Replaying Horrors with Cartoons and Toys

I didn’t live through the Holocaust.

I haven’t experienced human rights atrocities. Therefore, I’ll never fully comprehend the inhumanity suffered under Hitler’s regime. But I must try. As long as we value the sanctity of human life, each of us has a responsibility to ensure that the Holocaust and its victims are not forgotten. This begs the question: how do we preserve and retell history and memory when we can never completely grasp what happened?

Artists Art Spiegelman and David Levinthal would argue that since the Holocaust was so incomprehensible—particularly to those who never experienced it—Holocaust history and memory might effectively be communicated through the absurd. In Maus, Spiegelman, the son of Auschwitz survivors, tells his father Vladek’s story through a graphic novel. The younger Spiegelman’s process of recording his father’s memories is verbally and visually interspersed with the elder Spiegelman’s oral history. At first, a cartoon seems an odd, even irreverent medium through which to explore the Holocaust. Yet the inside cover of the book defends this choice: “Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice) succeeds perfectly in shocking us out of any lingering sense of familiarity with the events described, approaching, as it does, the unspeakable through the diminutive.”[1] The cartoon form effectively communicates evocative, emotional imagery, and visualizes the tension between Art’s and Vladek’s narrative voices.

Scene from Levinthal's Mein Kampf. davidlevinthal.com

Spiegelman’s Maus is frequently compared to the work of David Levinthal, another child of a Holocaust survivor.[2] Levinthal’s Mein Kampf is a series of photographs of toy Nazi figurines committing atrocities.[3] Mein Kampf has appeared in many locations, including the former Judah L. Magnes Museum at Berkeley and the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco.[4] Levinthal used Nazi action figures, miniature dolls, and meticulously designed backgrounds to construct scenes of mass murders, rapes, gas chambers, concentration camps, and crematoriums. It is unclear whether his scenes were based upon actual photographs or images of war crimes seared in popular memory. Rather than displaying the three-dimensional tableaux, he photographed his scenes. The images are slightly blurred. It is, at first, difficult to discern what’s going on, though one does get the sense that it’s something sinister. The barely visible Nazi armbands, machine guns, and nude women confirm that these are scenes of Nazi crimes. The blurriness of the photos places the burden of memory on the viewer: the viewer has a choice to let the challenging image fade into obscurity, or to recognize it as a scene of a horrific event.

Both Spiegelman and Levinthal use nontraditional media not only to preserve memory but also to demonstrate how far removed they were from the Holocaust. Spiegelman inserts his father’s narration into the framework of his struggle to preserve his father’s memories. The graphic novel format illustrates the shifts between Art’s and Vladek’s narrative voices; this allows the reader to visualize that Vladek’s story is being filtered through Art’s process of memorialization. Consequently, Maus is a secondary source, rather than a primary one. Levinthal, meanwhile, takes photographs of tableaux based upon photographs or memories of actual events. As a result, his work is several degrees removed from reality. How would it be different if his work were not photographs, but the three-dimensional scenes themselves? The name “Mein Kampf”, or “My Struggle”, may also have another meaning in addition to referring to Hitler’s 1925 book; it could signify Levinthal’s “struggle” to comprehend and express what his family and others endured. Through the mediation of comics and toys, Spiegelman and Levinthal articulated their distance from horrors of the Holocaust, thereby recognizing that they could never fully grasp what happened.

Scene from Levinthal's Mein Kampf. davidlevinthal.com

Aside from confirming the difficulty of memorializing the Holocaust, Spiegelman’s and Levinthal’s work raise some interesting questions. How do survivors and non-survivors approach the memorialization process differently? Are non-traditional media the only way non-survivors can memorialize the Holocaust? Do absurd forms of memorialization stem exclusively from the younger generations’ failure to fully comprehend the Holocaust? Or was the Holocaust so absurd that survivors may also use non-traditional media to tell their stories?

[1] Art Spiegelman, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), inside front cover.

[2] Kenneth Baker, “The Holocaust on a Whole New Scale.” San Francisco Chronicle. 14 May 1996. Accessed 27 March 2011. < http://articles.sfgate.com/1996-05-14/entertainment/17774840_1_mein-kampf-nazis-and-victims-adolf-hitler>.; Christopher Benfey, “David Levinthal’s Dollhouse History.” Slate Magazine. 20 February 1997. Accessed 27 March 2011. < http://slatest.slate.com/id/3469/>.

[3] David Levinthal, “Mein Kampf, 1993-1994.” David Levinthal. Accessed 27 March 2011. < http://www.davidlevinthal.com/works_mk.html>.

[4] Baker, “The Holocaust on a Whole New Scale.”

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