It’s almost impossible to close the gap between our cosy, comfortable existence and the nightmare of the holocaust. Just as we struggle to comprehend the senseless violence and hate, so too did many of the victims and their children who grew up with this dark shadow from the past hanging over their family.
Writer and artist Art Spiegelman grappled with this hydra by writing the seminal graphic novel Maus. Telling the story of the holocaust from the perspective of his father Vladek Spiegelman, the story jumps back and forth between the present and the past. Vladek narrates his ordeal in the camps one minute whilst getting stressed about wasting a pack of Special K the next. We are never allowed to forget that he is a difficult, curmudgeonly man.
However, Vladek was a survivor through and through. He was wily and cunning, determined and driven to surmount the terrible experiences of the 1940s. As the story begins, he is running a factory in Poland, financed by his wealthy father-in-law. Slowly, his life is ripped to pieces as he is called up, becomes a POW, is freed, lives in hiding and finally ends up as a prisoner at both Auschwitz and Dachau.
It is a harrowing story but Art Spielgelman’s genius is to tell it using animal characters. This has a further distancing effect. It allows you to read the action in such a way that the repulsive nature of what has happened only really hits you after you close the cover.
Simple though the artwork is, using only black and white outline drawings, it still has a narrative power that communicates the slow series of shocks that bedevil his father through these years:
As you can see in the panel above, Art also captures his father’s unusual English grammar in the narrative. This gives the story an individual character that a more general overview of this nightmare could not possibly hope to do. Indeed, Vladek’s memories of this time are constantly astonishing. In one case, he recalls that there were some Jews who worked with the Nazis against their own people, despite the growing knowledge of the massacre that was taking place in the occupied zones.
As with these traitors, the message of Maus is that it is the actions of individuals that created the holocaust. Hitler appears on the cover, but is barely mentioned elsewhere in the book. Elsewhere, it is German soldiers or even Vladek’s fellow prisoners who deal out beatings, torture and humiliation to their innocent victims.
This examination of the role of individuals extends to the survivors. Vladek’s wife Anja also survived Auschwitz and kept a diary of her experiences. After her suicide in 1968, Vladek burned these books, which means that he was the only source of family record of this terrible time in their lives. Art is furious when he discovers that he cannot record his mother’s memories too, and even brands his father “a murderer” for this act.
Vladek died before the second volume of Maus could be published (this edition includes both volumes), which then gives Art a case of survivor guilt of his own. It is an issue that is expressed touchingly in conversations with his shrink (also a survivor of the camps):
One of the problems which Art faces is how to depict the different peoples in his story. The Jews are mice and the Germans cats, which seems logical, but in my opinion, he is unnecessarily cruel in drawing the Poles as pigs. Some people in occupied Poland clearly were enthusiastic collaborators of the Nazis. However, Vladek could never have survived so long without the bravery of his fellow Poles who were prepared to hide him and bring him food at enormous risk to themselves.
When the first part of Maus came out in 1986, there wasn’t even a section dedicated to graphic novels in English language bookshops (although comics have always had far greater status in other countries like France and Japan). In its unflinching depiction of evil told in simple lines and devoid of colour, Maus broke the mold of comics publishing in the English-speaking world then, and remains an incredibly original work of art today.