6 million is the figure that springs to mind first when I start thinking about the Holocaust, but try as I might I can’t seem to find exactly where this figure comes from. Conservative estimates range from just under 6 million, right up to a staggering 26 million depending on your definition. What’s fairly certain though is that these figures don’t include those who died indirectly as a result of the Holocaust years, or maybe even decades later. The suicides. The broken hearts. Nor do these figures give any idea of the number of people who struggled with the fall out of the Holocaust to the end of their natural lives, often having an impact on their children and loved ones.
In 1992 American cartoonist Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel, Maus. Spiegelman interviewed his father Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, about his experiences with the aim of turning them into a graphic novel. Tricky stuff this, the Holocaust doesn’t really lend itself easily as a subject for a cartoonist. Spiegelman made the decision to portray the characters in the story as animals, the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, and the Americans are dogs. There is no human or sub-human here, just small animals helping or terrorizing each other arbitrarily.
What is fascinating about Maus is that is more than just the story of Vladek’s experiences during the war. Maus becomes the story of how the Holocaust continued to effect him even as an old man in America, and how this in turn had an impact on Art Spiegelman himself. Vladek’s foibles are want to drive his young son insane, he is stubborn, tight fisted with money to the extent that Art complains his father fulfills the stereotype of the money grabbing old Jew. Vladek is unable to see any little useless thing go to waste; picking up bits of wire off the street, trying to return opened boxes of cereal to the supermarket. Added to all of that is the nightmares and the sadness, even after surviving Auschwitz and losing their first son in a ghetto liquidation Vladek’s wife Antje committed suicide in 1968.
Suddenly it becomes clear that the legacy of the Holocaust outlasts its original victims. Art Spiegelman himself spent time in a mental institution, dealing with his own problems, but no doubt with those of his parents looming large. Maus is more than just a graphic novel to entertain and educate, it’s a book that helps to get out the story of the children of the survivors, and for Art Spiegelman surely a form of therapy to deal with his troubled family history.