– Art Spiegelman Essay, Research Paper

As a result of not having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust like their

ancestors did, second generation Jews often sense they must demonstrate their respect and

appreciation towards their elders. Indebted to the previous generation, these Jews search

for ways in which to honor those martyrs who lost their lives half a century ago. The ways

in which this generation pays homage are quite diverse. Many have developed their own

shrines to the memories of their ancestors. Others are fully dedicated to the organization

of campaigns in order to obtain justice in the name of Jewish families whose possessions

were seized by the Nazis during WWII and stored in Swiss banks.

Yet another way, is writing a narrative like Art Spiegelman does. MAUS is an

impressive graphic novel, drawn and written by Spiegelman himself, that narrates his

father’s life during the Holocaust. His memories come to life in the pages of the book,

although they are intertwined with another account. This second narrative, Spiegelman’s,

complements his father’s by presenting a portrayal of the life and struggles of a second

generation of Jewish people whose existences are extremely influenced by the Holocaust

despite not being born during its occurrence. This trait separates MAUS from other

Holocaust narratives whose limits can only offer one side of the story, one view of the

event, one version of the pain.

Spiegelman’s obsession with saving Vladek’s story for succeeding generations is

met with some opposition by his father, especially in the opening sequence. Neither

Vladek nor Spiegelman are able to understand what the other is feeling due to their

inability to relate. Spiegelman wonders why his father is so hesitant to allow his life to be

the subject of a novel; he is unable to put himself in Vladek’s position. He is often

frustrated due to this limitation, and often presses his father for answers he is unable to

provide. At times he shares this frustration, which is sometimes met by sympathy from his


Spiegelman is dumbfounded by this particular piece of his father’s narratives. He

attempts to use logic to understand it, but finally gives up when he realizes he just does

not understand. His father’s final commentary on the strip, “nobody can understand”

shows how difficult it is not only for the second generation, but also for the survivors

themselves, to understand the events that transpired in the Holocaust.

The evil of the Holocaust is unspeakable, unexplainable, but above all,

unforgettable. Spiegleman realizes that no matter how hard he wishes he had been at

Auschwitz to experience the horrors first-hand, he is unable to do so. Committing his

thoughts and emotions to a written narrative, the graphic novel MAUS, is the best course

of action for him, especially since it allows him to combine his story with his father’s.

The graphic novel genre is one of the most fascinating in literature. While some

critics censure the form citing a lack of printed text and the presence of comic-book style

drawings, its positive qualities are impressive, especially when the topic is as difficult as

the Holocaust. MAUS shines due to its impressive ability to “speak the unspeakable” by

using the popular cliche, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” to perfection.

The most important distinction between humans and the rest of the animal

kingdom is man’s ability to understand, reason, and think. Conscience and intelligence are

perhaps the human race’s greatest gifts. Since humans possess such qualities, it is often

hard to try to understand the Holocaust without having been there.

Quite possibly as a method to deal with his own inability to comprehend the events

of the Holocaust, Spiegelman uses animal characters instead of humans. The most

important two, Germans and Jews, are represented by cats and mice, respectively. Natural

sworn enemies, both cat and mice lack reason and conscience. As a result, the Nazi cats

find no fault in the systematic killing of Jewish mice. The image is also based on historical

quotes, since Jews were called the “vermin of society” by the Nazis.

The graphical novel format, in association with the depiction of Nazis as cat and

Jews as mice, permits Spiegelman to force the reader to abandon any preconceived

notions of human nature. Such an effect would have been quite hard to create if he had

written a standard text, attesting to the incredible value of the novel’s format.

The history of mankind is overflowing with episodes of mass destruction and

killing. This century produced perhaps the greatest example of such atrocities, the Second

World War. It was during this period of unexplainable brutality that both the Jewish

Holocaust and the Nagasaki Bombing occurred. These awful events, discussed and

regarded in a much different light half a century ago, are analyzed quite divergently now

that mankind has had fifty years to ponder on its errors.

The Nagasaki Bombing was one of the United States’ last actions during the

Second World War. Although enacted on Japan instead of Germany, it symbolized much

of the anger and desire to finish a long, bloody war. The initial joy that followed the

devastating detonation of the bomb disappeared in time with the public’s realization of the

grave mistake that had been committed.

Not only did millions of people perish during the Holocaust and immediately after

the Nagasaki episode, but many more lost their lives some time afterwards, victims of

physical deterioration, mental illness created by the tragic events, and depression brought

upon by memories of the horrors. Anja Spiegelman is one such case. She found her demise

twenty years after surviving the death camps, a victim of their memories. In a sense, she

did not survive. The estimate of six million Jews is ever-increasing, so the memories


Ironically, these two events, executed by opposite sides of the war, are linked by

more than an inmeasurable amount of deaths. Many of the people alive during this time

period are in possession of vivid recollections fo the historical occurrences, reflecting a

near-unanimous disgust towards the brutalities occurred.

While the Holocaust is one of the most horrible episodes of history, it is not one

that could or should be forgotten. Its literary offspring is widely acclaimed, especially the

subject of this essay, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. Not only does the book narrate the horrors

of the Polish concentration camps, it also displays the enormous difficulties of second

generation Holocaust survivors to find a way to come to terms with the horrendous plight

of their ancestors. Its graphical novel format plays an essential role in making the story

come alive, as does the troubled relationship between Vladek and Art. In closing, it must

be reiterated that MAUS is not merely a narrative of the Holocaust, but also a story of

human suffering and struggle, not just after a devastating experience like the concentration

camps, but also afterwards; not just of one generation, but also of succeeding ones.


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