest hope is that the story of this little girl and her twin sister’s suffering, loss, and her eventual healing will help others that have endured trauma – which ultimately to greater and lesser degrees is all of us. I also want us to engage with the past, certainly the most recent past. Human history is filled with tragedy. Very often the greatest of these tragedies are the ones we humans have visited upon each other. The Holocaust is almost unbelievable in its enormity and in the insanity of its mechanized hatred and murder. We CAN and MUST know our painful past and we must strive toward changing our future with the knowledge that comes from not repeating the past. I believe in the words of Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We can use our knowledge and our compassion to do the work of shortening that bend.
BD: What makes Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Book the perfect home for this important story?
JL: I could not be more fortunate in having the IU Press/Red Lightning Books as my partner in this endeavor. IU Press has a very specific interest in publishing Holocaust studies and disseminating academic and personal information about this horrific event. They have been incredible in taking on a project, a graphic novel/biography, that is not their typical publishing fare. I am also lucky to have connections with the press, both personally and professionally. My dear friend, Rachel Rosolina, the Marketing and Publicity Manager of IU Press, was beyond helpful in getting this project to David Hulsey, the editor of trade publications. All of the staff at the press have been absolutely wonderful, supportive, and a pleasure to work with.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
JL: I have just finished illustrating a book for For Beginners Books, a publishing company that I have a long and happy association with, having written and illustrated three books for and illustrated, at least, a dozen others. I have my ongoing illustration and cartooning work to keep my pens busy, but have yet to begin work on a next big project. I do have ideas…
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Forgiveness and your other work?
JL: Here is the publisher’s link to the book.
Aside from that, I can be found in a variety of ways. I am currently having my website reconstructed, so keep an eye out for joelee and most probably, illustrator, on the web. For Beginners Books, The LeGrande Sideshow and Circus Tarot (U.S. Games), Amazon, and my little shop on Etsy, joeleeillustrator, are great places to start the search.
Joe Lee is the author and illustrator of the illustrated biography, FORGIVENESS: The Story of Eva Kor, Survivor of The Auschwitz Twin Experiments (October 5, 2021; Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Books). He is also the editorial cartoonist for the Bloomington, Indiana Herald-Times; and staff illustrator for Our Brown County Magazine, and the author/illustrator of books on clowns (He is himself a former circus clown.), Dante, and Greek mythology. His latest large work is the LeGrande Circus & Sideshow Tarot for US Games. Joe is a graduate of Indiana University and is currently based in Bloomington, Indiana.