The BEST: Maus

Shay Charka Tradition Online | February 10, 2022

Summary: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. A story within a story: Spiegelman relates to his readers his conversations with his Holocaust-survivor father, Vladek, through which we hear Vladek’s memories of being a Polish Jew in the 1930s, leading up to the Nazi invasion, his enslavement in Auschwitz, and ultimate liberation at the end of the war. Spiegelman’s technique was to depict the human characters as animals: Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, etc.

First serialized throughout the 1980s, Maus pioneered its chosen medium when it appeared in its initial book form in 1986. Using comics to depict the Holocaust, the most colossally serious of topics, and to do so with literary breadth and profound depth, gave rise to “graphic novels” as a new genre. The work was also groundbreaking in its treatment of the “second generation” — children of survivors born into an unparalleled, fragile emotional reality.

Why this is The BEST: As with all pioneering art forms, Maus initially encountered resistance. Portraying Jews as animals (and rodents at that!) was not easy for many readers to absorb. The history of animal representations of human characters is as long as the history of representational art. Weavers of fables and social satirists wrote and drew a variety of anthropomorphized animals — and it was always apparent to their audiences that these symbolized people. Just as a child can more easily explain why her teddy-bear is sad, instead of speaking directly about her own feelings, so too for the adult artist. Often, speaking of difficult subjects, or even about oneself in revealing ways, it is more convenient to create an artistic distance by projecting the story onto animals.

From “Maus” [click image to enlarge]

In Spiegelman’s case he was confronted with both challenges: Particularly personal and revealing biographical and autobiographical events, and the difficulty of depicting the most unfathomable of all historical catastrophes. He further complicates the task by filtering the tales of horror through the personal prism of his father’s own experiences. Spiegelman had an excellent reason to create the narrative distance through this technique and to depict the action through his animal characters. Yet, the abstractifying distance did not seem to be enough to satisfy the Tennessee school board which recently removed Maus from its curriculum. The decision was made pointing to the presence of some profanity, nude imagery (albeit in no way prurient: it’s a depiction of the author’s mother’s bathtub suicide), and the presence of violence and murder. Apparently, the communal leaders in McMinn County think the Holocaust should have a far more pastoral portrayal than those presented in Maus.

The subsequent commotion, in the wake of the book banning, surrounding a talk-show host’s suggestion that the Holocaust wasn’t racially motivated only sharpens Spiegelman’s use of animal imagery. Have none of the talking-heads actually opened the book? On the very first page the epigraph makes it clear what the Nazi motivation was: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” – Adolph Hitler. Presumably, we should take der Führer at his word on how he viewed his victims.

To my mind, Spiegelman’s most significant contribution to the rehabilitation of the Jewish spirit after millennia of persecution culminating in the Holocaust is specifically through Maus’ depictions of Jews as mice. To be clear, however, we are speaking of mice that are more reminiscent of the “Jewish mice” portrayed in Nazi propaganda—not Mickey Mouse.

On June 14, 1895, Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary: “The Promised Land, where it is all right for us to have hooked noses, black or red beards, and bandy legs without being despised for these things alone.” With these words Herzl locates the initial flourishing of liberty in an inner movement through which we free ourselves of standards superimposed by our Diaspora host nations and societies, in which we lived as outsiders. Rather, we will develop our own new yardstick by which to measure ourselves, judging ourselves against a more authentic expression of our own national spirit. To reach this liberation we must first appropriate and subvert the very stereotypes which were used to disparage us: hooked noses* and mice.

Smashing this barrier, this taboo, presents a blank canvas, one on which we can sketch afresh a liberated Jewish culture and identity.

© 2012 Shay Charka, Letzeit meha-Kavim: MeEver laKav (Outside the Lines, vol. 2) [click to enlarge]

Shay Charka is one of Israel’s best-known caricaturists, illustrators, and authors of comics. Among his most popular books is his Talmudic comics series, Baba. His political cartoons are featured weekly in the Israeli press. *Full disclosure: Many of Charka’s comic caricatures are the bearers of unusually large, hooked noses! 

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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