The Next Page / 'Chutz-Pow': Ordinary superheroes of the Holocaust

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The ToonSeum and the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh have produced a comic book, “Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust,” to honor the bravery of five Pittsburghers during a dark period.

These panels, from the story of the late Penn Hills resident Les Banos, are an excerpt.

Story by Wayne Wise, art by Mark Zingarelli.

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The modern superhero was born with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1938. The ideas that we most associate with the superhero were all present in that first 13-page story: a brightly colored costume, a secret identity and powers and abilities beyond those of normal men. Superman was a character who would forever change the world of heroic fiction. He inspired a legion of characters that shows no signs of abating.

Superman was the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The two Jewish teenagers originally conceived the character while living in Cleveland. By the time Superman first appeared, they were working regularly as a writer and an artist for National Periodicals, the company that would one day become DC Comics.

Many of the earliest creators of the comic book industry were Jewish. The man who created the format of the modern comic book in 1929 was Max (Ginsberg) Gaines. National Periodicals was founded as a publishing company by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. Creators like Will Eisner, Jerry Iger, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Bob Kane became the foundation upon which the entire comics industry was built.

Like most Jewish families living in America in the 1930s, they heard stories of what was happening in Germany under Hitler and Nazi rule. Jewish heritage, culture and political awareness could not help but find their way into the art they created.

Superheroes were calling for American intervention in their stories long before U.S. entry into World War II. The most famous example of this is the cover of Captain America #1 (by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), where the good Captain is seen punching Hitler in the jaw. This was published in March 1941, months before Pearl Harbor.

The superhero became enormously successful in a very short period of time. In the last days of the Depression, with war looming, it was a time in need of heroes. Though they had powers beyond those of normal humans, the lessons they taught applied to everyone. Do the right thing. Stand up for yourself and for those who can't stand up for themselves. Recognize evil and stand against it. Fight for what you believe in if that cause is just. They were easily understood metaphors for everyone who read them.

The stories of superheroes covered the pages of magazines in brightly colored glory, but the truly heroic acts of that era were accomplished by very real human beings, many of whom will never be celebrated or even known.

The Chutz-Pow! comic book is an attempt to share the stories of some of these real life heroes — Les Banos, Malka and Moshe Baran, Dora Iwler and Fritz Ottenheimer. They had no costumes or special powers.They were simply men and women who stood up against evil. If the superhero is defined by his ability to inspire others to heroic actions, then these men and women are superheroes indeed.

Their lives are proof of a simple truth. We can all stand up. We can all be heroes.

The comic book may be purchased at the ToonSeum, Downtown, or the Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Wayne Wise, a Phantom of the Attic employee who helped develop the comic book.

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