Barbara Yelin’s Irmina is one of the most visually stunning graphic novels I’ve ever come across. Not only that, but it’s based on a fascinating family story: after her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. How could her grandmother go from being a brave rule-breaker to a cowed regime supporter in just a few short years, she wondered? This fictionalized biography is her attempt to reconcile the ironies and hard facts of her ancestor’s life.
In 1934 Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London for a cultural exchange, attending a commercial school to train as a typist. One night she accompanies a friend to a fancy party and meets Howard, a young Barbados native she initially assumes to be a bartender. It turns out he actually has a scholarship to study law at Oxford. He’s learned, dignified and charming, and soon he and Irmina begin spending a lot of time together. Although she wishes she, too, could study at a proper university, women’s education is not valued in Germany.
Irmina and Howard’s carefree explorations of Oxford and London contrast with the increasingly bleak news coming from Germany about Hitler and his treatment of Jews. As her host family decries Nazism, Irmina tries to protest: “they are not MY Germans … this is politics! It doesn’t affect the average person.” She dreams of being an independent working woman and pursuing a relationship with Howard, but a change in her financial circumstances means she has to go back to Stuttgart instead. Promising to return to England as soon as she can raise some money, Irmina bids farewell to Howard at Portsmouth harbor in April 1935.
Back in Germany, she finds a translation job with the Ministry of War, hoping desperately to be transferred to the German consulate in London once she proves herself. But as the years pass and German relations with the rest of Europe grow strained, her dream seems increasingly unlikely. Having recently lost touch with Howard, she meets Gregor Meinrich, an architect for the SS, and gives up work when they marry and have a son. With the rare exception of a shocking event like Kristallnacht, it’s all too easy to ignore what’s happening to the nation’s Jews and absorb the propaganda that says they have earned their misfortune.
The novel is in three parts: London, Berlin and Barbados – Irmina gets a brief, late chance to see what her life might have been like with Howard. Yelin’s usual palette is muted and melancholy: grays, charcoal, slate blue, browns and flesh tones. However, in each section she chooses one signature color that adds symbolic flashes of life. For London it’s the bright blue of Irmina’s scarf, mirrored in Oxford’s sky and river, as well as in the occasional shopfront and lady’s dress.
In Berlin the red of the Nazi flag crops up in lipstick, dress patterns, flowers, wine and the décor of a ballroom. In the most poignant scene of all, though, red is equated with the spilling of Jewish blood. As a friend discusses what she doesn’t want to hear – “they’re taking them all to the East now, where they kill them” – Irmina is getting a jar of berry preserves down from a high shelf and drops it, spattering scarlet everywhere. On the other hand, to evoke the calm and natural beauty of 1980s Barbados, the featured hue is a seafoam green.
I was particularly impressed with the two-page spreads showing city scenes. They range from Impressionist fog to Modernist detail, reminding me of everything from Monet to Modigliani. Although the artwork stands out a bit more than the story, this still strikes me as a fresh look at the lives of ordinary Germans who were kept in the dark (by themselves and others) about Hitler’s activities. In an afterword, Dr. Alexander Korb, Director of the University of Leicester’s Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, reflects on Irmina’s motivation:
Irmina had a full range of possibilities. Yet the fact that she chose the Nazi path from the wide variety in front of her, encompassing feminism, internationality and individuality, makes her story typical of this time. It was just as typical that she failed to find happiness in fascism, like millions of others.
For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend Irmina to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the German by Michael Waaler.