Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Spiegelman portrait.

Itzhak Avraham ben Zeev, aka Art Spiegelman (b. 1948), is an American cartoonist best known for Maus, a graphic novel in which he tells the story of his parents’ survival of Auschwitz through the illustration of Nazis as cats and Jews as mice. Recognized as a pivotal work, it brought academic attention not only to the comics medium in general, but also to graphic novels in particular, and it became the first graphic novel to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1992). It is also credited with bringing the Holocaust to the attention of a new audience, particularly younger readers, which was always the dream that Spiegelman forecast in Maus when he has his stepmother say, “It’s an important book. People who don’t usually read such stories will be interested.”

Cover of Maus.

Over and above Maus, the magnum opus for which, much to his chagrin, he became celebrated, Spiegelman’s work was featured on 21 New Yorker magazine covers. The one that generated the most attention and generated the most controversy was his February 15, 1993, Valentine’s Day cover, which depicted a black West Indian woman and a Chassidic man kissing, drawn in response to the Crown Heights riot of 1991 in which racial tensions led to the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.

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Spiegelman is a non-practicing Jew who, he says, “has never had a religious bone in my body.” He married Françoise Mouly, a non-Jew, in a 1977 City Hall ceremony but, as he discusses at the beginning of Volume II of Maus, she converted to Judaism only to please his father. In an unintentional spot-on spoof of the utter meaninglessness of non-Orthodox conversions, he describes it as “you and I go to a mouse rabbi, he says a few magic words and ZAP, the frog has been turned into a beautiful mouse.” [Spiegelman struggled with whether to represent his French wife in Maus as a frog or a Jewish mouse, ultimately deciding on the latter.]

As to Israel, Spiegelman says he is “really glad I’m a diaspora Jew; I don’t identify with Israel”; claims that “the Holocaust is the broken condom that allowed Israel to be born”; and characterizes Israel as “a sad, failed idea.” He once proposed a New Yorker cover that depicted a beefy armed Israeli soldier guarding a group of ragged Palestinians behind barbed wire who are wearing Jewish stars; the comparison with Jews in concentration camps is both unavoidable and disgusting. Asked in Maus, “If your book was about Israeli Jews, what kind of animal would you draw?” he suggests “porcupines.”

Photo of Vladek upon his liberation from Auschwitz (from Maus).

Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents, Zev ben Avraham (Vladek) (1906-1982) and Hannah (Andzia) (1912-1968), Polish Jews who were made famous through Maus as “Vladek” and “Anja,” and the short life of the older brother he never met, Rysio (spelled “Richieu” in Maus). In 1937, Zev and Hannah sought to protect five-year-old Rysio from the Nazis by sending him away to live with Aunt Tosha but, when the Nazis came for him in 1943, she poisoned him and herself rather than let him fall into Nazi hands. Unable to accept that their child was gone, they searched orphanages all over Europe after World War II hoping to find him.

In Maus, Spiegelman describes a sad “sibling rivalry” of sorts with the dead “ghost brother” who was always perfect in his parents’ memories, and much of the dynamic in Maus is his inability – perceived or otherwise – to live up to his difficult father’s expectations. He lost not only his brother, but also most his family in the Shoah, as only 13 of his 85 relatives survived.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Spiegelman immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1951, where the family settled in Norristown, Pennsylvania, before moving to Rego Park, Queens in 1957. He began cartooning in high school, and his work came to the attention of United Features Syndicate, which offered him the opportunity to draw his own syndicated comic strip. Only in the rarest of circumstances is such a young man offered such a prime opportunity, but Spiegelman turned it down because he viewed his work as an important form of artistic expression and turned his nose down at “commercial art.”

While working during college at the Topps bubblegum card company, which gave him broad autonomy to pursue his own projects on the side, he began self-publishing and selling underground comics on street corners, and went on to San Francisco in 1967, where the underground comics scene was gaining notice and popularity. His work, which appeared in several underground magazines, was unique at the time in that it created a connection between comics and the broader realms of artistic and literary culture.

He happily joined in the rebellious antiestablishment pop culture of the city, including taking copious amounts of LSD, which led to a serious nervous breakdown and hospitalization for a few months in a mental hospital. His mother’s suicide shortly after his release from the state institution played an important role in his life and work, including particularly Prisoner on the Hell Planet, an Expressionist work in which he attempts to understand his mother’s suicide through panels that evoked the style and passion of German Expressionist woodcuts. (In Maus, Vladek finds Prisoner and is very upset by it.)

Maus began in 1972 when Justin Green, a pioneer in underground comics known as the “father of autobiographical comics,” asked Spiegelman to draw a three-page strip for the first issue of Funny Aminals [sic], a 1972 single-issue anthology comic book created by Robert Crumb and a collection of other artists. Spiegelman had become one of the top cartoonists at Topps, where he created, among others, the Garbage Pail Kids series (loathed by most parents for its “gross-out factor”) and for his reputation in the underground comics scene for his creative work.

With the underlying theme of “funny animals,” Spiegelman originally thought about drawing a strip about American racism where he would draw the Klu Klux Klan as cats and their black victims as mice, but he ultimately revised his idea to making the Holocaust the theme of the piece, with Nazis drawn as the cats and their Jewish victims as mice. Beginning his research for the project by personally visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, he took it on with a deep understanding of the awesome responsibility of telling his father’s story and with self-doubts about his fitness to do justice to the enormity of his tale of persecution and survival. “I’m literally giving a form to my father’s words and narrative,” he commented in an interview. (Sadly, his father died before Maus was completed.)

When Spiegelman learned in 1985 that Steven Spielberg was producing An American Tale, an animated film about Jewish mice who escape persecution in Eastern Europe by fleeing to the U.S., he was certain that the movie mogul had taken the theme from Maus, only a few initial chapters of which had by then been published. Anxious to have his completed book come out before Spielberg’s film, he struggled to find a publisher until the New York Times ran a story on his work in progress in 1986, after which Pantheon published a collection of his first six chapters. Entitled Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and subtitled My Father Bleeds History, it generated high sales and proved instantly popular, in part because it was sold as a book in major bookstores rather than as a comic book in comics shops. It attracted enormous critical attention, including an exhibition at MOMA (New York’s Museum of Modern Art), and ultimately became canonical.

Maus, the German word for “mouse,” is an obvious and sardonic play on the antisemitic stereotyping of Jews as vermin and rodents, and the rest of the caricatures and national characteristics are similarly true to anthropomorphic type: the Nazis are evil cats who prey on helpless mice; the Poles are pigs, which is precisely how they were portrayed by the Nazis; the Americans are dogs, who save the Jewish mice from the German cats; the French are frogs, a common term used to describe the French; and the Gypsies are moths, who flitter hither and yon. While these may well all be national/racial stereotypes, as some critics claim, they are also accurate within the context the story.

One of the most salient features of Maus is the author’s self-awareness that he can never relate to the Holocaust in the same profound way as his father. He resolves this problem, in large part, via his use of anthropomorphisms. As Spiegelman explains, “The mouse metaphor allowed me to universalize, to depict something that was too profane to depict in a more realistic way.” By having “Artie,” his alter-ego character in Maus, shares the same rodent features with his parents – as well as with the relatives whom he never met, with his father’s friends and neighbors in Europe, and with all Jews – and by drawing them all with an identical mouse head, he inexorably demonstrates his acceptance of his role as heir to a legacy shared by all Jews throughout history.

Original drawing by Spiegelman on the title page of Maus and signed by him.

The story evolves during several sessions when an adult Artie comes to visit his cantankerous and eccentric elderly father, who is ill, in a bad second marriage, and still mourning the loss of Anja a decade earlier. Artie asks Vladek to share his experiences in Poland during the war, but Vladek initially resists because, he says, it would take many books to tell the story and because, in any case, “no one wants to hear such stories.” He finally relents and, through a series of interviews spanning two years where Spiegelman often struggles to cajole his recalcitrant father into remembering a past that he intended to leave forever, Vladek tells Artie the entire story, beginning with a description of how he meets and marries the beautiful and enchanting Anja and is set up by her wealthy father as owner of a textile factory in Sosnowiec, where the couple live happily together surrounded by their families and friends.

When Germany invades Poland on September 1, 1939, Vladek is forcibly conscripted and sent to the front as a Polish soldier, where he is captured by the Nazis and sent to a POW forced labor camp. In my favorite scene, he dreams one night that he was visited by his tefillin-clad grandfather, who advises him that he will be freed on the day of Parshat Terumah. When Terumah comes a few months later, the Gestapo and Wehrmacht came to the workcamp and Vladek is sent on a train to Lublin, from where he finagles his way back to his family, which now includes his infant son Richieu.

Vladek learns that the factory had been taken over by Nazi “managers” and, over the next year, the Nazis confiscate everything and the murders of Jews in the street increases dramatically. Beginning at the end of 1941, a series of “relocations” and “selections” separates Vladek’s family and ultimately leads him to Auschwitz. The first of the two Maus books end with the incredible story of the succession of locations where Vladek and Anja hide and how they successfully avoid capture until their betrayal by the smugglers whom Vladek had paid to get him to Hungary. The second book, which deals primarily with Vladek’s experiences at Auschwitz and Dachau and with his joyful reunification with Anja after the war, ends with Artie spending a summer in the Catskill Mountains caring for a very ill Vladek and, after Vladek’s death from congestive heart disease, finally coming to terms with his lifelong contentious relationship with him.

An important theme of Maus is Artie’s self-doubts as he struggles with his decision to publish his father’s story, thereby engendering a complex conflict between the desire to seek financial and professional success on one hand and the fear of benefitting from a story that may not be his to tell on the other hand. However, Spiegelman’s overarching anxiety that infuses the entire tale is his dread of unintentionally misrepresenting the lives of his parents and their coreligionists during the Holocaust. In one particularly telling scene, Artie tells Françoise:

Just thinking about my book . . . it’s so presumptuous of me. I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father . . . how am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz? . . . Of the Holocaust? . . . I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through. . . I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams.

This conflict seems to only be exacerbated in a seminal scene with Pavel, Artie’s therapist, a Jewish Czech who also survived Auschwitz. When Artie tells him, “I know there was a lot of luck involved, but [Vladek] WAS amazingly present-minded and resourceful,” Pavel says that the basic psychological tendency is to share stories of survival and triumph, and certainly in remembering the Shoah, but that in doing so, the experiences and perspectives of the dead are muted or lost entirely. Artie attributes his father’s survival, in part, to Vladek’s cleverness and strength, but Pavel emphasizes that the determination of who lived and who died in the Shoah was random, and that any suggestion to the contrary does a tremendous disservice to the dead because it suggests that those who survived earned the right to live because they were somehow superior. Pavel’s conclusion poses a great conundrum for Artie: “the victims who died can never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.”

“The Past Hangs Over the Future.”

Nonetheless, Spiegelman perseveres at great emotional cost, triumphs over his psychological insecurities and, in a grand achievement, succeeds in maintaining an intense commitment to the truth within the context of his comic renditions of his characters. He also beautifully captures the idea that numbering Holocaust victims at a mere six million is a travesty because the children of the survivors, among others, are also victims. As Artie tells Françoise, “I did have nightmares about S.S, men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids away . . . sometimes I’d fantasize Zyklon B coming out of our shower instead of water.” It is clear that Artie’s entire life is inextricably entwined with his father’s Shoah experiences, that “the past hangs over the future” (see exhibit), and that he is also a Holocaust victim and survivor.

Vladek is also deeply concerned about the ability of Artie’s story to fully capture the enormity of the Holocaust and do justice to the memory of its victims. Maus is thus secondarily a story about the morality of telling Holocaust stories at all. As I see it, this may be the most overlooked reason why the establishment and maintenance of Holocaust museums are so important. As the aphorism goes (it is misattributed to Josef Stalin), “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” One purpose of places such as Yad Vashem and the National Holocaust Museum is to make certain that the deaths of six million Jews are always remembered as six million distinct tragedies and not merely as a statistic in the great overall tragedy that is the Shoah. And one of the successes of Maus is that it brings the story of one Holocaust survivor to the attention of the entire world.

The novel continues to generate controversy, much of it beyond absurd. For example, a few weeks ago, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove Maus, which was the “anchor text” for McMinn County’s eighth grade English Arts curriculum, after receiving objections about its “not wise or healthy content.” Particular exception was taken to its showing people hanging and the murder of children (one wonders if the board knows anything about the Holocaust) and because it depicted characters without clothes (which, is to say, naked mice). Spiegelman properly characterized the action as “Orwellian.”

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.