Maybe your father needed to show that he was always right – that he could always survive – because he felt GUILTY about surviving…Life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed. But it wasn’t the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM!— MAUS II, Art Spiegelman
I actually got my copies of these Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novels by Art Spiegelman, just before the recent controversy about them happened. I laughed at the timing. It seems to be a very “me” thing these days to find myself coincidentally reading something people are throwing tantrums about for some stupid reason. The reason here seems as stupid as ever. Apparently, Maus was removed from an eighth-grade English language arts curriculum by the McMinn County, Tennessee, Board of Education, over concerns about “rough, objectionable language” and a drawing of a nude woman.
Well, I failed to notice the nude woman entirely, and as for the rough language… er, these comics feature harrowing depictions of genocide, but gods forbid anyone says any naughty words? I’m sorry, but fuck off. If you can’t swear when describing the fucking Holocaust, when can you? There was no inappropriate (in its technical rather than moral sense) language I could find. I rather suspect there may have been other reasons for them wanting to censor the books, as these seem absurd. In any case, the Streisand Effect kicked in and boosted Maus to number 1 on Amazon. So, screw you, censors.
Maus tells the story of Vladek Spielgeman, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and his son, Art Spiegelman, an illustrator who wants to write the story of his father’s experiences during World War II. The story is also about Art himself, the interviews and relationship with his father, and alternates between the present day and Vladek’s memories.
The cartoon animals do not make this any easier a read. It is really hard going at points as the events depicted are horrific. The personal perspective making them all the more relatable and upsetting. We have a depiction of multigenerational trauma on top of the original trauma as our context, with Art describing his very human father and their very human relationship, his mother’s suicide a long shadow in the background. It is a brutally honest account, and I did wonder if this was the real reason behind the desire to censor it, among other things. These days we have a rather childish obsession with everything being black and white. There are good guys and bad guys and no nuances or shades of grey. A bit like how the Nazi’s thought, strangely enough.
Vladek is a tortured and traumatised soul, not a hero, a survivor. Many of his fellow Jews behaved less than admirably when things got bad, some co-operating with their killers, and this historical fact is related honestly and with forgiveness. Vladek was there with them and expresses understanding for them that many today would view as complicity and demand he be cancelled for. This is a man who can speak of friends and relatives ending up as chimney smoke and a sweet smell of fat in the air, whose first child was mercy killed to save him from a fate worse than death, who watched his wife starve away to almost nothing, while he did everything in his power to protect her. Many contemporary Westerners have no fucking clue what bravery is and what it takes for a person to survive in truly trying circumstances. Yet such people have no hesitation in passing judgement on someone who has. That’s what we think bravery is now: spiteful comments; getting someone banned from Twitter; trolling a person until they lose their job or commit suicide. Such paragons of moral virtue and heroism (please join me for an eye-roll here). Wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in Vladek’s shoes.
Vladek, reminded me in many ways of both of my grandfathers, who both participated in World War II. One was an engineer on Lancaster Bombers, the other somehow involved in hunting Nazi spies. Strangely, it was my engineer grandfather who always seemed more traumatized, and who Vladek reminded me of more. The author pulls well at emotions about this characterisation of his father. I felt: empathy, annoyance, sorrow, irritation, pity and disgust, among other things towards him at points. He is very human for a mouse. For Art himself, I felt quite sad, especially for having grown up with such shadows hanging over him, but it was his mother I felt for most. For such a delicate and sensitive woman to have gone through such horror. She made me think of my great grandmother, a German Jew who had the sense to see what was coming and flee Germany to the UK before things really kicked off, and how lucky she had been to escape.
Like Vladek, these relatives were all human. They weren’t the “Good Guys”, they were people surviving through a time of horror, and all people are potentially capable of everything a human being is capable of, the good and the bad. I liked how Art emphasised this at one point, calling attention to Vladek’s own racism, by describing him encountering someone he dehumanises because of prejudice, and Art’s wife’s reaction:
That’s outrageous! How can you of all people, be such a racist? You talk about blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews!— Francoise to Vladek, MAUS II, Art Spiegelman
Art is quite plainly pointing to the fact that the Nazis were not exceptional in their racism and prejudice, that it seems to be something human and even those who have been victims of it have it in them to be persecutors themselves. Here, again, I wondered if there was another real reason why people had desired to censor this book. The idea that anybody can have prejudices, not just certain special groups, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean they are literally Nazis, is completely anathema to contemporary ideology. Vladek cannot be both victim and persecutor, good and bad, according to this. Yet this is how Art depicts him, because he is describing a real human being, not a dehumanised abstraction.
There was one point in particular in this comic, with its mice and cats and pigs and other cartoon animals, that made me weep. At other points I contemplated the notion that if the powers that be do decide to start firing nukes or unleashing biological weapons because of what’s currently going on in Ukraine, perhaps the human race deserves annihilation for being so stupidly, predictably and consistently capable of evil. Viewed through the long lens of history, the Holocaust is disturbingly unexceptional, and horrific as it was, we may have done ourselves no favours by acting as if it was unthinkable, unpredictable and could never happen again.
There was one illustration, one panel, where Vladek described the room in which the prisoners undressed before they were gassed. There is a sign that says “please remember to tie your shoes together”. I stared at that sign and just started crying. So banal, so evil, and so easy to see how it could happen again. What an insult to the memories of those who went through it for contemporary people to believe ourselves incapable of acting just the same. What about us is so different? So special? That sign, to me, looked exactly like the kind that someone today would use to keep their mass murder nice and tidy. “That doesn’t happen,” we would probably be told, while it happens right in front of us, called something like “population optimisation” and given its own flag, Facebook profile frame and hashtag. Every day the BBC would have article after article about how great it is and I wouldn’t be able to say anything, while people lined up to take part, taking selfies, because if I said anything I’d be called an “anti-whatever, something-or-other-phobic, current-thing-denying, bad person” and cancelled. In an age in which we should know better, people still seem to prefer pretty lies to the truth, when pretty lies have been used to commit and excuse atrocities since time immemorial.
For anyone naive enough to think that the Holocaust was an anomaly, a once in history event, something the likes of which can never happen again, I point you to two things. 1. History. Events like the Holocaust have happened before, so can happen again. See the genocide of indigenous peoples and this list of genocides by death toll for many examples. Stalin’s Russia and the gulags, Maoist China, the atrocities committed in the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium, and the Irish “Great Hunger”, are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head. Genocide is a feature of human nature, not a bug. 2. The Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram experiments on obedience and the Asch Line Study on conformity. If you still don’t believe me, read about these experiments and others like them. It will tell you a lot about human nature, probably a lot you won’t like.
I can’t say these comics were fun, but they certainly tell their story well and from an interesting point of view. The art style suits the subject well, as realism would have been too much to bear, and the characters carry us through. Moving and well worth a read if the subject matter appeals. 5/5