[Originally published: Feb. 3, 2016]
In the image displayed below in this article, Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss” has written opposite the title page in The Lorax: “A good friend of the Jewish Community Centers of South Florida, With best wishes, Dr. Seuss.”
Published in 1971 at a time when Earth Day and the ecology movement were gaining counterculture traction, the overtly political Lorax – which Seuss himself characterized as his favorite work – addressed then-unconventional issues such as deforestation, pollution, and greed while advocating conservation and corporate responsibility.
Rather amusingly, The Lorax was the only work by Seuss ever to be censored when, in 1989, the United School District of Laytonville, California determined that the book “criminalizes the foresting industry.” Logging was one of California’s principal industries, and educators feared the “indoctrination” of their children against lumber production. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book on the shelves, but The Lorax continued to be challenged in many other lumbering municipalities.
A champion of the rights of American Jews, Seuss himself experienced anti-Semitism when, in his college days, he was refused entry into certain circles because of a misperception that he was Jewish: “I had black hair and a long nose, and it took a year and a half before the word got out that I wasn’t [Jewish].”
In fact, Seuss was a practicing Lutheran who often spoke out in support of equal opportunity for Jews. As just one notable example, though he supported the establishment by the University of California of a local campus in his beloved La Jolla, where he maintained his mountaintop home, he sternly warned civic and church audiences that they could never develop a great university until they ceased discriminating against Jews, specifically with respect to home ownership.
Many of Seuss’s whimsical children’s books contain serious political themes: Yertle the Turtle is a cautionary tale against fascism and dictators (Seuss later stated that Yertle was meant to serve as a metaphor for Hitler – “originally, Yertle had a moustache, but I took it off”); Horton Hears a Who is a parable about the American occupation of Japan; and The Butter Battle Book pillories the Cold War and nuclear deterrence. In The Sneetches, his powerful critique of anti-Semitism, members of a group sport stars on their stomachs as a sign of their supremacy and to maintain their oppressive social domination over others. Seuss’s specific use of stars was inspired by the yellow Magen David the Nazis required Jews to wear on their clothing so as to be immediately identifiable as Jews.
Most people are unaware that Seuss was a highly influential political cartoonist during World War II and that some of the characters from his beloved children’s books, reflecting the distinctive artistic style we all have come to recognize as “Seussian,” made their initial appearances in the 400 political cartoons he drew in the early 1940s for PM, a left-wing New York daily.
His drawings, which savage Hitler, Japan, Mussolini, and isolationist American leaders, whom he characterized as “American enemies of democracy,” urge readers to give full support to the war effort, put up with shortages, buy U.S. savings bonds, and help control inflation. The cadence, rhyme, and penchant for silly words for which he is now famous were all evident even in his first cartoons for PM.
Seuss’s wartime cartoons denounced American discrimination against Jews and called attention to the early stages of the Holocaust. Displayed here is the famous July 20, 1942 cartoon through which he became one of the first cartoonists, if not the very first, to publicly suggest the Holocaust and the fate of Jews under Hitler. Seuss depicts a forest filled with corpses hanging from the trees with a sign reading “Jew” pinned to each body. With the day’s lynching completed, Hitler, with an extra rope draped over his arm, and Vichy French leader Pierre Laval are shown singing happily: “Only God can make a tree, to furnish sport for you and me.” (The line “Only God can make a tree” was taken from Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem Trees.)
Seuss published this cartoon in response to the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup (code named “Operation Spring Breeze”), a Nazi operation in which the Vichy French government played a key collaborationist role in the internment and extermination of Europe’s Jews. The raid began on July 16, 1942, when French police arrested and confined 13,152 Jews, including 4,051 children and 5,802 women, in the insufferable summer heat, virtually without food, water, or sanitary facilities at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a bicycle velodrome and stadium. After five days the survivors were deported to Auschwitz.
Laval gave the order to round up children under age 16, which was enthusiastically carried out by the Vichy authorities. In classic Nazi “Big Lie” fashion, he characterized the children’s roundup as a “humanitarian” measure to facilitate keeping families together, but in fact the parents had already been deported and surviving documents show that Laval’s principal concern was to dispose of Jewish children.
On July 16, 1995, French President Jacques Chirac – after more than half a century of fierce French resistance to the idea – apologized for the complicit role played by French policemen and civil servants in the raid. The Vel’ d’Hiv roundups became engraved in French national memory as a symbol of national guilt and of France’s responsibility for the Holocaust of French Jews.
Though this was the only one of Seuss’s hundreds of cartoons specifically dealing with Jewish murders in Europe, he nonetheless continued to target anti-Semitism, both in Europe and in the United States. He never portrayed President Roosevelt in a cartoon or drawing because he saw America as an idealized concept manifestly distinct from whoever the president happened to be at the time. His cartoons strongly supported FDR and his handling of the war and he used his poison pen to attack and criticize Congress, Republicans, the anti-FDR press, and American isolationists and appeasers.
Seuss undertook a specific campaign against Father Coughlin, a notorious Catholic priest who preached a continuous stream of anti-Semitism on his national radio show and in his monthly magazine. Through his cartoons, Seuss played an important part in quashing Coughlin’s hate speech and in muting the priest’s effect on the American public. For example, in a February 9, 1942 cartoon he drew Coughlin stirring a huge bowl atop an oven fueled by several swastika-bearing canisters; the pot is labeled “the same old down-with-England-and-Roosevelt stew” and the caption reads: “Still Cooking with Goebbels Gas.”
Seuss also had the courage to frequently take on Charles A. Lindbergh, the American hero popular for the first trans-Atlantic flight, whom he vilified and lampooned for his anti-interventionist and anti-Semitic ideas. In a September 22, 1941 cartoon, he depicted America as a tall figure wearing a “Stars and Stripes” hat with his arms and legs shackled in stocks. Hanging from his beak is a sign reading “I am part Jewish” (i.e., Jews are American citizens and a part of American life) and, at his feet: “Publik Notice: This Bird is Possessed by an Evil Demon. Sheriffs C.A. Lindbergh and Gerald P. Nye.” (Nye was a Republican senator from North Dakota who helped establish the America First Committee and was a key proponent of American isolationism.)
In another sketch, published September 18, 1941, Seuss drew a gas mask-wearing Lindbergh atop a pile of disgusting refuse in a garbage truck marked “Nazi anti-Semite Stink Wagon.” The caption reads: “Spreading the Lovely Goebbels Stuff.”
In yet another drawing, published April 1, 1942, an Uncle Sam character is being led by a clownish figure labeled “U.S. Nazis” toward a smiling masked figure wearing an “anti-Semitism” shirt and holding a hatchet near a cauldron filled with severed body parts. The caption has the clownish figure saying; “Come on, Sam . . . try the Great German Manicure.” And, in one of my personal favorites, from his “Mein Kampf” series, Seuss employs his sharp humor in a caricature of Hitler refusing a bottle of milk because it came from a Jewish-sounding Holstein cow.
Moreover, well before the nascent civil rights movement took off in the United States – at a time when Jim Crow laws were in place; the United States military was segregated; and, pre-Brown v. Board of Education (1954), there were separate white and black schools – some of Seuss’s most acerbic and satiric cartoons deplored bigotry against blacks and urged broad racial inclusion, particularly with respect to mobilizing support for the war effort.
Thus, for example, in a June 29, 1942 PM drawing, Seuss depicts a cigar-smoking gentleman, identified as “War Industry,” sitting at an organ whose white keys are labeled “white labor” and whose black keys, with very old spider webs attached to them, are labeled “black labor.” An angry Uncle Sam taps the organist on the shoulder and says: “Listen, Maestro…if you want to get real harmony, use the black keys as well as the white!”
Similarly, in a July 8, 1942 cartoon, Seuss draws a huge woodpile on which a top-hatted white gentleman smugly sits, nailing a “no colored labor needed” sign atop the pile. As two black laborers look sadly at the scene, one says to the other, “There seems to be a white man in the woodpile” – a lovely riff, and a biting commentary, on the racist and despicable figure of speech “nigger in the woodpile” popular at the time.
Seuss had actually used the “woodpile” reference in one of his very first cartoons, titled “Cross-Section of The World’s Most Prosperous Department Store” and published in Judge Magazine (1929). Based upon popular figures of speech, he humorously depicted customers browsing through a department store looking for items to make their lives more difficult, including a man with a net trying to catch a fly for his ointment; a shopper looking at monkey wrenches to throw into his machinery; a customer examining haystacks with matching needles, and a man looking at a selection of “niggers” for his woodpile. Clearly, as we have seen, Seuss’s sensibilities evolved significantly over time – except as to his apparent blind spot regarding the Japanese, whom he depicted in overtly racist portrayals and whose wartime internment he emphatically supported.
Seuss published his last editorial cartoon in January 1943. After his work at PM, he turned his energies to directly supporting the American war effort, first drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board (1942) and then joining the Army as a captain (1943), in which capacity he served as commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces.
In December 1944 he visited Europe to premiere one of his educational films before military brass and took the opportunity to visit concentration camps at Strudhof and Shirmek. In a diary that he kept of the trip, he wrote that he found “enough horrors to condemn the Nazi system forever (atrocities).” Seuss wrote several films, including “Your Job in Germany,” a propaganda film about peace in Europe after World War II, and “Our Job in Japan,” which became the basis for the commercially-released film “Design for Death,” a study of Japanese culture that won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Seuss won another Oscar for best animated short film for “Gerald McBoing-Boing”; Emmy Awards for best children’s specials for “Halloween Is Grinch Night” and “The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat”; a Peabody Award for the animated specials “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” and “Horton Hears a Who!”; and a special Pulitzer Prize citing his “contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”
Beginning in 1998, the National Education Association adopted his birthday, March 2, as “National Read Across America Day,” an ambitious children’s reading motivation and awareness program.
Seuss’s books have been translated into twenty languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish. In particular, Sholem Berger has published Eyn Fish, Tsvey Fish, Royter Fish, Bloyer Fish (“One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”) and Di Kats Der Payats (I’ll leave it to readers to figure that one out), which remarkably retain the famous Seussian rhyme scheme and meter of the originals. They are a hoot and well worth a look, particularly if you are a Yiddish speaker.
In a ceremony at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1969, Theodor Seuss Geisel received a plaque for his contributions to worldwide literacy and, in recognition of his friendship for the Jewish people, was awarded the title of “Honorary Jew” by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
Seuss passed away in 1991.