Softening the Blow – Maus, The Holocaust Museum, and the Representation of History

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

8 thoughts on “Softening the Blow – Maus, The Holocaust Museum, and the Representation of History

  1. I think that books like Maus are effective ways to discuss difficult events in history. Though Maus is a graphic novel, it differs from what consumers may refer to as a “comic book”. Spiegelman’s characters are thoughtfully drawn, and portray such humanistic emotions that they are able to convince the reader about the personal and humanistic elements of mass genocide. In this sense, such visual depictions of human-like expressions and experiences, like the personal photographs at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, work to give agency to the individuals whose life stories were affected by the violence.

  2. Nick, your post really reminds me of the day Newtown happened. I was astounded by how quickly the online museum community responded to the tragedy. Within hours, both AAM and the Association of Children’s Museums posted this link: I thought it was amazing how the museum world embraced those effected by the tragedy, and reached out to any child who needed a calm presence and their questions answered. I wish it was more common to handle difficult topics with the level of honesty and kindness as we did on that day.

  3. I remember when Chris and I vacationed in DC how insistent he was to visit the Holocaust Museum. While I wanted to go, I also knew that it would influence the rest of the day…and it did. We were quiet but spoke often about our visit and new aspects of the Holocaust we had never known about before. Chris coined the phrase “embracing the bummer” on that day.

  4. It’s interesting that Nick saw the Maus books in a childrens section. I remember what happened when my parents saw them with the kid’s books, they told me that Maus was inappropriate for children and that I should not read them until I was older. It’s a graphic novel with animals, but Art Spiegelmen did not write it for children and it’s not really a series that most kids can really understand. Children should be taught about the Holocaust, but at a level that best suits them. I remember reading the novel Daniel’s Story at a fairly young age, but it made more sense because the Holocaust was explained in terms I could readily understand.

    1. What kind of children are we talking about here? Because while it’s true that the book it clearly not written FOR children, I’m not sure that it would be so far above their comprehension, especially if we’re talking about kids around 10-12. The format especially seems like it might make it more palatable for kids.

      I actually just asked google if Maus was appropriate for kids, and the first result I got was an elementary level lesson plan for teaching the graphic novel. The Holocaust is definitely something we should teach children, and preferably in an honest and straightforward way. I think Maus is a pretty good resource for that.

  5. Prior to this class I had never read Maus, and so I came at the book from an informed perspective compared to if I encountered it as a child. In reading it, I don’t think the graphic novel is designed for an adolescent audience, however I do think that this would be an appropriate way for teens to learn and discuss the topic.

  6. It’s interesting, while I agree that Maus isn’t inappropriate for kids, I wouldn’t call it a “kids book” or think about it as an introduction to the Holocaust for young people. While the use of animals does create a feeling of disconnect, I would even say that it creates a harshly ironic tone, not a softer one (but maybe that’s just me). I see it more as part of the trend of making comic books “for adults” in the ’80s and ’90s (like Watchman, Sandman, etc.)

  7. I felt the same way about the book. I actually assumed it was made for adults, and didn’t even consider it being something a child would ever read until I saw this post. It’s an interesting discussion, I’m not sure how I would approach a subject like this as a parent, and that’s something that definitely needs to be considered as a museum professional – how to present a topic as sensitive as this. With that in mind I think this venue is a good way, compared to some other options – videos, text labels, etc. I think the book is honest but not too horrific for a child to comprehend. However, it would open the floodgates for more difficult discussion (obviously), about death, religion, hate, and all of those things we tend to avoid when around children.

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