It’s disquieting how easily we can dehumanize refugees. The AP referred to the asylum seekers currently making their way through Mexico as “a ragtag army of the poor.” President Trump and the Republican Party have been all too happy to seize on fear of them as part of a last-minute agitation before the November elections. None of this is new. Nationalism is fed by xenophobia and we see this cycle of migration and backlash play out again and again. In her new book out from Fantagraphics, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe, Ali Fitzgerald uses the current experiences of migrants in Germany as a lens through which to look at this cycle.
Fitzgerald, an American expat in Berlin, began running art workshops for refugees in 2015, working with both adults and children waiting for their applications for asylum to be answered. We are introduced to the world of “the Bubble,” a large inflatable plastic structure acting as a shelter — meant to house people for a few weeks, but often keeping them for months. The book is not too concerned with using the students’ art as a way to easily psychologically scrutinize them. Their experiences in their home countries and the journeys that took them to Germany are alluded to but not emphasized. The focus is on their difficulties now, in this liminal space between the danger they’ve come from and the safety they seek.
As Fitzgerald observes, however, Germany is not as safe as it was promised to be. Far-right nationalism rises again, and she documents this in ways outside what you might expect. While the book dutifully records acts of violence against refugees, it also looks at things like the return of the Fraktur font, a favorite of the Nazi Party that was long out of favor after World War II. In explaining how the fascist AFD party maintains a careful veneer of civility, Fitzgerald points out that they purposefully avoid using the font, instead employing Bold Futura.
She then notes that the creator of Futura, Paul Renner, was arrested by the Nazis for criticizing them. And for good measure, we learn that Renner was replaced in his position at his university by former student Georg Trump, who was from a town not far from Donald Trump’s ancestral home town. Thus we see how fascism cannily adapts to continue to hide its ugliness, and the inherent ironies in this, with the added detail of the historical and contemporary intersecting in a wildly random way.
The book is full of illuminating asides like this. Drawing connections between the plight of modern migrants in Europe and those of 100 years ago or more, Fitzgerald consults from period sources like Joseph Roth’s The Wandering Jews and What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920–1933. In these works, Roth recorded a situation for the Jews of Germany chillingly similar to that of Middle Eastern and African migrants there now. Other sources include Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs on his time in Berlin and documentation on the unintended ecological side effects of the strict borders enforced during the Cold War.
Drawn to Berlin avoids using its central story for cheap “inspiration” about the power of art or the human spirit. Most of the refugees Fitzgerald spotlights end up in no more certain a place than they are when we first meet them. And given the historical and contemporary political contexts she sprinkles into the book, no easy resolution or peace of mind about the future is proffered. The reader is left, then, to think about what they see happening around the world with a sharper sense of perspective. Whether that will prevent the worst, genocidal parts of the refugee cycle from repeating is up in the air.
Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe is now out from Fantagraphics.