With the success of the film ‘Dunkirk’ I was reminded of an assignment I did last year that looked at historical representations in books and films and their accuracy. Thus I have decided to upload an adapted version of the piece I did which focuses on one representation that tells the story of the Holocaust and what we can learn from it. At the end of this post I will include a few links if you are interested in finding out more about the book and its author.
Although there are numerous films and works of literature on the subject of the Holocaust, for me, one of the most interesting works that seeks to convey and narrate this tragic event is ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman. ‘Maus’ details the story of Spiegelman’s father and his experience as a Polish Jew- beginning in the late 1930s before the outbreak of World War II. We learn about the gradual segregation of Jews from society as Spiegelman’s father is forced into the ghetto and eventually is sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz. However, what is unique about this piece of work is that it is a graphic novel and thus Spiegelman intertwines visual art with the written narrative in order to present this personal story to the reader.
Even though the characters in ‘Maus’ are real Spiegelman uses animals to characterise the various different nationalities and ethnicities within the novel, for example the French are depicted as frogs, the Poles as pigs, the Germans as cats and perhaps, most crucially, the Jews are represented as mice. In terms of accuracy obviously the book does not give a realistic depiction of the appearance of these different groups, however, this characterisation is an effective way by which to attempt to accurately represent the perceptions that society had towards these groups. By depicting the Jews as mice, Spiegelman reflects the Nazi ideology of how they were seen as ‘vermin’ and a ‘racial’ group that needed to be exterminated. Furthermore, as the novel retells a Jewish account of the ordeals they suffered this suggests how this message infiltrated into their mindset as well. Jews would feel inferior as they were constantly bombarded by an ideology that demeaned them- affecting how they saw themselves.
By depicting the Jews as mice, Spiegelman also highlights their vulnerability which is particularly emphasised when one contrasts them with the German Nazis who are symbolised by cats. Here, Spiegelman plays on the idea of the predator versus prey relationship- epitomised by the cat chasing the mouse. This characterisation enables Spiegelman to show the relentless nature of the Nazis with their desire for the complete annihilation of the Jewish ‘race’ akin to a cat’s unyielding determination to kill a mouse. A cat won’t give up until it has caught the mouse and likewise Spiegelman wants to show how the Nazis would not stop in their quest to remove what they saw as an obstacle and it is this mind-set that enabled the ‘Final Solution’ to become a practical policy.
The animals chosen to represent other racial groups are significant as well as Spiegelman uses them to show the prevalence of stereotypes within society. For example, the depiction of the French as frogs is notable as the idea of the French as a nation that eats frog legs is a stereotype that still exists today. Hence Spiegelman can be seen as not only representing past views towards different nationalities but also highlighting how some of these perceptions have continued into modern day society. Furthermore, by establishing this connection between the past and the present Spiegelman attempts to explain one of the most fundamental and difficult questions underpinning the Holocaust- ‘how did society allow this to happen?’ As we today often hold preconceived notions towards various groups, in a sense one can understand how these notions can develop from mere ideas to practical actions against what comes to be perceived as a threat or problem.
Another important aspect of the book is how the narrative acknowledges and incorporates Spiegelman’s process of interviewing his father. By detailing the method behind the book’s creation ‘Maus’ can be seen as a pictorial representation of the discipline of oral history. Spiegelman’s father is telling the story to us, the reader, through his conversations with his son and thus we are getting his experiences and his perceptions of how he remembers events. This means that- as is this case with any oral history source- the reliability of the narrator can be questioned. The past that Spiegelman’s father recreates and which is then represented by Spiegelman in the novel thus has a degree of uncertainty in regards to its accuracy. Nevertheless, as the story correlates to various other sources this diminishes any of these doubts.
Furthermore, as ‘Maus’ is in a sense an oral history, one can learn about the emotional impact that the event had on Spiegelman’s father, through what he actually narrates, as well as his demeanour and attitude during the interview process as a whole. For example, at the beginning of the book we understand that Spiegelman has been wanting to tell his father’s tale for a while, however his father has been somewhat reluctant to do it. He tells his son it is ‘better you should spend your time to make drawings what will bring you some money.’ Not only does this suggest that Spiegelman’s father does not want to talk about his past, it also shows how he does not think that his story is important or interesting enough to be shared. To him his story is not one that others would want to hear. This is significant as it suggests that witnesses and participants may interpret their roles within history in a different way to historians.
Throughout the novel we can see how Spiegelman effectively uses his symbolic imagery of the animals to represent the oral history of his father and to emphasise the role that emotions and perceptions play when analysing and understanding history. This is particularly of note when one seeks to find a meaning to horrific events, such as the Holocaust which challenge the moral and ethnic guidelines of the society with live in. Spiegelman’s use of characterisations could distance the reader from the reality of the story, however, the inclusion of a photograph of his father wearing his camp uniform at the end of the book ensures that the reader is reminded
that this story is true. We cannot escape the fact that the Holocaust did happen. Therefore, ultimately, ‘Maus’ acts as a representation of the past that shows that in reality the truth is often harder to explain than fiction.