NEW YORK (JTA) — In his latest adventure, Superman travels back in time to confront the horrors of the Holocaust.
But nowhere in the comic-book story is the word "Jew" mentioned.
In fact, editors at DC Comics, a division of Time Warner Entertainment Co., deleted "Jewish" from the story entirely, said Superman writer-artist Jon Bogdanove.
"They didn't want me to use the word `Jewish,'" he said. "They wanted to avoid using buzzwords."
Instead, Jewish victims are referred to obliquely throughout the three issues of "Superman: The Man of Steel" — one of the four monthly magazines published by DC Comics featuring the world's first superhero. After objections were raised, DC's editors issued a public apology.
The story was commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Superman's debut in Action Comics in June 1938.
While Superman, created by two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, has previously battled Nazi Germany in his six-decade career, he has never before personally confronted the evils of the Holocaust, or Shoah, said Bogdanove.
In the current issues, the Man of Tomorrow helps dig trenches for a mass grave to bury Nazi victims. They are indirectly referred to as the "target population of the Nazis' hate." In another case, they are called the "murdered residents" of a bombed-out shtetl.
But the victims are never named as Jews.
"It's outrageous," said Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt. "You start out with a very good idea to teach comic-book readers a little bit of history, then you turn it on its head by refusing to acknowledge who the victims are."
Kenneth Jacobson, of the Anti-Defamation League, also objected, saying that it was insulting to the victims.
"You can't ignore their identity," he said. "These people were victimized because of their identity."
Editors at DC Comics apologized late last month for not mentioning Jews, according to the Associated Press. The omission "was a lapse," Jenette Kahn, DC's president and editor-in-chief, was quoted as saying.
Kahn said she hadn't noticed the omission when reading the story because the victims were obviously Jewish and were "portrayed not only as victims but as people of courage and conviction."
It "was a mistake," she added. "I'm sorry."
Jacobson in turn accepted the apology, telling the Associated Press that "the intention was OK but the execution wasn't. One can get so locked in trying not to offend, you offend."
Bogdanove, a 40-year-old acclaimed artist and a regular Superman plotter, said that at first he resisted the editors, calling it "censorship." But Bogdanove ultimately agreed to the changes, saying that it was more important for people to see the victims as human beings.
"I wanted it to be universal," he said. "In the end, I don't think we hurt the story."
DC Comics executive vice president and publisher Paul Levitz, a Jew who lost many relatives in the Holocaust, said he did not personally approve the deletions but was not bothered by them.
"It didn't strike me as I read the material," he said of the absence of Jews. "The reality of the Holocaust was it wasn't just us [Jews]."
He said the decision lay with the book's immediate editor, Joey Cavalieri.
Cavalieri said he banned the words "Jew," "Catholic" and "German" from the story because he feared they might be used derisively by young readers.
"Since this could be the first time [a reader] encounters the Jews in print, I would be heartbroken if this [story] went badly," he said.
Kahn told the Associated Press that Cavalieri "was worried about having Nazi characters use Jewish slurs. He was concerned that young kids would repeat the slurs, and that young Jewish kids would read it and be given a negative stereotype."
Cavalieri said it was obvious by the comic characters' names and graphic devices that they were Jewish.
In truth, the current plot, which began in "Man of Steel" issue No. 80, dated June 1998, and runs through issue No. 82, dated August 1998, provides numerous clues as to the identity of the unnamed victims.
The story is strewn with Hebrew names and Yiddish words.
The comic book graphically portrays the murders committed by SS soldiers, mass graves, forced labor, starvation and disease afflicting the populace.
The story finds Superman's alter ego, newspaper reporter Clark Kent, and colleague Lois Lane sneaking into Nazi-occupied Poland to investigate the truth about German atrocities and reveal them to the world.
"We need someone on the inside to get the real scoop on the Nazi occupation of Poland," barks newspaper editor George Taylor, who in later editions becomes Perry White.
"I should have put a stop to this Nazi business when it first started," muses the Man of Steel, catching a ride on a zeppelin to Eastern Europe.
Superman, disguised as a shtetl resident in the Warsaw Ghetto, befriends two young boys, Moishe and Baruch, and Baruch's grandfather. He also meets the real-life ghetto resistance leader Mordecai Anielewicz.
The Last Son of Krypton sees a skeletal woman whose newborn is dying for lack of milk that the child's mother can no longer provide.
Lois Lane is captured and put in a cattle car headed for Treblinka.
But before Superman can finish rescuing the ghetto survivors, he is pulled through time back to 1998.
Which leaves no superhero to save the Jews — even in the comic books.