Writers & Company

Comic book artist Reinhard Kleist on Germany's refugees, then and now

Eleanor Wachtel speaks to comic book artist Reinhard Kleist in the second part of our series "At the Centre of Europe: A Changing Germany."
Reinhard Kleist draws parallels between his own parents' experience as refugees after the Second World War and the current refugee crisis in Germany.
Listen to the full episode50:47

What does it mean to be German? Who belongs? How are these questions addressed by Germans of foreign background — both immigrants and those born within the country? This episode with comic book artist Reinhard Kleist originally aired on April 17, 2016 and was the second of a four-part series: "At the Centre of Europe: A Changing Germany." Other episodes in the series include interviews with Margarethe von Trotta, Navid Kermani and Zafer Şenocak and Alina Bronsky.

Award-winning comic book artist Reinhard Kleist creates powerful, elegant work that is engaged with his city, Berlin, and with the world. Kleist's parents were part of a wave of "ethnic German" refugees from Poland after the Second World War. That background shaped his outlook as an artist and storyteller, which has seen him create work as varied as a Berlin-set vampire series, graphic biographies of Johnny Cash and Fidel Castro, and the true story of a man who escaped death in Auschwitz by boxing. His latest book, available in English as An Olympic Dream, is the story of the young Somali runner Samia Yusaf Omar, who drowned while trying to reach Europe on a migrant boat.

Kleist grew up in a quiet village near Cologne, but has lived for the past 20 years in Berlin, which is where he spoke with Eleanor Wachtel.

On the winding road to finding his medium

I had a friend when I was around eight years old who had a lot of comic books and also a lot of superhero stuff, which was completely forbidden in my family. He also had a projector for Super 8 movies, and he had some copies of movies, and the one that we watched over and over again was a 20-minute Super 8 version of Alien. And then we'd make comic books about it. After we did that for a while, I got bored and I wanted to make something more serious, so I was making horribly depressing oil paintings about social things. The paintings are still up in my parents' house, and I hate to see them.

My father always encouraged me and supported me, but I wanted to go to Dusseldorf and study fine art, and he said, let's make a compromise — I support your art, but please don't study fine art, study something that you can make money at, and so in the end I went into graphic design. And while I was there I discovered the work of some American and British artists who were making art with stories, and I came back to comics. It certainly wasn't what my father had in mind when he sent me to study graphic design!

Reinhard Kleist drawing.

On his refugee parents

My parents were from Germany but they came from an area very close to the border, which is now Poland. They were war refugees… coming to Cologne was not very easy for them, because they were in shelters and camps, and they had problems with the population of Cologne. They told me there was some hostility. But they made their way. My parents actually met in a refugee camp. And then they fell in love and married.

My mother told me about people in Cologne who lived in the bombed houses, in the ruins. And they were jealous of the refugees who had newly built homes in the refugee camp. There is a connection to what is happening in Germany right now — my parents told me they were shocked when they came to Cologne and saw all these ruins and wondered why they didn't build anything or clean anything up. They thought that people from Cologne were lazy, and then after a while they realized how destroyed Cologne was.

An excerpt from The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft (SelfMadeHero)

On the current refugee crisis

When I started working on [An Olympic Dream], these stories were sometimes on the news but not very much. A lot of people were tired of hearing about it, another ship of refugees drowning, yeah, we couldn't do anything anyway. I talked about the idea of the book with people and they said it was good that I wanted to make the story, but that it wouldn't sell because people are not interested, they don't want to hear it. When the book came out though, it was very well received. It was after that that the refugee crisis started in Europe, although everybody already knew that the refugees from Syria would come to Europe. When they came the politicians acted surprised, but they weren't, we were warned. That chaos could have been avoided.

I'm really worried that so many people are voting for a party, the Alternative for Germany party, that is completely right-wing, which is saying horrible things, talking about killing refugees at the border, and I'm really worried about what this means. I think they will disappear after a while, I don't think they have any big political future, but I'm really worried that so many people are voting for such a party. I mean, there are homes of refugees that are burning down, and it's not just a few, I don't know how many houses burned this year, but it's a lot, and that makes me really worried. It's connected to what happened with the synagogues in the Nazi times. I cannot understand how people in Germany can do such a thing. 

Reinhard Kleist's comments have been edited and condensed.

An excerpt from An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar (SelfMadeHero)

Music to close the show: "I See a Darkness," composed by Bonnie "Prince" Billy, performed by Johnny Cash.