Academic journal article MELUS

The Shoah Goes on and On: Remembrance and Representation in Art Spiegelman's 'Maus.'

Academic journal article MELUS

The Shoah Goes on and On: Remembrance and Representation in Art Spiegelman's 'Maus.'

Article excerpt

In some of the huts are huge glass-enclosed showcases of death. Behind the glass are great bunches of human hair, piles of shoes, stacks of eyeglass frames, heaps of gold teeth and silver fillings, a tangled mass of crutches and artificial limbs, a jumble of dishes, pots, and brushes, and mounds of valises, prayer shawls, books, phylacteries, and clothing - the pitiful possessions of the former inmates. In other cases are displayed tattoo needles for putting prison numbers on the victims, uniforms, rations, insignia, letters written by forced laborers and never mailed, communications from camp officials boasting of their brutality, models of the gas chambers and crematoria, pieces of skin, whips, instruments of torture, and sticks with bloodstains still on them.

- Description of Auschwitz in 1971 (Postal and Abramson)

The two volumes of Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale - My Father Bleeds History (1986) and And Here My Troubles Began (1991) - can perhaps most easily be described as a comic strip about the Holocaust with Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Maus does not necessarily introduce historical materials unfamiliar to scholars or students of the Nazi genocide, nor does it add substantially to existing descriptions of the conditions concentration camp inmates experienced. What it does do is present a story of this "central trauma of the Twentieth Century" (Speigelman qtd. in Dreifus 36) that is much more accessible to a general audience than many other accounts, because it is particularly effective at inviting emotional involvement. Spiegelman's book represents an unerringly earnest attempt at an oral history of the 1930s and 1940s in Poland as experienced by Vladek Spiegelman, a survivor of Auschwitz and the author's father. At first a youthful and debonair textile merchant, Vladek slowly; and with mounting intensity, finds his life intertwined with the advances of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. It is a story told in a way that makes plausible how people could accept for so long that their personal safety was not endangered. By the end of 1943, however, Vladek and his wife Anja are driven into hiding, and within months they are captured and transported to Auschwitz.

The second story in Maus (and it is no less central) concerns Art Spiegelman's own life as he seeks to come to terms with his relationship with Vladek, a story tragically tied to the suicide in 1968 of Art's mother Anja, survivor of Birkenau. Vladek is demanding and inconsiderate. Art is sarcastic and bitter. Both men act out of anger and selfishness. Yet the talking about the past gives them a reason to speak with one another, for without that reason they might have no relationship at all. Maus clearly documents how the son's ambivalence towards his father in the present immensely complicates the work of reclaiming and representing the world of Vladek's past.

Maus needs to be understood not only as a comic book, but also as an oral narrative, one that struggles to represent, in pictures and writing, spoken memories. As such, it is part of a larger tradition in twentieth century minority and ethnic literature: narratives that rely on the immediacy and authority of oral encounters with members of persecuted and oppressed groups in order to counter "official versions" of history that marginalize or even deny these groups' experiences and perspectives. John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks and Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men are two prominent early twentieth century efforts of this sort; more recent "remembering books," such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and those by Tomas Rivera and Maxine Hong Kingston, are also in this lineage. In spite of the Holocaust's frequent inclusion in "official histories" and the widespread attention given it in cultural documents of many sorts (more on this below), Holocaust survivors' testimonial literature also belongs in this genre. Orality's "authority" has resonances and functions that are different for every ethnic group, but all oral narratives make strategic choices about how to represent remembrances. …

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