We Are On Our Own: A Memoir

Image of We Are On Our Own: A Memoir
Release Date: 
March 28, 2023
Drawn and Quarterly
Reviewed by: 

"Katin is a powerful visual storyteller, deeply honest and personal and sadly, all too relevant."

Originally published in hardcover in 2006, this paperback edition will be all the more welcome in this time of growing interest in graphic novels. We Are on Our Own uses the graphic format to describe Katin's own childhood escape from the Nazis in Hungary when she and her mother fled with false papers rather than allow themselves to be rounded up with all the other Jews. The black-and-white story is bleak and horrific, but it's interspersed by color pages of the author now grown up with her own child. This gives the book a positive balance and reassures the reader that the story will have a happy ending, or at least a more positive one.

The book's reissue is also timely given the rising tide of antisemitism throughout the world and the way this part of history isn't included in general historical instruction. These stories are needed now more than ever. When this book first came out, Katin noted in the backmatter how fresh these fears remain with her mother:

"Everyone is taking more about the war these days, and so is my mother. The world she faced so bravely left her with a great mistrust of places, systems, and institutions. She watched me creating this book with apprehension. When I told her, 'Mom, everyone from this story is either dead or too old to care' she would reply, 'You never know. Someone might see it, take offense and come after us.'"

This distrust doesn't seem misplaced given how society, from her neighbors to her government, let her down so deeply in the 1940s. And looking at current events, it seems almost prescient. It's an attitude the author clearly understands since her title focuses on precisely that: "We are on our own." The words are repeated by her father once he returns after the war, having tracked down his lost wife and daughter. He talks about how they need to rely on themselves as they move forward:

"The same way you have arrived here on you own. We are on our own, Esther. That's all there is."

Post-war attitudes toward the Jews aren't any better than during the war. As Katin's father waits in a line of refugees back in his Hungarian town, he can hear the comments:

"Those Jews. Getting by without working, like always."

"Christ killers."

Though the adult Katin doesn't worry the way her mother and father do, she's still marked by the insecurities of her childhood. She illustrates this through her ambivalent relationship to God and Jewish religion. This sense of the world being too deeply flawed to allow for a divine being runs throughout the book, giving it extra breadth. As the child Katin grieves her lost dog, Rexy, God's absence feels real and personal:

"I prayed and prayed.

And Rexy did not come back."

Both Publishers Weekly and Booklist gave the original hardcover a starred review. This paperback edition deserves the same stellar treatment. Katin is a powerful visual storyteller, deeply honest and personal, and sadly, all too relevant.