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Maus: Revisited

Saul Tzadka (02/02/2012)

On the 25th anniversary of his famous graphic novel, centred on the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman records all that happened since.

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Two of the pages in Spiegelman’s new book feature copies of letters sent to the author from countless American publishers. They loved the book, but were too concerned to actually publish the book. They were afraid of public reaction. Jews as mice? Holocaust comics? God Forbid! In 1983, the brave publisher was found and the book turned into a bestseller, giving its author international fame and a Pulitzer Prize.

The first Maus was followed by a second Maus, and although Spiegelman swore he wouldn’t deal with the Holocaust any longer, it was stronger than him. Millions of copies were translated to many languages (Chinese, Korean, Croatian and even Pashtu but never Arabic). In the same way that Joseph Heller is now only remembered for Catch 22, while his other works are mostly ignored, Maus I and Maus II became bestsellers, pushing Spiegelman’s other work to the sidelines of history.

In fact, the person responsible for MetaMaus is Professor Hilary Chute of the University of Chicago, who, over the years, collected all the documents and recordings the books were based on from Spiegelman, and pushed him into an interview. The readers are not only introduced to what goes on behind the writing process, but also to the influence the different works had on him and his family. The result is impressive, especially thanks to the album-like format and the accompanying CD documenting the books, lists, and even the old recordings. For Spiegelman the experience was different, as his father, Vladek, on whom Maus was based, had passed away, and he chose to turn a new leaf in his professional life. “I didn’t want to be the Elie Wiesel of comics,” he confesses, almost apologetic for not overcoming the shadow casting over him for 25 years.

Front Cover of "MetaMaus"

The author himself was born after the war in Sweden (with the name Isaac Avraham Ben Zvi), where his parents escaped after liberation from Auschwitz. From there they immigrated to New York, settling in Queens. Like in many survivors’ families, the Holocaust was not to be mentioned, and this period was referred to vaguely as “The War”. The Eichmann trial was the first time that Spiegelman, the boy, was exposed to the horrors via TV broadcasts. His father bought him a 6-volume “Time Life” album of Churchill’s speeches, and the genocide of the European Jews was nothing but a footnote. “Churchill probably wasn’t really aware of what my parents have been through,” he points out bitterly. In 1972 he read Anne Frank’s Diary for the first time, and when one of the neighbourhood kids asked his mum for the meaning of her tattoo, she answered that it was a phone number she didn’t want to forget...

Lengthy conversations with Spiegelman alone were not enough for Professor Chute; she also interviews his daughter Nadja and his son Dash, and doesn’t disregard his wife Francois, a non-Jewish Frenchwoman, who converted to Judaism, against her husband’s wishes, out of respect for his father. Maus also changed their lives, and after the first book was published, they travelled together to Auschwitz with a German TV production, when Nadja was only 6 months old. The two remember their second visit to Birkenau, where they got lost after sunset due to a regional power cut. The great success got Spiegelman many offers from film producers, but so far he has answered them all with a definite no. “His other greatest achievement,” says his wife, “is his refusal to turn the book into a movie”.

The author’s Polish-born parents, Vladek and Anja, met in 1935. They married two years later, the same year as the birth of their first born Richieu. They were exposed to the Nazi flag for the first time through the train window on their way to a holiday in Czechoslovakia. In 1943 they got transferred to a work camp, leaving their son with a relative. She poisoned him and the rest of the kids in her care and committed suicide. In 1944, they were transferred to Auschwitz, and reunited at Sosnowitz, Vladek’s birthplace. After the war they went to Sweden and in 1951 they immigrated to the US with three year old Art. In 1968, Anja killed herself, and within eighteen months Vladek remarried.

In order to write the first book Spiegelman travelled to Poland and visited Auschwitz, where he discovered his parents’ arrival dates. He read every possible book about the Holocaust and researched all the details of Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial. Funnily enough, the book wasn’t a success in Israel. Maybe they weren’t ready for a cartoon about the Holocaust. “But what can you do,” he says, “my parents immigrated to New York and not Tel Aviv”. Others found it difficult to digest the portrayal of Jews as mice, although it is how the Germans described them. The second book was not even published in Hebrew, and, according to him, many Israelis read it in English. To this date many have not forgiven him for his work. Which reminded him of the time he was promoting the book at Frankfurt’s Book Fair, where a journalist that told him off, saying, “How can you turn the holocaust into comics? This is bad taste!” Spiegelman answered, “Auschwitz was in bad taste!”

Art Spiegelman. MetaMAUS. Viking pp. 300, £25


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1. Maks Author in 20/02/2012:
1:25pm, 09.Jul.09Glad you liked it! Growing up as a Jewish girl with grptdaarenns as survivors, you kind of get burnt out on Holocaust stuff (it's just ever-present), but Maus always held a special place in my heart. And Art is from my neighborhood!{}

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