– 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.