Interview: Maus and the Jewish Experience

There are stories that make history for different reasons, though countless bestsellers and prize-winners often share one theme: World War II. The sheer breadth of such a tragic collection of years is not so simply put into words or pictures. It’s not an easy topic to create fictional narratives around, specifically because of the respect and reverence held in memory of the millions of lives so needlessly lost due to the cruelty, hatred, and fear of mankind during the Holocaust. But once in a while, there are fictional recreations of survivor’s experiences living both before the time of the war, during the process of integration and subjugation, and ultimately, the life of wrongful imprisonment and torture, and the effects thereafter. We might think of ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry, ‘The Painted Bird’ by Jerzy Kosinski, and on and on and on.

Among these works of course, must exist comics. In fact, if you were to look at most Japanese manga just after the era, and even stories still published today, these works are highly influenced by the events of World War II, namely the bombing of Hiroshima and the lasting results on Japanese society in relation to it. Naturally, there are many European comics influenced by these events as well, and many of those stories came to America with the survivors, including one of the most prevalent and influential tales of life during and after the Holocaust, ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman.

Never before has any work of graphic storytelling come under such scrutiny, criticism and thorough observation as the postmodernist tale of Vladek, an anthropomorphized caricature of Art Spiegelman’s own father, survivor of the Holocaust, as well as his relationships with his family, friends, and even strangers who come to interact with him. It’s been challenged countless times by school boards, libraries, and major Russian book shops, banned for its ‘anti-ethnic and unsuitable content’. Yet in the very act of trying to stifle its expression, these challenges have only served to contribute to the legacy of the story.

You might recall the name Jake DelMauro from my essay ‘Why Comics?‘, as he was a direct contributor to it, citing how effective graphic novels and comics can be when applied to educational purposes. As a good friend, both to me and to the comic shop I manage, his input on the material was fascinating and eye-opening, and our discussion outside the context of that essay branched even further to the example that a book like ‘Maus’ can present to readers. Being a young Jewish man of many talents and enthusiastic imagination, the outcome of experiencing a comic such as Spiegelman’s creation is considerably more personal, more life-changing, comparable perhaps to the experience of young Black readers reading books like Congressman John Lewis’ ‘March’. There is something inherent, if perhaps unspoken, about the lives lived by those whose ancestry is marked by oppression, systematic termination, subjugation or blatant racism, and so I felt a strong desire to not only hear of Jake’s experiences with a book so influential and controversial as ‘Maus’, but also how it effected him as a person, as my friend. What follows is an interview conducted across several days in November, as well as my inlaid references to the relevant materials discussed.

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(Bolded to indicate myself as questionnaire) Following up on our previous discussion concerning the needs for comics, let’s talk about a specific point of interest, for me at least: graphic novels that are specifically trying to recount historical events. Maus goes about this in both familiar and unconventional ways. Familiar in the generations-passing-down-stories sort of way, but unconventional in execution. Using animals as representatives of races, the visual presentation of the book’s emotional and sociological themes, language, and so on. As a reader, what about the story of this family feels familiar to you, and could you offer some commentary on the story of Maus being told in the strange ways that it is?

(Un-bolded text indicate the answers as given by Jake) Having previously read ‘Maus’ in high school, there were themes that I did not necessarily pick up. As I am able to now reflect on the larger emotions at play, I noticed that the desperation was that much more apparent. When looking at the overall theme of the book, it is easily noted as the need for survival. However, this does not always sum up the entire emotion, a word like ‘survival’ is perhaps too over-arching. Love, hunger, and other feelings are immediately apparent.

A big issue, addressed in the book via Art’s therapy session, is the lack of understanding that we have as people who have not lived through tragedy. People are not able to connect to these survivors and we will never be able to truly understand the scale of what happened within the concentration camps during the Holocaust. The struggle to even grasp at the concept of someone wanting to erase the existence of a group of people is tough as it is. However, this person existed. All of what ‘Maus’ presents is a reality that many people went through and even fewer survived. So this feeling of helplessness exists for me when thinking about the story and attempting to make sense of it. Having visual reference through the graphic novel is one small way of empathizing more effectively, despite the obvious quality and horror of a work like Wiesel’s ‘Night’. I found a more immediate connection through the images of the gas chambers, that first panel presenting the Nazi flag, the looming smoke towers… In all of the other books I’ve read, they are given written detail, but sometimes that can’t convey the same impact as a visual reference.

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In relation to that ‘helplessness’ that you described, do you think people have any means, perhaps even through works like ‘Maus’, to not only ease that sense of inability, but to create positive, helpful change in their environment when facing any force of bigotry or suppression? 

I think it should be mentioned that helplessness is not always a bad thing, though the reasoning behind it might not always be good. Censoring a feeling should never be done; reference works like ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry, or the film ‘Equilibrium’. Censoring human nature and human emotion is a dangerous thing because to do so forms us into simple animals, acting only on instinct, without a moment for depth of thought. So how do we interact now, because I don’t think that we can simply ease that feeling away. Helplessness occurs when we don’t know how to proceed, but consider this: the victims of the Holocaust and the survivors were helpless, but that did not stop them from trying to live. They fought to survive, and those that did, took that helpless feeling and brought it forward another step. They took what they had and made a new life out of it. I think that what must be furthest conveyed is that very sentiment: they did not stop.

It sounds so very reminiscent to our modern day ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’. It seems that lesson resonated with at least a few of us!

I think that sentiment was very much accomplished, and should be repeated. Understanding that life does not just stop, that has to be understood, that we should learn from our errors, and that is something that should be taken away from ‘Maus’, not just the overwhelming death and destruction.

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Maus being used in classroom settings may be one of many modern methods to share that idea, plus the information it carries, if not limiting it to a specific audience if schools decide to ban the material; do you think there’s ways to broaden the reach of this book for the same purpose of improving people’s continued knowledge of the events of the Holocaust?

Well, I think that’s a larger conversation that branches directly from the core topic of this book. It deals with the fact that protective parents want to bubble-wrap their kids, so to speak, and it’s just not necessary. We can and should experience emotions in the classroom. In fact, those instances offer that which I remember in the most detail. When the tone of the book is deeply somber, creating a similar effect within the classroom itself is what creates the experience of empathy. ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘Animal Farm’, and ‘1984’ are all further examples of books that have earned a place in my heart for that very reason. Taking away these works from students is so harmful, as the desensitized, watered-down versions of the same stories could not convey that these were human experiences, if not represented through fictional means. These are the books the pave the way for the future of education. The Holocaust is not the only thing that needs to be recounted through history; there are many topics that need such observation and empathy, and graphic novels like ‘Maus’ help to offer that.

So I guess the remaining culprit is education structuring itself too rigorously to essentially discourage creative thinking. We should be stepping gradually away from standardization of the system so that students are not just studying to make it into college for the chance at a better paying job, but for that added, differing perspective, for the chance to excel in other areas as well. That student’s point of view is not the only one that exists. In any case, I could go on and on, but my point is that ultimately you shouldn’t take away works like these just because you don’t want someone to experience a feeling of helplessness. That in and of itself is a crime because you make that person helpless to do anything about what happened, as well as helpless to change the world going forward so as never again to make the same mistakes that we have.

Let’s bring this back up the branches to the core of the ‘Maus’ title: the characters. These are the motivators of our empathy as readers, after all. Of the primary cast, Art, Vladek, Mala, Anja, and Francoise, are there any, or even one in particular, that you feel especially connected to?

Art is the easiest for me to connect to. It’s that fascination with knowing the past in a personal way. It’s admirable of course, but following that thread also brought him so much pain and heartache. As I mentioned before, the scene with his therapist was a quick connection. Feeling like you’re living in the shadow of the ancestors before you is always tough, never feeling fully like an adult, always being seen as a child to a degree. That transcends the Holocaust, and really any historical event, that’s something a lot of people can relate to.

Really, I think if any given reader thinks hard enough about each of the characters, they would be able to find ways that they connect to each of them. Still, it should be mentioned that the individuals present in the story do have unique characteristics that are not totally shared. Among one another, maybe they share a passion to stay alive or other similar ambitions/motives, but they are all still separate entities with their own set of traits.

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It’s amazing how the characters can be so individual still, even represented as anthropomorphized mice, cats, or pigs. Perhaps for that reason, comics like these, or even just your average superhero stories, can often be overlooked as illegitimate forms of literature, or ‘not serious’ enough for consideration. Because of that, there are a lot of people out there, including those in the community whose story it presumes to tell, who have no idea about these award-winning books, things like ‘From Hell’, ‘Watchmen’, ‘Persepolis’, or in this case, ‘Maus’. Do you think that this is a graphic novel that the Jewish community might reference if more people were aware of its publication? 

Well, the book is successful for a reason. It utilizes pictures in a way that are not overly gruesome, leaving much to the imagination, but still is profound that it DOES reach readers somehow. It seems to have found an audience within a younger generation that has had trouble with reading through such intense material. The issue may not be with the public awareness of this book, rather the need for people to shy away from material that makes them feel uncomfortable or that makes them question things. But there’s also a desire to not let it become only a part of history, and eventually forgotten. I think this book will become more and more sought after as the shift in the education system favors.

People arguing against the use of graphic novels in education because they are somehow ‘dumbed down’ or ‘lesser’ have clearly never picked up a textbook. I can easily count the few times I took a peek at a friend’s textbook during my student career, and many of them were decades old publications. I went to a private school where the situation was quite different thankfully, but the idea that many schools use these outdated books while snubbing a graphic novel with untimely relevance shows a clear lack of care towards the education of their students. Times are changing, so hopefully the ways that teaching is accomplished will change as well. There’s no one universal method of properly teaching a subject or topic and that should be embraced as different people have different needs.

Having read ‘Maus’ in high school, do you think that your curriculum utilized the book in an effective way that helped to teach what you know now? 

The curriculum my school used with this book was exceptional. Again, having been lucky enough to attend a private school, our teachers didn’t necessarily stick to just the SAT or ACT, or any sort of standardized format of high school education. They taught material that could be considered unrelated by some, but I was lucky to have that because it gave me a unique opportunity to think outside the box, see beyond the black and white.

What sort of lesson plan did they base around ‘Maus’? Do you think it, or any other lesson ideas might be more effective in using a book like ‘Maus’ to teach readers valuable moral lessons, as well as historical ones?

We did some great reading in and out of the classroom setting. We’d go page to page through all the panel’s symbolism, using deep analysis of the dialogue and narration in conjunction with what was happening visually. The teacher had a clear expectation set for us in reading ‘Maus’, so this was basically the framework of that. The class had discussions everyday about what we read, how we interpreted it, and how it made us feel. No opinion was a ‘dumb’ opinion, everything was embraced and expanded on. I mean, that’s the pinnacle of success in education and in connecting with your students and making them feel passionate about what they’re learning. Take THAT to other schools and make it the lesson plan!

Let’s expand on the open-forum style of discussion when it comes to opinions and feelings about this book. Many people actually criticize Art Spiegelman for making this comic the way he did. There’s the obvious complaint of using comics to speak on a serious historical topic, but he was also accused of dehumanizing the victims of the Holocaust in the same way a Nazi or fascist sympathizer might. He was also heavily criticized for his portrayal of his father, seen as perhaps a generalized representation of Jewish men.

It’s hard to speculate with a lot of accuracy because those types of claims require firm evidence to verify, but for the sake of this discussion, based on YOUR reading of ‘Maus’, how might you respond to these criticisms, whether in agreement or not with them?

I know the saying ‘Any publicity is good publicity’ is thrown around a lot, but in this case, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. I have the utmost respect for the survivors of the Holocaust, one of the worst atrocities of humanity’s existence, but when faced with some of those gruesome first-hand accounts, there’s only so much one can handle, and as written word, some people may not truly connect with that either.  So there’s a fear for authors, artists, creators of any kind really, that they themselves are not connecting with their audience. So what do they do? Let their story fall aside? The way Art Spiegelman decided to depict his story was received by a flurry of all kinds of emotions. He took a risk, but I think that risk was paid off. It’s a widely-read book and is a modern staple to many people’s collections, especially comic collectors. His every intent is laid into the images he drew, the words he wrote, even down to the ideas of representing people with different animals. That decision may have been what removed a tiny layer of horror for readers so that they could still stomach the experience of these survivors without wanting to turn away.

And the issues raised about Vladek, Art’s father, his bleak outlook, the moment he expresses racist sentiments, etcetera?

Concerning the portrayal he chose of his father, there are many aspects to look at here. Vladek is stubborn as a mule, old-fashioned but confused by adaptation despite being forced through it previously. He’s pessimistic, distrusting, prejudiced even. The only way I can think to address something like that is to look at the reality of it: these men survived something that no one could possibly fathom. They didn’t give up because more often than not, they couldn’t. Their drive to survive, or even outlast their fellow man came at a cost, and inevitably, that’s going to alter their very psychology. Many of these survivors lost more than their family and loved ones in the Holocaust. They lost their ability to live ‘normal’ lives. Their generation had to grow up without knowing anything different than fear and uncertainty, because who knew what else might happen, if such a massive-scale tragedy like the Holocaust could?

Trying to return to a functioning society after being subjected to such horrors is arguably impossible. All they know to do is survive, saving everything, viewing situations as life-or-death, the strong moved on, the weak were eliminated, etc. Art painted his father the way he did because that was the reality his father experienced. After the war, to think things just ‘returned to normal’ is laughable, but it’s something people don’t really discuss. These survivors were put into positions that made them polarize what they knew best: their family, their traditions, and ultimately, their personal safety. Throughout history, nothing has ever been truly certain for Jews. They’re an immigrant population that have been evicted from their homes and their sense of safety time and time again.

To look at Vladek’s depicted racism, this character is someone that was stuck in old ways that overlooked being politically correct or sociologically empathetic. To feel empathy for another during the Holocaust could have very well meant their death. So apply that mentality to this new life Vladek lives when he comes to America, where previously, he’d only ever been around largely white communities, even in the concentration camps. The way he might have treated someone of color before and after his experiences during the Holocaust could have changed ideally, but that doesn’t always happen. Those opinions and feelings were very deeply ingrained in him, for whatever reason, but they should not be written off and disposed of, again, simply to make others feel more comfortable. Art Spiegelman saw the reality of his father completely, the good and the bad of his personality, of their relationship, and so he depicted it from his perspective, the only way he knew.

Think about ‘Tom Sawyer’ and the emphasis on racism in that book. It’s largely due to the time-frame that the story happens in, and yet it’s still one of the best known and loved pieces of literature in the world. It doesn’t make racism ‘okay’ by any means; rather, it presents the disparities between what happened during those times, and how things are now, how we’ve progressed. ‘Maus’ accomplishes much the same, being a great story because of the flaws of the characters, and also in spite of them.

Have you ever in your life experienced prejudice as a Jewish man? 

I wish this answer were simpler, but ultimately, yes, I have. There are different levels of prejudice, so that needs to be discussed. Have I ever experienced prejudice in a way that made me feel unsafe? No, thankfully not that I can remember. Largely, it’s been experiences of people not understanding what Judaism is, why the traditions are different but still important, just as a Christian or Buddhist would say their traditions are important. But even beyond that, prejudice can still be seen peppered into short conversations at work, with strangers, during debates, or shared widely into ideas like the denial of the Holocaust’s validity. It confuses me greatly to think that someone can’t fully grasp that the Holocaust happened at all, let alone the depths of depravity that took place during it.

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How did you face that person’s lack of understanding towards your culture and heritage? How do you think people can face that kind of fear and hate and overcome?

I have always tried to push for further understanding of what happened during the Holocuast. Not in a way that might guilt-trip people I hope, but rather in a way that offers perspective. I’d love to see a more comprehensive study in regular history classes that doesn’t just briefly mention the Holocaust as part of World War II, but also an examination into what happened to the victims, the dehumanization, the discrediting of those in disagreement with the Reich’s ideologies.

I’ve always felt that ‘Maus’ tried to offer those exact lessons, as many banned books do with their topic of relativity, which is why I’m continually surprised by their censoring, even today, in 2017. Why do YOU think this book is so often challenged or banned by schools?

Banned books are always a fascinating topic for me to discuss. People want to censor everything, but their reasoning behind it simply doesn’t make sense. ‘Maus’ doesn’t advertise itself as rainbows and butterflies, it’s talking about a historical event involving the systematic extermination of a race of people, or anyone found to be unsuitable, to ultimately create the ‘Master Race’, or the Aryan race. Hitler saw his plan as justified, to remove all that were ‘lesser’ from the world. This isn’t light subject matter by any stretch of the imagination. ‘Maus’ is meant to take a gruesome topic and put it into narrative terms that anyone can understand, be it for educational purposes, or for the experience of hearing the story it has to tell. Take a look at the animals chosen as representatives of different races: mice, cats, dogs…this is a food chain. American cartoons do things like this was well, in attempts to create simple, digestible ideas for hard-to-swallow concepts. If someone wants this subject matter censored, it’s because they are hiding from the cold, harsh reality of what happened. It makes people ill to think that people, other humans, caused and allowed this to happen. It makes ME ill to think that for the sake of their comfort, those people are unwilling to accept the facts.

The citations from previous bannings include ‘anti-ethnic purposes’ and ‘unsuitable for age group’. Why do you think people felt uncomfortable enough about this book that they wanted it completely banned from any further viewership? Why do you think people feel that they should control the viewership of these kinds of titles, especially when the Holocaust is such a paramount event in history to caution against ever happening again?

People always seek control. If they can snuff the light of information, they hold the ultimate weapon, which is knowledge. It’s no secret that knowledge rules all, and the growing list of banned books is just one of many attempts to remove parts of that knowledge to result in some kind of complacency. Let’s be real though, this isn’t just about people actively trying to ban these books, we also need to look at the public at large, because to accept that banning is not to be without fault either. When you bring ‘scary’ or ‘unnerving’ ideas into the mix of our trivial everyday lives, they naturally feel that fear, something we’re born to steer clear of. But sometimes we have to face those things, we have to feel them, to know how to protect ourselves and each other in the future. Reference once again the idea of animals versus humans, that evolution having taken place because we looked into the fear we felt and understood it, moved past it.

I think we can all benefit from a greater understanding and appreciation for the events that took place and our emotional and psychological responses to it. And reading books like ‘Maus’, offering lesson plans around these mediums, and spreading awareness of works referencing the Holocaust are probably some of the best ways to do just that. Everyone has an individual way of how they stand up to fear and hate, of course, but I think it’s most important to embrace that there is a sliding scale of emotion concerning this topic. Again, I don’t want for people to read these books and be presented with what happened simply to feel guilty about something they didn’t do, that’s not the point. I just want there to be an understanding that an evil thing happened, that evil exists still in the world, that we are capable of it, and we must watch for it, caution against it, and learn from it.

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To purchase a copy of ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman, see this Amazon listing, or for a more comprehensive study of the graphic novel as well as a digital copy of the story itself, consider ‘MetaMaus’, at this Amazon listing.

Please also consider a visit or donation to the United States Holocaust Museum and Education Center located in Skokie, Illinois. This establishment has been crucial to the continued expansion of education regarding the Holocaust as well as other historical genocides. Check out the Museum’s website here.

I would like to extend a very special thanks to Jacob DelMauro for his previous offerings to the ‘Why Comics‘ essay, as well as his invaluable participation and perspective shared in this interview. Jake is a local D&D: Adventure League Game Master at multiple Chicagoland comic shops and a Professional Finance Planner.

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