Only one comic book has ever won a Pulitzer prize, that being Maus – A Survivor’s Tale. It won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 for its author, Art Spiegelman. However, to call it a comic book does not do it service, as comic implies a level of humour involved. The term graphic novel would suit more, as the book is an artistic representation of the author’s father and his recounting of life as a Polish Jew in the 1930’s and his subsequent interment in Auschwitz. The story switches between the author’s father recounting the wartime and then his later life in New York.
The book is written in two volumes, with the first part called My Father Bleeds History which chronicles Vladek Speigelman’s time from the mid-1930’s to winter 1944. The second volume is called And Here My Troubles Began and describes time spent in Auschwitz and ends with the later life of the author and his father in 1970’s New York.
The story is very gripping, but what distinguishes it from our tales recounting the war years or Holocaust, is the understanding of how the situations experienced affected the person involved later in life. Vladek Spiegelman was a well-educated businessman in 1930’s Poland living in Częstochowa. He worked in the textiles and fabrics industry before he met his wife to be, Anja Zylberberg. Her family owned a factory in Sosnowiec, so they moved there after getting married in the mid 1930’s, having a young son shortly afterwards. As the Nazis decided to become aggressive, eventually invading Poland in 1939, life for Jews like Vladek and Anja became much more difficult. Eventually as the Nazis advanced, they sent their son to stay with a friend but as the Germans came to bring Jews to the gas chambers their friend decided to poison herself, her children and Vladek and Anja’s son to avoid death in the gas chambers.
The couple eventually were taken to Auschwitz in 1944 to labour in the work-camp. A strong work ethic, good contacts from his life as a businessman, and some good luck helped Vladek and Anja survive. However, 20 years after the war, Anja committed suicide, supposedly as a result of trying to deal with the effects of the war. Vladek remarried to another Auschwitz survivor called Mala. However, his life had also been changed for the worse by his time in Auschwitz, for exmaple mainfesting itself in a hate to waste food, to the point of returning half a box of cereal to the supermarket to get a return on the money paid as the cereal would not be eaten. The author himself, Art Spiegelman, has to deal with his mother’s suicide, his increasing frustration with his father’s behaviour and also his own guilt that he does not understand the Holocaust because he did not experience it (as he was born in 1948 in America after Anja and Vladek moved to New York).
One key part of the structure of the story of Maus is anthropomorphism – that is animals being represented with human characteristics such as walking on two feet, talking and using human gestures and expressions. In this book, Spiegelman used specific types of animals for different races , religions and nationalities. The main ones are listed below:
Jews as mice (regardless of nationality)
Germans/Nazis as cats (chasing mice)
Americans as dogs (chasing the cats)
British as fish (hunted in a way by cats by usually protected by the relative safety of water)
French as frogs (as a stereotype?)
Swedes as deer
Poles as pigs
Spiegelman said said that he tried to represent all people of a nationality as one kind of animal as a metaphor for the absurdity of dividing people based on these lines. In an interview with Comics Journal in 1991, he said “these metaphors… are meant to self-destruct in my book — and I think they do self-destruct.”The book is highly acclaimed and is very much worth reading. Because it blends the experiences of surviving Auschwitz with dealing with later life and the knock-on effect it really shows more than many other tales recounting Holocaust experiences. It should be recommended reading for anyone with an interest in this time in history. Praise for the book includes:
“An epic story told in tiny pictures” The New York Times
“A quiet triumph, moving and simple – impossible to describe accurately, and impossible for achieve in any medium but comics” Washington Post
“The most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” Wall Street Journal