ALI FITZGERALD’S Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe begins, wonderfully, with a drawing of the Plaza Hotel in New York. “Amira liked my book of Eloise’s misadventures in the Plaza Hotel,” Fitzgerald writes about a teenaged Syrian refugee who, along with her family, survived the harrowing journey to Germany in the early days of the refugee crisis that reached Europe in 2015.
Juxtaposed with the drawing of the Plaza’s turrets and flags is a picture of “the bubble,” the squat, inflatable emergency shelter for incoming refugees, where Amira lives — and where Fitzgerald, a Berlin-based American comic artist, volunteered to teach comic drawing classes. “I couldn’t imagine two more different places to spend your youth.”
Beautiful, sensitive, illuminating, and at times quite funny, Fitzgerald’s book tells the story of this drawing class, and the intimate, fragmentary glimpses into her students’ lives that the drawings offer. If she begins by stressing the difference between the Plaza and the bubble, she also finds humor in their unexpected similarities: “Like the Plaza,” she notes, “the bubble had rotating doormen,” in this case, caustic guards who can never find her weekly class on the schedule.
At the same time, the book is a meditation on the fundamental unfairness of the world. “I was insufferably lucky,” Fitzgerald writes at one point in the book — echoing a thought that anyone living in a peaceful country watching the nightly news has surely had. Rather than tune out the suffering of others, however, or turn it into kitsch, Fitzgerald — a remarkably able, ever-self-reflective guide — carries the reader along on a rich, philosophical journey, one that turns to literature, history, and lived experience in a search for meaning.
Throughout the book, Fitzgerald includes her students’ actual drawings, which she embeds in the graphic novel like visual quotes. Amira, for example, starts with a hot air balloon, then moves on to draw Eloise hugging her curvaceous nanny. One day, Amira and her friend Haya, a language ace whose German improves by the day, and whose optimistic drawings include happy snowmen, ask Fitzgerald to draw “a balloon underwater.” After a few false starts, she tries an inflatable raft of the sort she has seen on TV. “Haya sighed with relief,” Fitzgerald writes. With hand gestures, it becomes clear that the boat flipped. “Not mine,” says Haya, as Amira nods. “But another one. There were 60 people — babies … it was so dark…”
Fitzgerald, who identifies with Amira’s begrudging relationship with her annoying little sister — finding in it echoes of her own suburban American childhood — navigates what she later calls Berlin’s “competing realities” as she processes this encounter. “They knew,” she writes, “dark truths I would never understand.”
As Fitzgerald continues teaching in the bubble, she hears stories of violence, of terror, of uncertainty. Some of her students will almost certainly not be granted asylum, even after their long journeys. Yet flowers remain the most popular subject of her students’ drawings. And 16-year-old Adnan, who tells Fitzgerald about walking from Macedonia to Greece, hasn’t lost his sense of humor. He signs his drawings “Picasso” or “Leonardo da Vinci.”
After class, Fitzgerald walks home, somewhat shell-shocked. It is in depicting these walks that the book fleshes out the city’s “competing realities.” She passes museums, glittering shops, wine bars filled with art-talk chatter. But there are other aspects of the city and its history that exist just beneath the surface. Take, for example, the red brick building that housed the Jewish Girls’ School until 1942, when students and teachers alike were sent to the death camps. Fitzgerald understands that there are important threads connecting the moments layered in the city’s architecture. “The influx of asylum-seekers in Berlin feels crushing, feverish, new,” she writes. “But Berlin experienced an earlier crisis about 100 years ago when Eastern-European Jewish refugees fled calculated slaughter in Russia and elsewhere.”
Fitzgerald brilliantly uses the formal possibilities opened up by the comics medium to flesh out this history. In a beautiful and poignant series of flashbacks, she enlists Joseph Roth as a tour guide, using his 1920s writings to show the now-chic neighborhood of Mitte as it was then: a messy, often tragic refuge. “In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow,” says Roth — rendered as a Virgil in a bowtie — of that earlier wave of refugees.
If, as she says, the “real Berlin is more complicated” than Liza Minnelli’s version of it, the city is never predictable. Looking at the far-right “Alternative for Deutschland” party, whose rise accompanied the refugee crisis, she examines the weird and fascinating history of Nazi fonts, noting that to the cheery “Futura” font favored by the AfD was actually designed in Germany by Paul Renner, who was arrested and dismissed from his post as the director of the Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker for criticizing the Nazis; he was replaced by his former student, Georg Trump, who was born and raised near his namesake Donald’s ancestral home.
In her day job as a business English teacher, Fitzgerald is shaken by a middle-aged German student’s racist, anti-refugee remarks. Still, “the overarching sentiment was one of tolerance,” she writes.
There was a groundswell of volunteerism and all of Berlin’s different sects banded together to extend welcoming gestures. It reminded me of why I came to Berlin in the first place. I was lured by the queer freedom of cabaret. […] I read and reread Christopher Isherwood’s stories of decadent intrigue from the 1920s. Those worlds were safe and sexy havens.
Meanwhile, romance flourishes in the antiseptic bubble, where people love having their portraits drawn, recognizing it as a way of being seen. But Fitzgerald is plagued by doubt. She notes the similarity between modern-day far-right caricatures of Syrian men and Nazi-era caricatures of Jewish men. “Caricatures contain terrifying potency,” she writes. “In the service of hate, they strip away humanity, flattening people with slightly altered hats and noses. This venom is used again and again — because it works.” This, she writes, “makes me question comics as a medium for good.”
Generously, Fitzgerald brings the reader along on the crisis that ensues. “I spent most of that winter detached,” she writes. “Angry at something I couldn’t name. Convinced that the world was governed by brutality.” She tries to find some relief in a hip sex party at the KitKatClub (a Berlin institution that shares its name with the fictional club invented by Christopher Isherwood for his Berlin Stories) — and it is a treat to attend along with her. But this attempted escape ultimately doesn’t work. Only the arrival of spring seems to help, bringing with it a meditation on the ironies of history, nature, and landscape.
“My old apartment was across from the former ‘death strip,’” she writes. “The militarized corridor between countries became an unintentional wildlife refuge […] the black stork, otter, lady’s slipper orchid and whinchat all live in a strange no-man’s-land.”
Drawn to Berlin is a book in which every page is a gem. While there may be no answers to the most painful questions, the search itself is worth every minute. Meeting a former student from the bubble who has become a friend, Fitzgerald writes that some days, she thinks of Berlin “as a dirty, furtive utopia. A place where history sits with itself. Not comfortably, but with a soft, melancholy hum.” As her former student tells her that he can draw again — he has a job, and he is happy enough to sketch manga figures — she wonders: “Can a city really extend itself beyond the barbarism of its past?”
Her answer: “I hope so.”
Sally McGrane is a Berlin-based journalist. She writes about culture, business, politics, science, and other topics in Western Europe, Russia, and Ukraine for The New York Times, newyorker.com, and others.