The man known as Eric Lensherr was born as Max Eisenhardt, a young German Jew living in Berlin just before the 1936 Summer Olympics. His family are jewelers and watchmakers, but they are Jewish and still subject to persecution. Indeed, it isn't long before a German soldier takes exception to Max's uncle and beats him savagely. But Max's father won't hear of leaving. He fought for Germany in the first world war and thinks that his heroism on behalf of his country will keep him safe.
Max also has a hard time at school. His dark eyes and hair, as well as the fact that he is a Jew, mark him out as apart from all the others in school. The students who look like the Aryan ideal mistreat him and push his face in the dirt. But when it comes down to a school athletic competition, Max wins the Javelin throwing event. One of the teachers warns Max that he shouldn't brag about winning the gold too much- because they have shown those in power that they are wrong and that Jews are *not* inferior, which will make them hate him. But Max is happy at winning the gold, and doesn't listen to teacher, and runs off to show his family the medal he won.
He also shows it to a girl he likes, Magda, a Gypsy. Gypsies are even more hated than the Jews, but Max likes her, and she likes him. He makes a necklace and gives it to her, but soon everything goes to pot. The headmaster of his school tries to strip Max of his medal, but even when he must throw a heavier javelin, he still wins, which makes the headmaster even angrier, and he expels Max from his school for cheating, and his fellow students throw in one last beating as well. But the teacher which tried to warn him is also expelled for being Jewish.
Shortly thereafter, the family travels to Nuremburg, then must flee their home when the soldiers come at night. They go to live in Poland, but after the Polish army falls to the Germans, the family flees to Warsaw, where they are put into the Ghetto. And all too soon, the rations are reduced, and Max turns to becoming a food smuggler. But even so, he can barely keep his famly fed. By the time he is sent to Auschwitz, Max is the only one of his family still alive. And then he must still struggle to survive and keep not only himself but the woman he loves, Magda, alive. But with the Germans heading towards "the final solution", can Max, tapped as a Sonderkommando, live through the coming devastation? And what will living do to his soul?
I can't say that this was an easy graphic novel to read. Seeing what happened to the German, Polish and Austrian Jews was very difficult to read. There is never one single "Bad guy" who appears more than once or twice, leading to a real feeling of "faceless evil". Even Adolf Hitler is almost never shown. He appears in a single discussion about the Olympics, and is never seen or mentioned again. The story really highlights man's inhumanity to their fellow humans. It's like all humans needed was an excuse.
And despite the fact that we know Max grows up to be Magneto, Erik Lensherr, we don't get to see very much of Magneto's powers of magnetism. It's rather implied in the Javelin-throwing scene, and it's not until Max is lined up to be shot that we see his powers save his life. But overall, the story isn't all about fighting- it's all about the forces that shaped the young Max's life, and why his past affects how he deals with threats to another set of his people- Mutants. He lost his family, and he doesn't want to lose mutants to the same sort of Genocide as that which consumed the European Jews.
The art, I felt, was good, although Max and Magda look like twin brother and twin sister rather than unrelated through most of the story. But what really struck me was the removal of colors, until the section of the graphic novel that occurs in Auschwitz is shown in black, white, gray and blood-red, as if all of the characters hope was gone, and only flashes of blood and fire lit their world.
It was hard to read this story. a definite sadness pervades the tale, and knowing that the circumstances are true makes it all the more sad. The true story at the end of the tale, of an artist imprisoned in the camp who was used to document many of the people who passed through it and were used in the experiments of Mengele is chilling in how the Museum that now houses her works refuses to return them to her or her family- even when they could be using reproductions. This is one graphic novel you really have to read. It's not like anything else in Graphic novels about made-up characters. Not even Maus comes close. Highly recommended.