On the Importance of Iconography in Holocaust Studies

When studying the Holocaust iconography plays an incredibly important role in the understanding and interpretation of the time. There is a greater depth of understanding when images are placed next to the testimonies of both survivors, and those that were killed throughout the horrific injustices perpetrated by the Nazis. Both Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Part 1 by Art Spiegelman and Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum by Edward R. Linenthal create a more powerful story through the use of images.

Maus is a graphic novel telling the story of Vladek Spiegelman and his struggle to survive the Holocaust in Poland. Art Spiegelman, his son, depicts the Nazis as cats, the Jews as mice, and non-Jewish Polish citizens as pigs. The simple connotation of cat-and-mouse is already a powerful image, but Spiegelman also beautifully creates artwork that reinforces the feeling of being trapped. All of the Jewish citizens know that the behind every corner is a potential mousetrap. This is illustrated when Vladek and Anja, Art’s mother, are

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Vladek and Anja walking in Poland

traveling to a safe house and the sidewalk forms to create a swastika, reinforcing this idea that nowhere is completely safe. The beauty of this graphic novel is that there are small details such as this one that the reader sees without explicitly being told exist. Every reader could have a different interpretation from the images that tell a more impactful story than the words themselves, and those different perspectives create an important dialogue.


Linenthal’s discussion of iconography in representing the Holocaust manifests itself at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). At USHMM, Linenthal and his team created a tower of faces all from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, the photographs depict a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. After the war only 20 members of this community survived the SS mobile killing squads. The images selected from this collection combine both people and scenery to give the viewer a complete idea of the community that was decimated. The images give life to the people of Eishishok; give them a face and not only part of a larger number. Certainly reading about a town being destroyed is horrifying, but looking into the eyes of all the victims, seeing the houses they grew up in, the parks they played in, creates a more significant and lasting experience for the visitor.

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The Tower of Faces at USHMM

Through the use of images Spiegelman and Linenthal have created a more powerful impression in both of their medium Spiegelman’s background is in comics therefore creating a graphic novel was a natural progression of his profession, but the choice of subject creates a novel that is more than simply entertainment. Linenthal is creating an exhibit that has an incredibly important message and that message is strengthened with the use of images. Together these narratives help the viewer truly understand the importance of “Never Again.”


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