Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
History bleeds us, too
Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 1st, 2022
There was a huge uproar over the past week over the removal of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale from the shelves of the McMinn County Schools in Tennessee. I doubt the action of the board, which voted 10-0 to ban the graphic novel, was antisemitic, let alone pro-Nazi, but rather reflected the urge toward authoritarian control disguised as concern for the children that is currently sweeping the right. But, coming as it did the day before Holocaust Memorial Day, it was incredibly tone-deaf and showed the basic moral and intellectual cowardice of so called “critical race theory,” or the Bowdlerizing of history to suit a narrative that erases the errors and crimes of authoritarian regimes.
It prompted me to pull out my own copy of Maus and reread it. I first read it about 15 years ago, and thought that the first reading might diminish the impact of a second reading years later. It didn’t. It’s still magnificent, angry, grim, human and utterly brilliant. Using cartoon animals, it humanizes the Holocaust experience in a way that none of the thousands of works about the Holocaust can quite manage.
As a child in London, I heard of the Holocaust, but it was in general terms. “Hitler murdered Jews, Hitler was evil, they used gas.” I don’t think I grasped how uniquely awful it was, but equated it to the other horrible things Hitler did, such as the Blitz, or Dunkirk.
It wasn’t until I was 12 when I learned, in Social Studies in Ottawa, about Auschwitz and Treblinka and what happened there. I remember those particular classes because of the images and the graphic descriptions of victims trying to claw their way out of the gas showers and the hopeless hunch in the shoulders of the inmates in the camps as the Germans raused them hither and yon. We learned about propaganda, and the ability of a society to make an entire segment non-human and remove from them all the protections and benefits of society. (In the same class we learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and read horrific tales of children staggering around with half their skin hanging off their bodies. The kids didn’t die of guilt.)
This was in peaceful, sedate Ottawa, where the worst torment we could imagine was having our books knocked out of our arms by a school bully. Should we have had to imagine the hiss of the gas, the screams of the dying, the despair of the not-yet-dead? Did it make me ashamed?
Well, yes. It made me ashamed to be human. But it also made me aware that I didn’t have to be that way, and should strive never to be that way.
Was it a lesson I needed to learn when I was twelve?
In subsequent years I learned that what Nazi Germany did, while horrifying in its deliberate approach, wasn’t unique or even special. England has had dozens of Holocausts in the past, including a 13th century attempt to flat-out exterminate the Jews. Canada is only now coming to grips with 300 years of genocide against the First Nations, and lurking in the shadows are the “reform schools” and orphanages that systematically turned children into hamburger. Japan had monstrous war crimes prior to the atomic bombings, and Germany suffered destruction of many cities, including Dresden and Berlin. Even Israel rising from the ashes of the camps, has amassed its own catalogue of war crimes. Nobody is pure, nobody was only a victim. We are all human, and a mixture of these things. That’s why its so important to fight against the warmongers and propagandists and bigots. We may not attain purity, but we should at least try.
Spiegelman’s characters reflect this. His father Vladek (the survivor of the camps) proves to be as bigoted and dismissive of the humanity of African-Americans (Schvartzes) as the Germans and Poles were of his humanity 40 years earlier. Art Spiegelman himself is mildly contemptuous of the history of the Holocaust, equating it to his own feelings of inadequacy and guilt. If it weren’t for those pesky Germans, his older brother, who died at age 6 in the camps some 10 years before his was born, wouldn’t be the unattainable ideal with which he had to compete.
I remember when I first read this, I felt a certain amount of depression. After all he had been through, and Vladek learned nothing of what becomes of dehumanizing others? And Art trivializes the Holocaust over a petty and actually non-existent sibling rivalry?
Well, perhaps I’ve grown since that first read. I understand now that Vladek was heavily damaged by what he went through, and not all of his humanity returned. Further, he was sick and clearly suffering from early-onset dementia. And Art wanted us to see the facile and trivial approach he initially had to his father over the Holocaust as part of showing how he slowly came to grips with it. It’s not exactly something you can process in one sitting like a homily from a calendar page.
In short, the reread helped me to humanize the Spiegelmans. Failing to humanize is, after all, a first step toward dehumanization.
One side note (sort of): A common refrain among right wingers is that the gay pride flag is just like the swastica flag. It’s about like saying having the Star of David on the front of a synagogue is exactly the same as having a swastica on the front of a building. Hitler murdered six million Jews, but that was only half the people he targeted, and homosexuals were probably the second largest group to get shot, gassed, and starved. To equate gays to Hitler is every bit a big a disgrace as equating Jews to Hitler. In their ignorance, the right skip along in the footsteps of Hitler, unaware of where their ideology will lead them. If you feel that way, read Maus and ask yourself where the similarities lie.
Maus, along with about 250 other books targeted by the authoritarian right should be on the shelves of all school libraries. They teach the kids in GERMANY about the Holocaust and it doesn’t destroy them. American kids should be able to handle it. Stephen King has the right idea: kids should flock to read any book the authoritarians want to hide “to protect the kids.”
And let’s get rid of the notion kids need to be protected from the horrors and errors of the past because they might somehow take it personally. Instead, that just leaves them ignorant, and fertile ground to repeat those horrors and errors. And that’s what the authoritarians actually want.
Creator Art Spiegelman
Page count 296 pages
Publisher Pantheon Books
Published in Raw
Issues Vol. 1 No. 2 – Vol. 2 No. 3
Date of publication 1980–1991