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Toonseum hosts launch of comic-book salute to remarkable Holocaust stories

| Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Renee Rosensteel
Giant cartoonish statues of musicians stand outside the Toonseum on Liberty Avenue.
ToonSeum
Poster for “Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust” Comic Book Launch Party

Creators of a new comic book know real heroes don't need superpowers.

“Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust” tells the true stories of five extraordinary men and women whose bravery was more powerful than any special ability.

“This is the kind of story that doesn't need capes,” says Joe Wos, director of the Toonseum, Downtown, who worked with the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on the project. “We wanted to show that the simplest act of standing up can transform anyone into a superhero.”

The two groups will host a launch party to celebrate the official release of the comic book at 8 p.m. Aug. 14 on Liberty Avenue in front of the Toonseum. The event will feature live music by Matt Vorzimer; food by Franktuary, BRGR, Mac N Cheese and Bella Christie food trucks and Milky Way; libations; a VIP reception; and a superhero photo booth. Copies of the book will be available for a special price of $3.

The book features the stories of five local heroes:

• The late Dora Iwler, who escaped camp after camp by posing as a Christian

• Moshe Baran, 93, of Squirrel Hill, a partisan in the forests

• His wife, the late Malka Baran, who saved a child in the camps

• Fritz Ottenheimer, 89, of Oakland, a German born Jew who witnessed Kristallnacht, immigrated to the United States and joined the U.S. Army to fight against his mother country

• The late Les Banos, a Jewish double agent who infiltrated the Nazis, sabotaged various missions, rescued shot-down Allied pilots and hid Jews

Ottenheimer, whose parents helped smuggle hundreds of people to Switzerland to escape Nazi persecution, appreciates the comic book's ability to reach younger generations.

“This is definitely something young people should know about and think of in terms of a goal for their life — to help others who are being unfairly treated,” he says. “They should know these things happened and try to learn about what lead up to the conditions.”

Baran agrees.

“Reaching younger people and whatever else we can do to have people think about (the Holocaust), especially in this crazy world, is important,” he says.

Drew Goldstein, chair of the Chutz-Pow! Project, says while there were “hundreds of thousands of superheroes through the world we could draw from,” these five were selected based on recommendations from historians and academics who served as advisers for the project.

“They are people who chose to step up when it looked like there was no hope and did amazing things,” Goldstein says.

Because comic books are rooted in Jewish history, using the format to tell their stories made sense, project organizers say.

“The comics industry overwhelmingly exists because of Jewish-Americans who were here during World War II,” Wos says. “All these early artists were Jewish. They had a great wealth of stories and a rich storytelling tradition that certainly helped in developing the characters. I think they were a group of people who needed superheroes, so they created them.”

The goal is to work with educators to incorporate the book into curricula for students in grades seven to 12, Goldstein says. He hopes to organize special presentations at area schools. The comic is the first in a planned set of books featuring Holocaust survivors, he says.

“We set out to revolutionize how Holocaust education is taught to the next generation,” Goldstein says.

Written by local author and comics historian Wayne Wise, the book features artwork by professional Pittsburgh cartoonists including Christopher Moeller, Dave Wachter, Marcel Walker and Mark Zingarelli.

“We didn't change the stories,” Goldstein says. “We didn't give them superpowers beyond what they did themselves.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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