War and the Balkans in comics: a conversation with Aleksandar Zograf

An abandoned diary that describes the bombing of Belgrade during WWII has become a graphic novel on display at the Library of Congress in Washington. The author is Aleksandar Zograf, a Serbian cartoonist who brings to life forgotten episodes of the lives of unknown individuals, in order to describe historical facts that have changed European history, in particular in Eastern Europe. 

Aleksandar Zograf is the pseudonym of Saša Rakezić, who was born in 1963 in Pančevo, Serbia. He is one of the most prominent international graphic journalists. Zograf will be at Ca’ Foscari on 7 December 2021 at 5:30 p.m. in Aula Baratto to present the Italian translation of his latest novel, “ll quaderno di Radoslav e altre storie della II guerra mondiale” (The Notebook of Radoslav and other World War II stories)  (001 edizioni, Torino 2021). The event is organised by “Incroci di civiltà - Writers in conversation” and “Venezia legge i Balcani” (Venice reads the Balkans), an initiative that aims to promote the knowledge of the languages and cultures of the former Yugoslavia area, with the support of the professor of Serbian and Croatian literature Marija Bradaš. The meeting will be moderated by Eugenio Berra, curator of the book, and by Marco Abram (Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa). Book your place here

The book presents thirty comics and a long autobiographical story about the author’s grandfather, who was a member of an underground resistance group and was detained in a camp for political prisoners. Both sections of the book describe the tragic events of World War II by focussing on the “micro-stories” of people who tried to escape their destiny. Among these people are Jewish-Magyar poet Miklós Radnoti, who wrote poems while he was imprisoned in a labour camp in Serbia, and Hilda Dajč, a young Jewish woman who secretly sent letters from a concentration camp in Belgrade where she worked as a volunteer nurse. These letters were found by Zograf. The book offers a cross section of the events that changed Europe in 1941-1945, and in particular the Balkans, a region that is often neglected by collective memory. The merit of the book is that it helps its readers draw closer to these historical events by adopting a human and personal perspective. 

Zograf is a well-known author in Italy: eight of his books have been translated into Italian and he has been working for almost twenty years with Internazionale and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa. His comics are published in the Belgrade magazine “Vreme” in Serbia. Zograf was first mentioned in Italy because of his book  “Lettere dalla Serbia. Un fumettista sotto le bombe” (1999), which describes the NATO bombing of Serbia. History is, for the most part, at the heart of Zograf’s comics. Zograf bases his stories on small objects — such as books, diaries, photos, newspaper clippings that he has found in flea markets and that caught his attention — as well as on historical research. He focuses on the forgotten stories of simple people — the stories that collective memory ignores. 

We have interviewed Aleksandar Zograf for CafoscariNEWS.

The story that inspired the title of the book, “The Notebook of Radoslav”, is an example of the way you work. What is the origin of this story? 

“After the Allied bombing of Belgrade in 1944, a man named Radoslav (whose surname is unknown) decided to write the story of his life, probably only to relieve his feelings, without imagining that someone would eventually read it — let alone illustrate it as a cartoon!

During the war, the city of Belgrade was bombed first by the Nazis, then by the Allies who were trying to bomb the Nazis, but missed most of the military targets and ended up killing civilians instead. This was never fully explained, but some Americans planes (as well as some British ones) were sent from military bases in southern Italy to Romania, where they bombed Nazi-controlled oil fields. When they didn’t use all the bombs, they would throw the remaining bombs on the cities of Yugoslavia, in order to harm Nazi troops. However, these were carpet bombings, and in densely populated areas, like Belgrade, most of the people killed were civilians.

People were in a nightmarish, Kafkaesque situation: their lives were jeopardised by both the Nazis who were occupying the land, and by the Allies who were soaring the skies. Personal testimonies like Radoslav’s offer insight into how common people felt in that situation. When I found this semi-anonymous diary in a flea market, I thought it would be a perfect testimony for a comic.” This story has been included in an exhibition at the National Library of Serbia, as well as at the Library of Congress in Washington — the biggest library in the world. 

Below, a cartoon from “The Notebook of Radoslav”. The text reads: “I stayed home until I had recovered a little, then I went out to see what Belgrade had become: there were holes and destroyed buildings everywhere.” 

What made you decide to tell history and historical facts in comics?

“The world today has been shaped by what happened in the 1940s, in positive and negative ways. This is particularly evident in the Balkans, which were marked by too many dramatic events. When Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, you could see that this was a consequence of what had happened 50 years earlier. 

Some people became victims once again, or tried to take revenge for the suffering their families had endured. We haven’t fully put the past behind us: World War II was such a traumatic period, an important one for the masses, especially in Europe. 

I used storytelling to examine the past and try to understand what happened. From a personal perspective, I tried to understand what happened to my grandparents, who were members of an underground resistance movement and risked their lives to help other people.”

What are the challenges and the advantages of telling historical events with comics, compared to other means of communication? Which elements “attract” the readership?

“There is something very direct in the way comics catch our attention. In the past, comics were generally used to illustrate “spectacle” and “action”, sometimes in childish ways. In the last few decades, however, we have discovered that comics can discuss many issues, including very serious ones. Today, speaking about history, science or philosophy in comics is no longer considered a scandal. Personally, I believe that comics are generally a very good tool for storytelling, because the reader can easily return to earlier panels and understand the story in a more detailed way, by combining texts and images. For many people, comics are “friendlier” and more accessible than books or endless films — and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. 

Recently two of the stories from my WWII collection, which is now being presented to Italian readers, were purchased by the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade. I think this is really important, since in Serbia, at least, scientific or cultural institutions have rarely considered the acquisition of comics in their collections. You can use any form of expression to share your ideas with the world and to tell stories.” 

Your illustrations are not only about history or biographies, but also about dreams, or rather, about hypnagogic visions — hallucinations that you can experience just before falling asleep or waking up. What is your source of inspiration?

“I find inspiration in the most marginal things, and I like to travel, meet other people, and learn about their opinions. Moreover, I keep writing down my dreams: I believe that there is a lot of power in dreaming. Some of the most intense experiences that I remember have happened in different dream states.”

A portrait of Saša Rakezić, whose pen name is Aleksandar Zograf