I first encountered “Maus I” years ago in the juvenile section of my local public library, having not read it but knowing the premise of the graphic novel. The book made me think about how I would educate my children about difficult topics in history. This question has again arisen as I have become a father considering how I will discuss them with my own daughter.
The telling of painful moments in history is and has been a contentious issue. How much information should an educational institution – whether a museum or school – disseminate, how should it present the material, and how do you help the visitor/student process what they have learned? Reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Edward T. Linenthal’s Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, there are many answera to this question.
Spiegelman’s Maus follows the process of the author recording his father Vladek Spiegelman’s experience during the holocaust. Living in Poland with his wife Anja, Spieglman shares their experience escaping the Nazis and adapting to a life constantly on the run, ending at the gates of Auschwitz. As captivating is the personal relationship between the author and his father, which is as tumultuous as the Vladek’s story. Spiegelman’s uses the familiar adversarial relationship of cat (the Nazis) and mouse (European Jews) to tell his story.
Despite the format Spiegelman uses, the author does not gloss over difficult subjects. When his father tells the story about the hanging of 4 Jews who were dealing in the food coupon black market that grew in Nazi-constructed Jewish ghettos, Spiegelman shows the mice hung for public display. Vladek recalls the names of the hung, their jobs, and other personal information that makes these otherwise unknown drawings more human, and ultimately more emotional (I). The novel does not make light of the plight of its antagonists, instead making the story in a way easier to consume. The use of nonhuman characters makes the graphic reality of the holocaust – which is not avoided nor minimized – more palpable to a younger or uninitiated reader.
While the approach taken in Maus has a milder impact on the viewer, the Holocaust took a different route. The museum design team wanted the experience ‘… to be “visceral” enough so that visitors would gain no respite from the narrative (II).’ The design of the museum brings the visitor into the experience. The use of photography can be particularly jarring. Portions of the exhibit show a shtetl in Ejszyszki, Lithuania, prior to the Nazi occupation that decimated the community. These photographs show the Jewish population not as victims, but as living full lives. As Arnold Kramer, a full-time photographer for the museum puts it, “They are the hardest pictures in the exhibit, for you bring a knowledge of the future to these pictures that these people didn’t have. (III)”
These and other photographs and objects bring to the viewer a connection perhaps lost in Maus. The anthropomorphism of mice, while creating a captivating story, takes away enough of the humanity from the story to keep the reader somewhat detached. The graphic novel format, too, can make the work seem like a piece of fiction. Works like Maus, however, can provide a gateway to institutions like the Holocaust Museum. A person unfamiliar with the Holocaust, whether a child or an adult, can read Maus and begin to understand what occurred during the horrific genocide. The book does not soften the visual impact the images in the museum were intended to give, instead providing another level of context to the visitor. While Maus is an emotional story, the museum’s narrative is purposely dispassionate to maintain the power the images and objects hold (IV). Maus, in its own way, augments the humanity of the imagery.
All too often, rather than discuss painful topics we ignore them, cast them as insignificant, or hide them under the veil of “the past.” To ignore or lessen the importance of these topics does a great disservice to our children and visitors alike. Are books like Maus effective ways to discuss difficult events in history, or do they detach the reader from reality? What other ways can we discuss the hard of histories?
(I) Art Spiegelman, Maus I (New York: Penguin, 1986), 82-83.
(II) Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 169
(III) Linenthal, 185
(IV) Linenthal, 186