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Representation of Holocaust in Maus

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Amongst the numerous amounts of literature, films, documentaries, exhibitions, and monuments, Art Spiegelman’s representation of the Holocaust and its memory in Maus is considered to be one of the most compelling, heartbreaking, and creative. His approach was ground-breaking as Spiegelmen expands and reinterprets both the traditional mediums and comic forms of telling history to relate and express the history of how his father had survived the Holocaust. Spiegelman also addresses and explores the burden and legacy of traumatic memories on second-generation survivors. Associating a variety of themes, characterizations, and genres, Maus shows the process of, and Spiegelman’s relationship to, and remembrance through a combination of texts and images. With this, we see Spiegelman’s work within the framework of second-generation Holocaust literature and post-memory and discuss the debate regarding his representation of the memory process and the Holocaust represented as a comic, along with the use of animal characters in exchange for humans. The story that Spiegelman expresses through Maus narrates the story of Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, two survivors of Auschwitz who starts their life over in Queens, New York. Art Spiegelman, their son, interviews and records his father’s memories and experiences in a set of interviews. This story primarily focuses on Vladek’s life starting in 1930’s Poland to the end of the Second World War. With great detail, the memoir recounts his romantic relationship with Anja; his rise through business in Sosnowiec a town in Poland; his time serving in the Polish army and also his capture and release by the Nazis in 1939; the plans and strategies he created to hide with Anja to avoid being sent to the camps; and the experiences he went through while in Auschwitz. From a more broad point of view, Vladek’s account traces the transition of the position of the Jews in Poland through the practice and implementation of the Third Reich anti-Semitic policies. Moving back and forth between the past and the present and full of self-reflexivity, the narrative simultaneously records Vladek’s post-Holocaust life in America, Art’s childhood, and the existing relationship between father and son.

Maus is considered to be one of a larger body of second-generation Holocaust pieces of literature. The children of Holocaust survivors either grew up listening to the tragic events that had transpired at that point in history or had that point in time silenced throughout their everyday lives. As Anne Karpf acknowledges, “It seems then as if I had not lived the central experience in my life—at its heart, at mine, was an absence” (McGlothlin, Erin, 1). Maus excellently shows how these children, in the same way as Art, possess a distinct sense of bearing, an unlived experience in the Holocaust past displayed within the present. The result of being strongly marked by its legacy, many of those from the second generation create their identity concerning the Holocaust, exploring it through different pieces of imaginative art and writing, hoping to fill and restore the gaps created by a void that no one could understand. Marianne Hirsch describes this effort as reflective of “post-memory,” which can be seen as the second generation’s response to the trauma they had inherited from their parents (Hirsche, Marianne, 8). On the other hand, Hirsche argues that the idea of “post-memory is a powerful form of memory only because of its connection to its object or source is resolved not through recollection, but creation, projection, and representation” (9). James E. Young appropriately notes that since the majority of survivor-children were born after the time of the Holocaust, they only wish to express their knowledge and experience of these events that were learned through, and mediated, through this transmission.

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Being concerned less with certainty and historical truth, “post memorial writing makes use of narrative to show understanding of the impossible and fully grasp what happened, even as it moves forward to create a story about the Holocaust”(McGlothlin, 11). The work of the second generation, therefore, illustrates a process showing distanced and dual memory. For example, “instead of trying to remember events, they recall their relationship to the memory of events… It becomes a memory of a witness’s memory” (Young, James, 670). The entirety of Maus records and explores this act of dual memory, as Spiegelman recounts the experiences in which his father’s memories are shown. According to Erin McGlothlin, post memorial work performs a crucially double role by recording the historical and personal trauma caused by the Holocaust and making the rehabilitation of the second-generation to its unlived past easier (McGlothlin, 11). During a certain point, Spiegelman lives through and recalls the effects that his father’s memories have on him. For example, in the opening scene, we see that Vladek, instead of comforting his son after his friends leave him, cynically states that friends are untrustworthy and fickle (Spiegelman, 4-5). Furthermore, Maus is part of second-generation literature that focuses on learning about the influence that the first generation’s past has on their present and to work through and understand their relationship and identity in the context of this absent and traumatic past.

The idea of using a comic to express this tragic time in history is highly advantageous and very useful in delivering the memorial narrative of the Holocaust. Defining his particular style as “commix” (the commixture of words and pictures to tell a story), Spiegelman explains that “the strength of commix lies in its ability almost to create a ‘mental language’ that closely relates to human thought than either pictures or words” (Young, 672). This particular combination of text and photo allows a multiply layered story with different levels of meaning communicated through the simultaneous movement of observation, image, and word. Spiegelman describes how it “operates somewhere between the words and the idea that is in the picture and in the movement between the pictures, which is the essence of what occurs in a comic” (Brown, 104). Moreover, such a process keeps the reader mentally and physically engaged in connecting and understanding the relationship between the text and the images. Spiegelman had sought to reduce the gap between images and words by creating simpler graphics, explaining, “I did not want people to get too interested in the drawings. I wanted them to be there, but the story operates somewhere else… so, by not focusing too hard on these people, you are forced back into your role as a reader rather than a looker” (Brown, 104). The images help aid in the ‘understanding’ of Vladek’s words, while the text helps to facilitate and contextualize the illustration. Although Spiegelman presents the particular images created in his mind by Vladek’s statements, and he does so in a way that does not diminish the reader’s imagination but stimulates it, the simple drawings engage the reader in the ‘filling-out of the image (Brown, 104).

Although Young argues that Maus represents a model of “received history,” it is better understood as a reflection of Saul Friedlander’s idea for a particular historical narrative that, in its essence, preserves the memory of the Holocaust. Young has described ‘received history’ as “a narrative hybrid that interweaves both events of the Holocaust and the ways they are passed down to us” (Young, 669). While Maus does creatively fulfill this criterion, we see that Young urgently places it into this category and dismisses it as an actual answer to the idea proposed by Friedlander. Friedlander argues and demands historiography in which the narrative is disrupted by the historian’s voice to introduce alternate perspectives, comment, avoid the necessity of closure, and be critical of partial conclusions and catharsis to remind readers that history is remembered in context, by a particular person in a specific time and place (Young, 667-668) Maus has proven to successfully achieve all these objectives. Consequently, Maus fulfills Friedlander’s request for a narrative form that integrates ‘common memory’ and ‘deep memory’(Friedlander, Saul): one that makes events coherent and yet indicates the ultimate incoherence of the victim’s experience (Young, 668).

Elie Wiesel’s famously posed question, “How does one remember?” (Landsberg, Allison, 64) This question suggests that, for the Holocaust to be secured in history, it must first and foremost be preserved in the memory of those who had experienced this tragic event and those that learn about it from school or relatives. Maus answers this question through its incredibly insightful recognition of this memory and the Holocaust itself. Through the commixture of images and words, Spiegelman reinterprets and expands the traditional perceptions regarding comics and the different representations of the Holocaust. Spiegelman skillfully avoids trivializing the Holocaust by moving through a variety of imagistic styles, temporalities, and imagistic styles. Maus illustrates the influential, mutually, and intimate constitutive relationship between the present and the past. In a piece such as this, memory cannot be judged with the same criteria of accuracy, coherency, and analysis that historiography imposes in its attempt at equality, because in the course of remembering, historical facts may be altered, lost, or misinterpreted. However, this does not prevent the ability of memory to represent, add to, or provide humanism and realism to the ‘objective’ facts of the tragedy. Moreover, memory offers alternative perspectives and insight into the ‘official’ or general outlook on a historical event. Ultimately, Maus is not a fictional comic strip, nor is it an illustrated novel, however unusual the form, it is an important historical work that offers historians a unique approach to narrative construction and interpretation. 

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