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History N Literature: the Holocaust

In: English and Literature

Submitted By pooja1991
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History and its representation in literature


The Holocaust

Name: Pooja Nath
Entry No: 2009CH10087
Group No: 1
| Chapter | Page Number | | | | 1. | Literature from the Holocaust: An Introduction | 3 | 2. | Piecing Together History: Stories of Survival | 4 | | Map: Nazi Concentration Camps | 4 | 2.a | Before the war | 4 | 2.b | During the war | 5 | 2.c | After the war | 6 | 3 | Maus: Graphics and Symbolism | 6 | 4 | Comparative Analysis: Understanding the Characters | | 4.a | Sophie and Vladek | 8 | 4.b | Sophie and Anja | 9 | 4.c | Nathan Landau and Holocaust survivors | 10 | 4.d | Stingo and Art as narrators | 10 | 5 | Bibliography | 11 |

Literature from the Holocaust: An Introduction
“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
Adolf Hitler Official figures tell that six million Jews, two million Poles, one million Serbs, five million Russians were exterminated during World War II – the actual toll of executions by the Nazi Government, can never be estimated. Holocaust was a period of unspeakable horror and infernal ramifications which were not only felt across Europe but also in places like Laos. When I began this term paper, it was meant to be a study of the literature pertaining to this period of Nazi regime in Poland during World War II. What it turned out to be was a account of implacable and starkly real evil. A subject that has inspired countless movies, novels, real-life accounts, memoirs and poems, the holocaust continues to haunt the imagination of the world even today. It is not history bygone and forgotten, it is a demon that could never be truly obliterated from the lives and minds of the people. The following pages contain an analysis of Maus, the Pulitzer Prize Special Award recipient (1992), and one of the most loved graphic novels across the world. Maus was written in two volumes which were published in 1986 and 1991 respectively. Illustrated and composed by Art Spiegelman it is unique biography of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish-Jew and Holocaust survivor. His story is contrasted with that of Sophie, a Polish-Catholic and protagonist of the critically acclaimed and highly controversial eponymous novel, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (first published in 1979 and winner of the National Book Award for fiction, 1980). Despite difference in the literary genres and protagonists’ ethnicity, both texts share several similarities including the to and fro movement in time from post-war New York to pre-1945 Poland. Though while Maus is a true story and is based on the recorded conversations between the father and son during the 1970s and 1980s, Styron’s book is a work of fiction and is set in 1947, when the war is still fresh in the minds of the people. Under the backdrop of history, Maus also explores the strained relationship between Art and his father. This aspect of the narrative makes the novel intensely personal. This term paper involves a reconstruction of Poland history’s with the aid of the two texts as well as understanding the meaning of history, a question both posed and answered by the spinning vertigo of past and present created in the two novels. Through Maus’s rich symbolism and its comparison with Styron’s realistic fiction the role of nationality and ethnicity in face of this implacable human disaster is comprehended. These are stories of love, hatred, betrayal, loss, guilt, bitter resignation and struggle for survival. These men and women continued to live through a past that could not be pacified. The scars still run deep and the question reverberates, can absolute evil ever be obliterated and what it means to be ‘surviving the survivors’?

Piecing Together History
The Holocaust and Poland

1. Before the War
Vladek lived a happy and comfortable life in Czetochowa before the war. He enjoyed equal privileges as the Poles like going to restaurants and attending movies. After his marriage to Anja in 1937, he began to live in Sosnowiec with her family. Anja’s father was in the Hosiery business and a millionaire. Beginning of 1938, was the first time Vladek and Anja saw the Nazi flag on a trip to Czechoslovakia, till then they had only heard stories of Nazi pogroms. Anja had a friend in Warsaw who was a communist and would send messages by translating them to German. However, even in these peaceful times there were several radical elements who were impressed by the German ideas.

2. During the War

The War with Germany – 1st September, 1939
Several young men including Vladek were drafted in the army for the war. Poland was defeated and got divided into the Protectorate and Reich with a guarded border in between. The Protectorate government was a puppet in the hand of the Nazis.

P.O.W. Camp
Vladek experienced discrimination in his own land for the first time in the prisoners of war camp. While the Polish captives were kept in heated rooms, the Jews were left outside to live in tents and given meagre food.
In Hiding: The Cellars and Mice The privileges that Jews enjoyed before the war were now curbed. All Jewish businesses were closed down and precious furniture was carried away. They weren’t allowed to keep radios and cycles, travel by street-cars or leave their homes after 7 pm. Jews weren’t allowed to enter restaurants, parks or even walk on certain streets. They were also required to wear an arm band with a blue star on a white background. The food coupons couldn’t meet their daily ration requirement and in these hard-pressed times the black-market flourished. In 1942, the Jews were forced to leave their homes and take accommodation in the houses built for them in the outskirts of the city. The elderly people were carried away on the pretext of taking them to nursery homes and gassed. Later in the year Jews were called for selection in the stadium. Those with work permits were asked to go to the right side while people without permits or those who had large families were asked to go to the left. The people on the left were sent straight away to the gas chambers. In 1943, the Jews were taken to the ghetto in Srodula. After escaping from the ghetto Vladek and Anja come back to Sosnowiec, and hid in the homes of Polish people. They are captured in their attempt to reach Hungary and taken to the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz.
Armia Krajowa Armia Krajowa or the Home Army was the underground Resistance which fought against the Nazi regime in Poland. Its function was to collect information, amass weapons, organise attacks on the German forces, protect the Jews as well as punish the informers. Sophie became acquainted with this movement during her stay in Warsaw from 1940-43 following her association with the siblings Wanda and Jofez. The Warsaw Uprising of AK failed and the Resistance members along with Sophie were deported to Auschwitz. Jofez was caught and killed by the SS. While Wanda was hanged in Auschwitz. She continued to work for the underground till the end.
Under this sinister scheme, children having the quintessential traits of the Aryan race like ‘blue eyes’ and ‘blond hair’ were chosen through a process of rigorous selection and allowed to live. Several Polish children were kidnapped and enrolled into this program. Those who failed to pass the tests were eliminated.
Auschwitz was located near the town of Oświęcim, in Nazi occupied Poland. Auschwitz comprised of two places: the place named Auschwitz itself which was a labour camp and Birkenau where the executions took place. Prisoners were brought here from all over Europe by train. The camp had a metal sign on the gate that read Arbeit macht Frei (work makes you free). Inside the camp was a selection ramp where a doctor would check whether the prisoners were fit for working and accordingly sent them to right or left. The camps had separate barracks for men and women, and the air was heavy with the stench from the smoke chimneys. Live men and women would be closed in chambers and the poisonous pesticide Zylkon-B would be introduced inside. The labourers in the camps performed the work of cremating the bodies. There was still another place not far away, a large factory where artificial rubber was made. The prisoners at the Auschwitz camp worked there too. IG Farben a pharmaceutical company used the prisoners for testing drugs. The skilled workers like cobblers, typists, tailors were better-off compared to the other prisoners. As Russian troops approached the camp, the prisoners were crowded into boxcars and taken to Dachau. On 27st January, 1945 Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian army.

3. After the War
Most refugees moved to America while some left for Israel and other places. Violence by the Poles did continue for some time. At the end of the war it was estimated that 90 per cent of the Polish Jew population had been decimated. Today 27th January is celebrated across the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Maus: Graphics, Themes and Symbolism
“I am reminded of rats in a barrel being shot at by a madman with a machine gun. That's how I see your helplessness.”
- Wanda to a Jew in Sophie’s Choice

Maus is extremely rich in its symbolism. A study of this begins from the cover page of the novel (shown left). The font of the title is like a brush painted slogan. The image imposed in the middle of the Nazi symbol, the Swastika, resembles a cat like caricature of Hitler, with his square moustache and left-side partitioned hair. Another interesting aspect is the use of animals to denote people of different races and nationality. Although the characters are animals their emotions are undeniably human. This appears as the artist’s satirical take on German propaganda movie ‘The Eternal Jew’ where Jews were depicted as pests or vermin. On a more serious note, it could also denote the animalistic nature of the Nazi atrocities. The hunted, despised and adept at hiding Jews are depicted as mice. This likening may also be in reference to their resourcefulness and the underground bunkers were they took shelter. The Nazis, their nemesis, are shown as cats, while American who chased the Nazis away are symbolised as dogs. The representation of Poles as pigs appears very interesting; on one hand it could stand for the cherubic and homely image of Porky Pig, while on the other it could invoke their selfish nature and swine-like greed. Spiegelman concedes that he had chosen the image in good spirits and hence the latter can be safely ruled out. French are depicted as frogs in ridicule of their eccentric culinary tastes, which involve dishes made of frog legs and the Swedes for obvious reasons are reindeers. The Gypsies in lieu with the popular image of fortune-tellers are shown as moths.In the second book, the writer says that bunnies are too sweet to be used for the French, who have years of Anti-Semitism behind them. Although these symbols appear to be incongruous, they save the novel from gathering an extremely grim and macabre tone. The Jews while travelling make use of pig masks to disguise themselves. However, this ruse is often seen through as depicted in the panel where Anja’s long tale is visible. The repeated use of the Swastika shows omnipresent nature of Nazi domination in Poland, and the looming doom that enveloped the mice. In the comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, within the novel, Art as his younger self, is shown wearing the stripped prisoner clothes (in this animal caricatures are not used). This conveys the image of a man who is a prisoner of his own guilt. The caricature of the doctor bears resemblance to Hitler, who was indeed the reason why Art’s mother committed suicide. The panel on the right shows Art as a human wearing a mouse mask. This could mean that although he now understands a lot more about the Holocaust, he could never be a true mouse like his father. However, in the story Art is shown as mouse without the mask.
At one point in the story the animal symbolism actually disintegrates. In the scene in Auschwitz where a mouse claims that he actually is a German the question can be raised whether this anthropomorphisation can actually be a reflection on perceptions. Thus, the artist subtly alludes that racial divides are based on perceptions and that all of us are essentially humans.

Comparative Analysis: Understanding the Characters

4.a Sophie and Vladek

Vladek was an astute, hard-working and resourceful man. In the beginning of the novel, he is introduced as a handsome and successful salesman. His wit and foresight helped him to survive the genocide. He always saved food and money for worse times. He had great love for his wife Anja as can be during his days in Auschwitz, when he risked his life to go and meet her and would also send food to her. He knew better not to trust the Germans and this too saved his life on countless occasions. During his days in Poland he was looked up to for advice by others. Although the one fatal mistake he made was to trust the smugglers who promised to take him and Anja to Hungary. They were betrayed by the same men and were subsequently arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Vladek knew English and German which came in handy a number of times. As he did not smoke he used the cigarettes obtained through red-cross for buying food items. By the end of the war Vladek character gathers an unsavoury flavour; he becomes stingy, mean and distrustful. He is also shown to be racial and dislikes coloured people. Art finds this trait surprising in a man who had survived a genocide. The skills which had saved his life during the war, later made life for the people around him difficult. He would not hire handymen for his daily chores but instead preferred to do them himself, despite his age. He constantly stole tissues and napkins from hotels and would stroll on the hotel premises where trespassers were not allowed. After Anja committed suicide in 1968, Vladek turned melancholic and in a fit of rage burned the diaries which she had maintained through her days in Sosnowiec and Srodula ghettos and in Auschwitz. Vladek then married Mala, another Polish survivor, however they shared a loveless relationship and Vladek constantly rebuked and chided her for spending a lot of money. Vladek’s relationship with son was also strained. He would never let him waste the food on his platter. His strict and unyielding attitude ensured that he could never be on friendly terms with his son. However, after listening to his story of the Holocaust, Art begins to understand how deeply he had been affected by his past. In his last dialogue of the book, he calls Art Richieu, which was the name of his unfortunate son who could not come out alive from the war. This goes to show that Vladek was still haunted by the ghosts of the past.
Sophie too was wrestling with the demons of the past, but unlike Vladek she guarded her past furtively, trying to save it from any form of scrutiny. Ultimately she does confess her horrifying tale to the narrator. She was the daughter of a fanatic pro-Germany professor who was out rightly racist. During her youth Sophie developed a strong dislike for him owing to his radical views and support for the Nazis. It is ironical that he was killed by the same men whose doctrines he vehemently supported. After the death of her father and husband, Sophie and her mother moved to Warsaw from Cracow. In 1943, she was arrested for smuggling ham and sent to the Gestapo prison. On April 1st 1943 Sophie arrived in Auschwitz. Being Polish and proficient in German language as well German shorthand, she became the Commandant’s typist. Thus, she remained comparatively better off than the other prisoners for some time. However, Sophie was tormented by guilt, not only for being an accessory to the executions in the camp, but also for not working for the Resistance and being unable to protect her two young children, who died in Auschwitz. It was then that she renounced her religion. Sophie ultimately slumped into drinking and depression after her arrival in New York due to her violent and catastrophic relation with Nathan Landau. In the end both of them committed suicide.

4.b Sophie and Anja
The choice...
Anja was the daughter of a rich businessman in Sosnowiec. She was not very pretty, but was clever and a devoted wife. She was well-versed in German and English. But Anja was also very unsteady and prone to pangs of depression. After the birth of Rechieu, she had a downfall and lived for three months in a sanatarium in Czechoslovakia . As the story progresses times became harder for Anja as she tried to bear the loss of her entire family. The story from Anja’s perspective can never be available to the reader as by the time Art started the work on the novel, Vladek had burnt down her diaries.
On April 1943, Sophie was asked on the selection ramp in Auschwitz to choose which of her two children would live. Thus the title, has found its usage in common language as a choice between two equally agonising and unbearable options. For all her later years Sophie would find this nightmare returning to her again and again. Anja too lost her son Rechieu to a choice. When Vladek asked her to send her son away alongwith the Izlecki child she refused to part with him. One the other hand the next year she allowed him to be taken to Zawiercie ghetto alongwith her sister Tosha, this time against Vladek’s wishes. Later the couple learnt that entire Zawiercie ghetto had been liquidated and Tosha and the children had committed suicide. While Mr Izlecki and his wife couldn’t make it through the war, their son due to their foresight survived. Thus Anja too like Sophie lived in the shadows of guilt and both of them committed suicide.
The narrator calls the sadist doctor who placed the tormenting dilemma upon Sophie as religious. While everything else points to the contrary, the narrator substantiates his point with the story of the two Jewish women who had known the Doctor in real life, and conceded that he was a religious man who wanted to be a mercenary. It was his father who forced him to take the medical profession. By living in this hell and doing a job, i.e. one of sorting out labourers or in short deciding who was to live and die, he had already lost his soul. Through this act he had tried to show clemency, when he had the authority to take both the children. He had taken only one. The choice did yield little for Sophie, eventually she lost both her children, Jan and Eva. Auschwitz was a place where no piety or pity could percolate.

4.c Nathan Landau and Holocaust Survivors
Nathan is introduced in the story as a prodigal biologist from Harvard who now worked in the research laboratory at Pfizer. Nathan was unpredictable, moody, violent and abusive at some points and caring, tender and solicitous at others. Morris Fink, a fellow lodger at the Zimmerman house described him as a golem. Nathan and Sophie lived lavishly, wore expensive clothes and dined in the finest places. In time, he assumed the role of an elder brother for the narrator, critiquing and lauding his work on his first novel. Nathan was also gifted with a charming persona; he had a unique sense of humour and talent in mimicry. The narrator was also impressed by his ‘loquaciously large knowledge’ and passion for classical music and literature. Often the narrator questions whether such a person could be capable of the angry outburst he had seen him in during their first encounter. He was also an ardent believer in the philosophy of suicide.
The truth about Nathan is revealed later in the novel. He was a paranoid schizophrenic, and was undergoing treatment. His work in Pfizer was also a facade. He had no degree in biology. Another attribute to his character was drug abuse. This explained his erratic behaviour and violent seizures of fury. It is also revealed that he had tried to get into the Army during the war but could not get through. This mixed with the newly discovered knowledge of the Holocaust that was acquired through painstaking research upon his association with Sophie, further aggravates his already unsteady temperament. He was suffering from his own secret guilt of living through the war, while Jews in other parts of the world perished. In his fits of madness, he would blame Sophie for all the wrongs inflicted upon his people. In a way he was a man who was obsessed and possessed by the Holocaust, even though he hadn’t actually been there.
4.d Art and Stingo: The Narrators
Art and Stingo both have their own motivations for penning down the novels. While for Art it is an attempt at understanding his father’s past as well as their relationship, for Stingo it is an account of his association with Nathan and Sophie which had left an indelible mark on him.
He essayed the role of a struggling writer at the age of 22, who had lost his job at McGraw-hill publishers. He was struggling with his own idiosyncrasies, trivial fantasies and petty carnal desires. He is shown to be hopelessly infatuated with Sophie. Stingo appears too shallow a man to give voice to such a beautiful and heart-breaking narrative. As the narrative progressives, he grows and also his admiration for Nathan swells. He was a Southerner, racial discrimination against coloured men was rife in the south even in those times. He was also an only heir of a fortune that was earned by his ancestor through the sale of a black slave. His own morals are repeatedly shaken by Nathan and Sophie who both in different ways had been scarred by the Holocaust. He feels sorry about the tarnished image of south. He constantly remembers Bobby Weed the black slave who was tortured and killed for a crime he did not perpetrate. His love for writers and famous literary figures like Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Whitman and many others is also revealed, along with his flair for western classical music, a passion he shares with Nathan and Sophie. The novel is written by older Stingo, now a successful novelist. The writing style is in the manner of a recollection of his friendship with Sophie and Nathan. At several points he digresses from the plot, and describes his youth. The tone is always marked with ridicule at his own stupidity and aimless pursuits. He often quotes his diary entries. The main aim is to show the reader how shallow his thinking was and how he was too young and immature to fathom the grimness of the events he had slowly been dragged into. Needless, to say this very event, could have been the turning point in his life. The autobiographical element in the creation of the character of Stingo, is also evident due to the similarity in the books authored by him and Styron. In the end Auschwitz begins to haunt Stingo, rousing in him feelings similar to those in Sophie. He ,like Art, had become a survivor’s survivor.
Art was born in Stockholm, Sweden after the war. However, he wasn’t unaware of its repercussions. His parents had been irrevocably scarred by it. His decision of writing Maus, was to understand his parents especially his father better. However, this was not all. Art had often felt an emotion for Rechieu which in an ordinary case would have been called sibling rivalry. But Rechieu was dead long before he was born. He believes Rechieu could never make a mistake as he wasn’t given a chance to do so. And so his comparison with Rechieu was extremely unfair. This personal interjection complicates his character in the novel as a man who was struggling with the history that accurately speaking was not his own. Thus we find the explanation for the closing line in the foreword which states that the children of the survivor’s were people who ‘survived even the survivors.’
1. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron 2. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman 3. Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman 4. The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank 5. 6.
Pages on * The Holocaust * The Eternal Jew * Nuremberg Trials * Maus * Sophie’s Choice * Rudolf Höss * Heinrich Himmler * Lebensborn * Auschwitz * Armia Krajowa 7. Movie: The Pianist (2002) 8. Maps: * Nazi Concentration Camps -

[ 1 ]. Derived from the Greek words holos (whole) and kaustos (burnt), the Holocaust with time became a specific term that refers to the state authorized extermination of 6 million Jews during the World War II by Nazi Germany.
[ 2 ]. Maus is German for mouse
[ 3 ]. Pogroms were mobs

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