Up Close and Personal

I get emotional every time I read a Holocaust survivor’s memoir, watch the movie Life is Beautiful, or view Holocaust themed works of art. Beyond the inevitable tears, my immediate reaction to stories about the Holocaust includes anger, disillusionment, and the realization that I can never truly understand the horror that millions of people experienced. Because of this, I was surprised when I did not cry during my 2005 visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Oświęcimiu, Poland. Instead, I remember nervously laughing with my undergraduate classmates as I searched for, and failed to find, an emotional connection to the site.

Photo by Logaritmo, November 28, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

My experience in Poland made me realize that I feel more emotionally and intellectually connected to the past when reading a poignant Holocaust memoir, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, than I did when I stood among the stark, empty barracks of Auschwitz. A graphic novel that relies heavily on illustration to convey its themes, Maus is one of the most effective Holocaust narratives I have ever read. I attribute that effectiveness to Spiegelman’s unique choice of genre and to his decision to focus the book on the heartbreaking experience of one individual, his father Vladek Spiegelman, and his family.

The success of Maus rests on Spiegelman’s seamless merging of language and illustration. Taken together, they reveal an emotional current that would be impossible to convey with text alone. Words cannot adequately express Vladek’s wife Anja’s emotional and physical collapse when she learns her son had been killed or Anja’s father’s devastated expression when he realizes he is being taken to his death [1]. Spiegelman’s technique of vividly describing and illustrating his characters’ pain rapidly cements the reader’s emotional investment in the story. Once this is accomplished, Spiegelman can easily and effectively convey his chosen themes.

The novel’s combination of illustration and dialogue allows Spiegelman to subtly employ his themes rather than explicitly state them. This encourages a close and dynamic reading of the book, which increases its effectiveness as an educational tool. Without acknowledging it in the text, Spiegelman depicts Jewish people as mice, German Nazis as cats, Polish people as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Occasionally, the Jewish men and women must wear pig masks in public to conceal their identities and blend in with their Polish neighbors. This hoax, blatantly obvious to the reader, goes unnoticed by the Nazis and Poles [2]. Spiegelman’s illustrations allow him to creatively highlight the ridiculousness of Hitler’s discrimination against Jewish people and insistence that Jewish people were a distinct race [3].

Photo of Art Spiegelman, 2007. Photo by Chris Anthony Diaz, April 30, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

By focusing on the experience of his own family, Spiegelman effectively conveys universal themes of loss, sacrifice, love, memory, and identity. When Vladek’s father climbs a fence to join his daughter and her four children as they are being sent to one of the camps, his sacrifice gives a face and a story to the unnamed men and women who made similar decisions [4]. It may seem contradictory, but I believe that Spiegelman’s narrow scope, which fosters the reader’s connection to the fate of Vladek and his extended family, ultimately reveals more about the Holocaust than a visit to an actual concentration camp. I argue that the public needs an anchor, something to grasp onto, if they are going to try to understand an inhumane and inexplicable event. Spiegelman’s accessible format and intimate portrait of one family provides that anchor. Auschwitz lacked that personal connection and perhaps that is why I did not shed tears or feel strong emotions while I was there.

When I returned from my college trip to Europe, my classmates and I designed a public exhibition to show our fellow students what we had learned about the Holocaust. My group constructed a Lego and wire model of Majdanek, a labor camp in Lublin, Poland that we had also visited. Looking back, I question that decision and wonder what concentration camps and other sites of atrocity can really teach us now. The stories aren’t there anymore. The stories are in autobiographies, oral histories and memoirs/graphic novels like Maus.

[1] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. 1: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon, 1973), 122 and 115.

[2] Ibid., 64.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid., 91.



9 thoughts on “Up Close and Personal

  1. I actually had the opposite experience when I read Maus. I felt less connected to the characters and the story on a powerful emotional level then I did at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Granted, the museum curators and staff consciously dramatized their narrative to instil a sense of sadness, fear and helplessness in the visitors, to generate outrage and facilitate connections. I did enjoy Maus on a literary and intellectual level. I enjoyed the connections between people and animals and I did like the Oral History like approach that Spiegelman used to tell the story of his father’s survival during the Holocaust, and his own relationship with his father. I think for me, the medium itself distracted me from having a real emotional connection to the characters. What did disturb me was Spiegelman’s comic about his mother, which is drawn with human characters.

    I agree that the museum at Aushwitz probably would have been better with the personalized/human connection and I wonder if the staff there are interested in doing that. Whether they think it would be appropriate or whether visitors would think it was appropriate.

  2. I think the issue of personally connecting to the Holocaust is extremely difficult, and I really do like Maus because the illustrations, coupled with the text, seem very honest, and portray a personal aspect that I can’t get to the same extent from a museum. While I know that the Holocaust Museum in D.C. has really worked to make the experience personal for each visitor, giving them identification cards, it’s not quite the same. For me, Spiegelman’s approach of portraying different people as different animals, and illustrating the sheer madness of it all, with the pig masks and the different animals, makes it seem a little more real. The ongoing dialogue between Art and his father also personalize it, because it gives a single story that interweaves the experience of one family in the context of a greater tragedy and story.

    In terms of Auschwitz and the current site interpretation, I question whether there should be more interpretation, and I guess I wouldn’t necessarily be in favor of it. I know that there are currently discussions about the concentration camps and their slow dilapidation, and whether they should be restored. For me, I would think that the setting and the buildings would speak for themselves, and that knowledge of the atrocities that happened there would be enough. Otherwise, I would worry that stories would get lost, and interpreting such a site could be extremely problematic, especially because of the breadth of the experiences people had there.

  3. Books, graphic novels, testimonies, museums, and spaces all reveal and teach different, and valuable lessons about the Holocaust. But how each source affects us highly personal. Yes, Maus gave me a completely different perspective on the Holocaust and evoked in me a whole range of emotions. However, my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007 was by far a more moving experience. As an American Jew who lost family members in Auschwitz, I realize that I have that ready-made “anchor.” However, I also believe in the power of unmediated, uninterpreted spaces—particularly places like Auschwitz—to tell a story and to communicate the emotions and energies that once dwelled there. Even though I’ll never come close to comprehending what those who suffered endured, I was able to feel empathy on a level I’d never experienced before. I was most affected at Birkenau, which has been largely untouched (while Auschwitz has been interpreted). I wasn’t distracted by exhibits or interpretation; I was just able to exist in the space. Perhaps spaces are an untapped resource that allow museumgoers to connect with content on a whole new level.

  4. I was interested to read your response to your experience visiting Auschwitz and the lack of personal connection to the site. I agree with Mia that it’s an interesting contrast to the USMHM. But I also want to toss in a defense for thanatourism and placing the personal story in an institutional space.

    While I have not been to Auschwitz myself, my sister went as part of the 2008 March of Remembrance and Hope through Nazareth College. Their group toured the site with a survivor, which fostered incredible dialogue and emotional responses to the site. As an art student, she relayed the challenging emotions of the trip in print, jewelry, and metalwork pieces to share her experiences with friends and family stateside.

    Personally, I visited Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While some parts of the school-turned-torture site were unchanged, I found that the graphic portrayals of Tuol Sleng as a prison to fully conveyed the hideousness of the space. From that point on, I was immersed in the horrors of the Cambodian genocide and I could pick out the terrible details on my own.

    In short, I think that both site and story play integral, intertwined roles. What is the point of visiting the place without understanding what happened there? Whether through survivors sharing their experiences, carefully crafted exhibitions, or artful retellings such as Maus, the story is what makes the space meaningful. But it’s the space that gives the story a setting.

  5. I have read both parts of Maus multiple times and it always has a strong effect on me. It is so well executed and I do find that connection to Vladek and his family to be especially important. Though vastly different, the feeling is not unlike reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. Both books grasp you with stories of intense human struggle.

    As for Auschwitz, I have never visited but I believe that memorializing the “space” there is important. Though I do not have a personal family connection as an anchor, I do believe that historic spaces, especially those where great human suffering occur, bear a certain strength of space. Granted some of my background knowledge would give me a reference point from which to view the site. However, I believe much of this could be done outside of the actual site in dedicated exhibition areas. There is something very powerful about inhabiting historic spaces. Given that the visitor has some historical knowledge for context, I agree with Amanda that uninterpreted spaces can certainly allow a connection on a whole different level.

  6. I visited Dachau Concentration Camp five years ago with a large group of people my age and younger, and had a similar experience of not knowing how to relate to this horrific experience. I tried to picture what it would have truly looked like during its operation. I tried to imagine the smells and the sensations, but it was difficult to really feel connected. I felt as though the people who were interpreting and running the site were trying to let the buildings, the monuments, and the memorials speak for themselves. However, I feel that there is potential to bring the stories back and help interpret the experience. Perhaps, like Jill stated, bringing in a survivor could help with this, but I imagine finding enough people to staff the camp would be a challenge. This is where I think the museum or educators should encourage a reading of a book such as Night or Maus.

  7. You say that stories of atrocity aren’t there anymore in the actual site, that we can only access the pain experienced on those grounds through a personal interpretation. Do you think that sentiment also extends to sites of good instead of evil?

    My perennial example, Ellis Island, is a place of joy and happiness for millions of visitors. While visiting, people feel intensely connected to the feeling and the built environment. They remember stories that ancestors told them about the arduous overseas journey and the wonderful gateway Ellis Island served as to their new life. They often remark that until they visit the actual site, they never truly understand their relatives’ trials and tribulations. Is that only because, 98% of the time, people left Ellis alive and well and proceeded on to their future? I’m really not sure. I’d worry, though, that by attempting to connect to evil events only by reading about them or experiencing them through some other means of physical removal, we may be missing out on some intangible feeling that is solely contained in that site.

  8. I think the wide variety of reactions to Maus and holocaust sites like Auschwitz proves the necessity of having many different forms of interpretation and memorialization. There is no ‘right’ way to interpret the holocaust. History, particularly regarding horrific world-historical events, is not a problem to be solved. It is something to be explored. If there is one thing that books and historic sites should do, it is encourage people to learn more. They should get people to consider their reaction to history, and try to find more ways of understanding it. People take different paths in their efforts to understand the past. I think it is a testament to the memory of the holocaust that there are so many ways for people to learn about it.

  9. There is something very important about space. I believe that experience space and sites creates an emotional, almost guttural, feeling and connection. Uninterpreted spaces allow the visitor to connect to the basic feelings of the space.

    I was really struck by what you said in class about the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, Sarah. The way the architecture creates feeling and even sound to provoke feelings and consciousness. I think this type of interpretation is the best for sites that have emotional importance. Architecture and sculpture lend to the sense of place and help the site speak to the visitor through the physical.

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