Mickey au Camp de Gurs

Horst Rosenthal was a Polish-French amateur cartoonist of Jewish descent. In 1940 he was incarcerated by the Nazis in the French internment camp Gurs, where he created three illustrated books in his spare time: 'Mickey au Camp de Gurs' (1940), 'La Journée d'un Hébergé' (1940) and 'Petit Guide à travers le Camp de Gurs' (1942). Of these three 'Mickey au Camp de Gurs' is the most peculiar. It's a text comic starring Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse as a prisoner in Gurs. Sadly enough Rosenthal was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where he was executed. His books were forgotten for several decades until they were rediscovered and published in 2014. On one hand they are historical oddities, on the other a testament of human creativity and willpower during bleak times...

Early life
Horst Rosenthal was born in 1915 in Breslau, Poland. His parents were Jewish and as a young man he had socialist sympathies. When Hitler took power in 1933 antisemitism rose. Since Poland is a neighbour country of Germany, Rosenthal desperately wanted to move away. In 1933 he obtained a visum to spend two months in the city. His request for political asylum was denied in March 1934, but eventually granted in December 1936. His license ran fom July 1938 until June 1940. Throughout most of the decade Rosenthal led a quiet life in the Rue de Clignancourt in Paris.


La Journée d'un Hébergé

Prisoner-of-war and execution
On 3 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, which led to the outbreak of World War II. In June 1940 France was invaded too. It didn't take long before Rosenthal was arrested. He was interned in the prisoner camps Dreux, Damigny, Alençon, Tance and, from 28 October 1940 on, Camp Gurs. Gurs was located in the South West of France, not far fom Pau. The camp guards mainly locked up Jews, Roma people, homosexuals, prostitutes, prisoners-of-war, resistance members and journalists, writers and artists whose talents were considered a threat to the Nazi regime. On 25 August 1942 Rosenthal was deported to camp Rivesaltes. A month later, on 5 September, he was brought to Drancy and eventually arrived in Auschwitz on 11 September. He was one of many people who were instantly executed upon arrival. Rosenthal's mother and two brothers had already been murdered in January of the same year, albeit in Riga. At the time of his death Rosenthal was only 27 years old.

Certain magazine articles and websites have incorrectly stated that Rosenthal created his three books while he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. In reality he wrote and drew them in camp Gurs. The confusion probably stems from the fact that Rosenthal was later deported to Auschwitz. But Gurs was a pure prisoner camp, as opposed to the death camp Auschwitz. This explains why prisoners in Gurs were still given permission to write and draw in their spare time. Given the fact that many artists, writers and musicians were locked up together it was only natural that they would pursue further creative activities to forget their misery. In Auschwitz such privileges were non-existant...

Work
All three of Rosenthal's books are written and drawn in ink and aquarel. 'La Journée d'un Hébergé' (1940) records every aspect of daily camp life, hour by hour, in a text of 18 pages in length. Rosenthal mentions the mandatory marches, interrogations, the lousy meals and a romantic walk with a female prisoner (which might have been autobiographical). 'Petit Guide à Travers le Camp de Gurs' (1942) is more humoristic in tone. In 13 pages it describes all locations and daily events in Gurs, including his fellow prisoners and wardens, as if it was a tourist guide. Yet most media attention has gone to the peculiar 'Mickey au Camp de Gurs' (1940). The work is a text comic, 16 pages long, with all text written underneath the images. It stars Mickey Mouse, a fact that Rosenthal ironically acknowledges in the title: "Publiée sans l'authorisation de Walt Disney" ("Published without Walt Disney's authorisation"). The comic is a strange clash between childish innocence and the harsh reality of Nazi politics and war. Mickey is portrayed as a happy but naïve individual, much like in Disney's cartoons and Floyd Gottfredson's comics. He is arrested by Vichy soldiers for not having any identity papers with him. The judge interrogates him and is perplexed that Mickey has "no mother, only a father: Walt Disney." He suspects the rodent of being Jewish and therefore sentences him to be imprisoned in camp Gurs. There Mickey witnesses camp life and its repressive rules with innocent but poignant observations. Eventually he has enough of all this misery and erases everything with a literal eraser, whereupon he returns to the United States.


Petit Guide à Travers le Camp de Gurs

Mysterious personality
Horst Rosenthal remains a mysterious person. There are no photographs or personal documents of him available, other than his asylum papers. A report written down on 20 May 1940 describes him as being "1.70 metres in length, brown-haired and -eyed, with a normal nose (...) and oval face." The report also mentions that his left arm was paralyzed. It is furthermore not clear why and for whom Rosenthal created his books? For his own amusement? For his fellow prisoners? For some children in the camp? He was undoubtedly aware that he might be imprisoned for a very long time. The books may have been created as a fun way to pass the time. Yet again it's not clear what he planned to do with them afterwards? Did he want to publish them after his release, like Ronald Searle did after his emprisonment in a Japanese POW camp in 1942-1945? Were they intended as souvenirs? Or was he aware that he might not survive the camp and therefore wanted to leave something behind for future generations? The books do have an overall optimistic tone. Nothing about them betrays any fear about his fate. Since nobody at the time suspected that the Nazis would eventually start massacring the majority of their prisoners in special death camps it seems likely that Rosenthal was confident that everything would turn out fine. Unfortunately it didn't, which casts a wry and dark shadow over his writings...

Legacy
Rosenthal's books were kept in custody for several decades. In 1978 they were given to the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation). They gained more notoriety in the 2000s, particularly when Art Spiegelman mentioned them in his book 'Metamaus' (2012). Spiegelman, famous for his graphic novel 'Maus' (1986/1991) which documents his father's Holocaust past, stated that Rosenthal's 'Mickey à Gurs' is arguably the oldest comic strip about the Holocaust, other than Bernard Krigstein's 'Master Race' (1955). It even preceeds his own use of mice as metaphor for Jewish people. On 4 November 2014 all books by Rosenthal were brought back to the public attention by historian Joël Kotek and journalist Didier Pasamonik, who compiled and edited the collection 'Mickey à Gurs : Les Carnets de dessin de Horst Rosenthal' in cooperation with the publishing house Calmann-Lévy and the Mémorial de la Shoah.

Rosenthal's illustrated books remain a fascinating document of one of the blackest pages in human history. Even though the man himself didn't survive the Holocaust his work did. It's the triumph of human creativity, even in an utterly hopeless situation.


Mickey au Camp de Gurs

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