Tomi Ungerer, A Childhood Under the Nazis

Reviews by Steven Heller
1 205 words7 min read

The images from one’s childhood that endure are the ones that have the greatest influence on lifelong perceptions. Dating back to the mid-1960s, when I was in my early teens, I have remember a slew of drawings created by Tomi Ungerer for advertisements, children’s books, and most important, political posters. Whenever I think of the civil rights era I conjure “Black Power/White Power,” a poster which cleverly attacked both white racism and reverse black racism in a topsy-turvy image that shows a white man and a black man eating each other’s legs. For me the Vietnam era is also punctuated by Ungerer’s anti-war posters, including “Kiss for Peace,” depicting an American soldier forcing a Vietnamese to lick Lady Liberty’s ass. This turbulent period, which helped defined me as a person, is forever underscored by Ungerer’s critical vision.

Occasionally, I still look through my dog-eared copy of The Poster Art of Tomi Ungerer (Darien House, 1971), not out of nostalgia, but because the work is incredibly powerful and better than the vast majority of what passes for conceptual art today. Ungerer had a real gift for capturing his times, with a timeless style and lasting concepts. When I attempt to analyze what makes his work continue to resonate, I wonder what made Ungerer tick. What were the images from his past that inspired him to create with such a savage and merciless wit?


Over the past two decades Ungerer has had major retrospectives of his work; has been the subject of a television documentary in Europe; and has authored a compelling memoir of his other life, as a farmer in Nova Scotia. But despite his prolific output (including scores of children’s books and drawing anthologies) it has taken years for the 67 year old artist to write an autobiography that examines his early roots. Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis is a remarkable glimpse at a decisive fragment of personal and world history, not only because Ungerer recalls as an eight-year-old how his family and his native Alsace (a province claimed and fought over by both Germany and France) were transfigured by Nazi occupation, but because he and his mother saved scores of his own drawings and the ephemera that he collected at the time. To read the words, which are cautiously matter-of-fact about the intervention of the Third Reich into his childhood, and to see the detailed, often dangerously satiric sketches and cartoons created during this period, offers the most compelling explanation of how Ungerer emerged as one of the most acerbic, rebellious, and iconoclastic visual commentators of his generation.

The book was originally published in 1991 in France and titled A la Guerre Comme à la Guerre and later in Germany as Die Gedanken Sind Frei in a very different format. In its current iteration Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis is both an autobiography and a handsomely designed (by Ann W. Douden) pictorial record of how Alsace was bombarded with Naziania. Interspersed throughout are bitter and bittersweet momentos: Ungerer’s own colored pencil drawings of German soldiers and officers amidst the spoils of occupation (gallows, corpses, and Swastika flags), a generous amount of family photographs, and reproductions of the leaflets, schoolbooks, song sheets, lead military figurines, postage stamps, posters, official identity documents, a copy of the anti-semitic Der Sturmer newspaper, and scores of portraits of Adolf Hitler, that were ubiquitous at the time.

Ungerer recalls a wide range of emotions in anecdotes that ran the gamut from fascinating, to humorous, to heart-wrenching: “My first assignment in school under the Nazis was to draw a Jew,” he writes under that very picture of a large lipped, swarthy fellow. “At school the depiction of Jews was so exaggerated that for us they seemed like fairy tale figures dragging huge sacks of gold... Many years later, in 1956 I landed in New York with sixty dollars in my pocket and two trunks of drawings and manuscripts. In this huge mecca of magazines, publishers, and advertising agencies, I was welcomed warmheartedly by the Jewish Americans that I met.” He further relates how when the Germans expelled the French government in Alsace it also totally erased everything French. Ungerer’s Christian name was changed to Hans, berets were forbidden (although in Germany they were permitted), and the French language was outlawed. Under the new regime, “We were promised a reward of money if we denounced our parents or our neighbors...,” writes Ungerer. “We were told: Even if you denounce your parents, and if you should love them, your real father is the Fuhrer, and being his children you will be the chosen ones, the heroes of the future.”


The occupation lasted four long and impressionable years. But Ungerer miraculously did not fall prey to the relentless propaganda, the Nazified rituals, or the forced inductions into Hitler Youth. As he relates with great pride, his mother (his father died immediately before the war) was a ravishing beauty and knew how to use her looks and stature to get concessions from the Germans which kept young Tomi comparatively safe. Ironically she also encouraged small acts of sabotage, such as spreading broken glass on the streets to hinder traffic, which she and Tomi carried out together late at night. By the fall of 1944 Ungerer drew pictures of the once spic and span units of the German army now in disarray, and expectantly awaited the liberation by the allies (he was particularly afraid that his brother, conscripted in the German army, would be sent to the front).

Ironically, the Allies arrival was also bittersweet. “We were disenchanted with the Americans,” he writes. “They seemed to behave like well-fed babies, chewing gum, and didn’t seem to care whether they were in France or Germany... In my eyes they didn’t act like soldiers... They would throw chewing gum and chocolates on the ground and watch us scramble to get a morsel.” When the French reoccupied Alsace everything German was removed and the Alsatians were considered suspicious. To Ungerer the French teachers were as sadistic as the Germans. And recalls that his was “a big fat pink toad who wore dark glasses. A necrophiliac, in a trancelike state he would rant on about the beauty of cadavers. When Alsatian students were called up to recite he would grab one of their ears... The French boys were automatically good students and were not subject to this treatment.”

The book ends in 1945, but Ungerer remained in Alsace until the early 1950s. In 1956 he emigrated to New York and within a few short years became one of the most sought after editorial and advertising artists — as a children’s book illustrator he broke at least one taboo by making a snake (snakes were verbotten in American children’s books) the protagonist of his book Criktor. He earned a reputation for being mercurial yet uncompromising. And what he could not publish in the mainstream, he did on his own (Tomi Ungerer’s Underground Sketchbook (DATE) was groundbreaking in its satiric bawdiness) The dark humor for which he is celebrated today was obviously underscored by the memories of his Alsatian childhood and images of war that will never be erased.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.