The Jewish Holocaust, as is the case with events in which the human spirit has been engaged in a fight for survival, produced great works of literature. Elie Wiesel's Night and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are perhaps the best known examples of this literary tradition. Art Spiegelman's MAUS, published in the 1980s, represents a new kind of literary oeuvre inspired and/or based on the Holocaust. Written by a second generation Holocaust survivor, MAUS fuses the story of the terrible historical occurrence with a Jewish American's struggle to forge his own understanding of the brutal extermination of his people by the Nazi regime in the Second World War.
This electronic essay will cover three topics found in the novel: the methods in which second (and third) generations of Holocaust survivors struggle to come to terms with the events of the Holocaust, the unusual form of the book, and the brutal nature of humanity, ever-threatening to obliterate the human race. Links to the different sections can be accessed below.
As a result of not having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust like their ancestors did, second generation Jews often sense they must demonstrate their respect and appreciation towards their elders. Indebted to the previous generation, these Jews search for ways in which to honor those martyrs who lost their lives half a century ago. The ways in which this generation pays homage are quite diverse. Many sites on the web, like Aragorn's, are virtual shrines to the memories of their ancestors. Others are fully dedicated to the organization of campaigns in order to procure justice in the name of Jewish families whose possessions were seized by the Nazis during WWII and stored in Swiss banks. Click here for an example.
Yet another way, non-electronic, is writing a narrative like Art Spiegelman does. MAUS is a splendid graphic novel, drawn and written by Spiegelman himself, that narrates his father's life during the Holocaust. His memories come to life in the pages of the book, although they are intertwined with another account. This second narrative, Art's, complements his father's by presenting a portrayal of the life and struggles of a second generation of Jewish people whose existences are extremely influenced by the Holocaust despite not being born during its occurrence. This trait separates MAUS from other Holocaust narratives whose limits can only offer one side of the story, one view of the event, one version of the pain.
Art's obsession with saving Vladek's story for posterity is met with some opposition by his father, especially in the opening sequence. Neither Vladek nor Art are able to understand what the other is feeling due to their inability to relate. Art wonders why his father is so hesitant to allow his life to be the subject of a novel; he is unable to put himself in Vladek's position. He is often frustrated due to this limitation, and often presses his father for answers he is unable to provide. At times he shares this frustration, which is sometimes met by sympathy from his father. This situation is portrayed splendidly by Spiegelman in the panel below:
Art is dumbfounded by this particular morsel of his father's narratives. He attempts to use logic to understand it, but finally gives up when he realizes he just does not understand. His father's final commentary on the strip, "nobody can understand" shows how difficult it is not only for the second generation, but also for the survivors themselves, to understand the events that transpired in the Holocaust.
The evil of the Holocaust is unspeakable, unexplainable, but above all, unforgettable. Art realizes that no matter how hard he wishes he had been at Auschwitz to experience the horrors first-hand, he is unable to do so. Committing his thoughts and emotions to a written narrative, the graphic novel MAUS, is the best course of action for him, especially since it allows him to combine his story with his father's.
The graphic novel genre is one of the most fascinating in literature. While some critics censure the form citing a lack of printed text and the presence of comic-book style drawings, its positive qualities are impressive, especially when the topic is as difficult as the Holocaust. MAUS shines due to its impressive ability to "speak the unspeakable" by using the popular maxim, "a picture is worth a thousand words," to perfection.
The most important distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom is man's ability to understand, reason, and think. Conscience and intelligence are perhaps the human race's greatest gifts. Since humans possess such qualities, it is often hard to try to understand the Holocaust without having been there. (This point as illustrated in the previous section, which you may access by clicking here.)
Quite possibly as a method to deal with his own inability to comprehend the events of the Holocaust, Spiegelman uses animal characters instead of humans. The most important two, Germans and Jews, are represented by cats and mice, respectively. Natural sworn enemies, both cat and mice lack reason and conscience. As a result, the Nazi cats find no fault in the systematic killing of Jewish mice. The image is also based on historical quotes, since Jews were called the "vermin of society" by the Nazis. Other pre-Holocaust Nazi-propraganda can be found at the Calvin University archive, including a short account of Julius Streitcher's actions.
The graphical novel format, in conjunction with the depiction of Nazis as cat and Jews as mice, permits Spiegelman to force the reader to abandon any preconceived notions of human nature. Such an effect would have been quite hard to create if he had written a standard text, attesting to the incredible value of the novel's format.
The Holocaust as a Demonstration of Man's Brutal Nature
The history of mankind is replete with episodes of mass destruction and killing. This century produced perhaps the greatest example of such atrocities, the Second World War. It was during this period of unexplainable brutality that both the Jewish Holocaust and the Nagasaki Bombing occurred. These awful events, discussed and regarded in a much different light half a century ago, are analyzed quite divergently now that mankind has had fifty years to ponder on its errors.
The Nagasaki Bombing was one of the United States' last actions during the Second World War. Although enacted on Japan instead of Germany, it symbolized much of the anger and desire to finish a long, bloody war. The initial joy that followed the devastating detonation of the bomb disappeared in time with the public's realization of the grave mistake that had been committed.
Not only did millions of people perish during the Holocaust and immediately after the Nagasaki episode, but many more lost their lives some time afterwards, victims of physical deterioration, mental illness created by the tragic events, and depression brought upon by memories of the horrors. Anja Spiegelman is one such case. She found her demise twenty years after surviving the death camps, a victim of their memories. In a sense, she did not survive. The estimate of six million Jews is ever-increasing, so the memories continue.
Ironically, these two events, executed by opposite sides of the war, are linked by more than an inmeasurable amount of deaths. Many of the people alive during this time period are in possession of vivid recollections fo the historical occurrences, reflecting a near-unanimous disgust towards the brutalities occurred. Some of the Nagasaki accounts can be accessed at the Remembering Nagasaki web site, while the Jewish ones can be read in reviews of Holocaust literature.
While the Holocaust is one of the most horrible episodes of history, it is not one that could or should be forgotten. Its literary offspring is widely acclaimed, especially the subject of this essay, Art Spiegelman's MAUS. Not only does the book narrate the horrors of the concentration camps located in Poland, it also displays the enormous difficulties of second generation Holocaust survivors to find a way to come to terms with the horrendous plight of their ancestors. Its graphical novel format plays an essential role in making the story come alive, as does the troubled relationship between Vladek and Art. In closing, it must be reiterated that MAUS is not merely a narrative of the Holocaust, but also a story of human suffering and struggle, not just after a devastating experience like the concentration camps, but also afterwards; not just of one generation, but also of succeeding ones.
"Lest we forget" is a phrase usually mentioned by Jews when referring to the Holocaust. Today's technology and the wonders of the Internet make it easier to maintain a vivid recollection of the Holocaust thanks to its many sites. Some can be accessed through the above documents, while others can be reached here:
This essay/web page project has been written and built by Antonio S. Oliver for Prof. Randy Bass' American Literary Traditions class.
To contact the author, click here.
This site is currently under construction. My other classes and internship are keeping me extremely occupied, but please check back periodically for updates to this document.
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