Maus: Move on over Anne Frank (or, When Comics Heighten the Horror of the Holocaust)

Review of Maus by Art SpiegelmanAlcohol and the Holocaust do not make good bedfellows. I’m sure you’ve heard that one before, but I can verify from experience that it is really, really true.

My freshman year in college, my social-pariah of a roommate (we will call him Hezekiah because this post has a theme), got plastered and returned to our floor of stupid college guys who hated his guts. The last time Hezekiah got plastered, I was forced to carry him back to the dorm with my massive arms, only to watch in horror as he simultaneously shit himself, vomited, began crying, and then called his mom to tell her he was dying.

Needless to say, Hezekiah was the village joke.

Things would only get worse when Hezekiah stumbled back to our floor’s lounge and announced: “I’m a Jew, so what?”

In retrospect, it was a valid question. So what, indeed. It also now should not be surprising to me that in a room full of drunk, stupid 18 and 19 year olds, one idiot decided to egg on the village joke.

“Hey Hezekiah, how many Jews can you fit in an ash tray?”

Fueled by the power of Captain Morgan and beer bongs, Hezekiah erupted into a fit of racist slurs and shouts, denouncing Catholicism in particular as a religion of child molesters. As one of perhaps three sober individuals in the room, I was almost too astounded to act. I wanted a peaceful night and all I got was this stupid Holy War.

After some unparalleled drunken violence, popcorn mysteriously flying everywhere, and one semi-authority figure making an appearance, the night ended with Hezekiah standing in the doorway of our room, waving a copy of Schindler’s List and howling: “Six million Jews! Six million Jews!”

The next day, Hezekiah was even more of a village joke. People laughed at his insane drunken rantings, his self-parody (Schindler’s List, man?), and the fact that no one was even sure if he was really Jewish.

Completely swept under the rug was this worrisome little issue: Why on earth does an American society in the 21st century still have a catalogue of vulgar Jewish jokes at the ready? And how does “Six Million Jews!” become the rallying cry for a joke?

Over-Exposed, Numb, and Bored

Personally, I think a large part of the problem is a universal desensitization towards the events of the Holocaust. It’s not that American students don’t grow up learning enough about the Holocaust – it’s that they are so overexposed to it that it’s lost its horror. Between films like Schindler’s List and It’s a Beautiful Life, Americans today feel like they are intimately familiar with the atrocities of the Holocaust. And in a politically correct setting (and hopefully elsewhere), anybody would express legitimate sadness and disapproval over the events. But it still feels too much like a high school history lesson; a story that’s, like, forever ago.

This is part of the power of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. In tracking his father’s Holocaust story through a fantasy world of mice, cats, and pigs, Spiegelman is creating a fictionalized story of a real-life event that seems like a fictionalized story to most. Amazingly, this makes the whole of Maus more poignant. We haven’t heard this Holocaust story before, and as such it stands out in a way no live movie or historical recording ever could.

Writing Personal Tragedy

Of course, part of the beauty of Maus is Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical struggle to document his father, Vladek’s, survival through the Holocaust. On its own, Vladek’s story of struggle and success against insurmountable odds is incredible. Spiegelman doesn’t need to do a whole lot to sell Vladek as a tough-nosed, resourceful Polish Jew who managed to make it out of the single worst human catastrophe I can think of.

What Spiegelman does wonderfully is augment Vladek’s account of the Holocaust in a couple essential ways:

  • Mice vs. Men – As I mentioned, we have seen the Holocaust documented through the eyes of men. It is occasionally powerful, but ultimately we are able to numb ourselves to these forms of documentation.

In creating a fantasy world, a parallel universe of sorts, where mice are Jews and cats are Nazi’s, Spiegelman lets us look on familiar events in a new light. Amazingly, this works. Drawn images of mice hanging in the streets of Poland, or trampled underfoot in overcrowded trains, somehow resonate far more deeply than any real life image seems to. Real life pictures of suffering Jews are almost too painful to look at – nobody really wants to let that pain sink in. A carefully penciled mouse, though? You can stare in horror for quite some time.

This is another reason why the form of Maus, the graphic novel, is perfect for the source material. Much of our modern experience with the Holocaust is visual. We think of smoke, of mass graves, and of nauseatingly skinny human beings. The graphic novel lets Spiegelman explore all that while still telling the story he needs to tell.

  • Art in Real Life – Spiegelman’s most effective move is his autobiographical insertion of himself into the story. Maus isn’t just about Vladek escaping the Holocaust; it’s also about an old Vladek living in New York near his son, Art Spiegelman.

The details of their complicated relationship could form an entirely separate essay, but Spiegelman’s insensitive and at times rude attitude towards his father is the key to Maus’s success. Spiegelman paints a brutally accurate portrait of his own flaws, and in doing so let’s us see what insensitivity towards the Holocaust looks like from the outside. This is a modern man, in modern times, occasionally yelling at his elderly father for not telling him enough about the awful events that transpired during the Holocaust.

Despite that – or perhaps partially because – Spiegelman is a character most readers can relate to. He has serious issues concerning guilt, his family, and the nature of his work. He’s a human trying to document a seemingly inhuman event. The result is an honest and poignant look into the world of the Holocaust.

Six Million Starts With One

In the end, Maus adds the perfect personal touch to create a Holocaust document that can resonate deeply and genuinely affect lives. In my opinion, Maus should take the place of The Diary of Anne Frank as essential high school reading material. Nothing against Anne Frank; Maus is simply a modern classic.

I just kind of wish future generations would have Maus under their belts before they meet their own Hezekiah. It won’t necessarily solve the problems, but it sure could help.

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