in High Schools or Elementary Schools Spiegelman’s representation of Poles as pigs
is “a calculated insult” leveled against Poles.
TheNorton Anthology of American Literature, 7th edition
Maus made me feel that Poland was
somehow responsible for the Holocaust,
or at least that many Poles collaborated in it.1 1. Background MAUS is a comic book, sometimes referred to as a graphic novel, authored by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. The core of the book is an extended interview, with digressions, by the author/narrator with his father, a Polish Jew named Vladek, focusing on his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Although MAUS has been described as both a memoir and fiction, it is widely treated as non-fiction. Time placed it on their list of non-fiction books.
MAUS is considered to be a postmodern book. It is a story about storytelling that weaves several conflicting narratives (historical, psychological and autobiographical). The book employs various postmodern techniques as well as older literary devices. A prominent feature of the book is the author’s depiction of national groups in the form of different kinds of animals: Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, and (Christian) Poles as pigs.
MAUS has been taught widely in U.S. high schools, and even elementary schools, as part of the literature curriculum for many years. It has recently been introduced in some Canadian high school literature classes as a supplementary resource, principally because the book appears on the literature in translation list prescribed by the International Baccalaureate program. Although taught under the rubric of literature, MAUS has essentially acquired the status of non-fiction.
Although MAUS has met with criticism on the part of the Polish community, there is a general lack of recognition as to why the book is objectionable. MAUS raises concerns on many levels, ethical, didactic, and historical, but these concerns are not explained by educators for the benefit of unwary students who are required to study MAUS. Moreover, students of Polish heritage have reported incidents of inappropriate remarks and taunts directed at them by other students as a direct result of the portrayal of Poles in MAUS.
Since MAUS is essentially a historical memoir, most readers would assume that, like other memoirs, it is literally true. Few readers, especially elementary and high school students, have enough historical knowledge to see through its falsified depiction of Poles. Although taught in literature courses, MAUS is primarily about the Holocaust, a historical event, which is rightly considered to be an important topic for study. However, the Holocaust is also, in many respects, a very complex and controversial topic – one that often calls for an in-depth knowledge of various factors that could impact one’s understanding of a particular issue under examination.
Therefore, an appreciation of the historical context is critical to a proper understanding of the events portrayed in MAUS. The focus of inquiry cannot solely be the personal story and perspective of Vladek, the mouse protagonist of the book. For the Holocaust to have educational value, the treatment of the historical context must strive for accuracy and objectivity. In particular, it is important to ensure that not only Jews but other groups who suffered under Nazi German oppression are presented in a fair manner.
The Jews in MAUS are, with few exceptions such as the Jewish Council and Jewish police, who assisted the Germans in the operation and liquidation of the ghetto in Sosnowiec, portrayed in a favourable and sympathetic light. As the primary victims of the Holocaust, this is appropriate. Apart from the cats (Germans), who understandably appear only in the role of Nazis in the context of wartime occupied Poland, the pigs are the most prominent characters and have the most interaction with the mice (Jews).
Unfortunately, as will be explained, the portrayal of the pig people is seriously flawed in several important respects. MAUS clearly cannot be treated as an accurate historical record, although it is passed off as such. The perspective of the protagonist is too narrow and flawed. The voice of the author and narrator, rather than exposing the protagonist’s biases and misrepresentations of the historical record, reinforces them. MAUS does not teach students about the complexities of the Holocaust but rather oversimplifies such complexities. The reality is that the students’ level of understanding of these issues is generally rather poor or almost non-existent. In addition, neither they nor the teachers possess the necessary tools to properly assess the flaws of this book.
In a nutshell, the case against MAUS is that, despite its veneer of sophistication, the book is a rather primitive expression of the author’s prejudices in choosing to portray the Poles as a nation of swine. Furthermore, its portrayal of Poles contains serious misrepresentations regarding their alleged role in the Holocaust. This is contemptible, and unacceptable by Canadian standards. The notion that teachers can and will expose the biases and misrepresentations regarding Poles found in this book is unlikely in the extreme.
School children of Polish background who are subjected to this book justifiably feel that their identity or cultural heritage has been diminished by the perspectives described in this book and are, understandably, humiliated by this experience. They are at a loss as to how to respond. Unfortunately, educators have not demonstrated sensitivity to such matters and have ignored the potential for cruel jokes and gibes.
2. Why is portraying Poles as pigs objectionable from an ethical perspective? Portraying Poles as pigs is offensive. In fact, it has been acknowledged as such by literary critics. In the biographical introduction to the excerpt from MAUS that appears in TheNorton Anthology of American Literature, 7th edition (New York: Norton, 2007), Volume E, p. 3091, editors Jerome Klinkowitz and Patricia B. Wallace describe Spiegelman’s representation of Poles as pigs as “a calculated insult” leveled against Poles. A similar point was made by Harvey Pekar, a celebrated underground comic book write, who describes himself as a Jew with a background similar to Art Spiegelman’s: “When he [Spiegelman] shows them [Poles] doing something admirable and still portrays them as pigs, he’s sending a mixed message.”2 Characteristically, Spiegelman has dismissed Poles’ concern about their depiction as pigs as “a squeal,” the sound pigs make.3 The incessant depiction, in MAUS, of Poles as anti-Semitic “pigs” – with the highly derisive connotation that term carries – forms an image that cannot easily, if ever, be erased from the minds of young students whose knowledge of World War II history is minimal at best.
The mouse and cat metaphor is fairly obvious to most readers of MAUS. It is a well-known fact that cats chase mice, and that the Nazis targeted Jews for destruction. The cat imagery is generally explained by teachers and in accompanying reading materials provided to or accessible by students. The pig imagery or “metaphor,” on the other hand, is rarely, if ever, explained – whether in MAUS itself, or in available reading materials. One handout provided to students states that the animals have a “symbolic quality,” without any further explanation of the role of the pigs.4 This begs the question, what is their symbolic quality?
The use of pigs to depict Poles is something that cannot be missed, especially by impressionable young readers, as the very word “pig” is widely used as a term of derision. “You pig,” is universally considered to be an insult. (Incomparably more so than “You cat” or “You mouse.” Ask any child.) In popular culture, pigs have become synonymous with negative attributes, especially greed, gluttony, and uncleanliness. Pigs are generally viewed as disgusting, filthy animals. They are often considered to be vulgar and stupid. They can also turn into ruthless despots, as in George Orwell’s allegorical novel Animal Farm. The implication, therefore, is that there is something rather unsavoury about the pig people in MAUS. This is one obvious negative connotation that would not be lost on students, especially since that image is reinforced by the negative stereotypes used to portray Poles. The pig people somehow even manage to remain fat when imprisoned in Auschwitz, while mice are thoroughly emaciated.
In some cultures pigs are “unclean” animals. This is true for Jews and Muslims. In Jewish culture, in particular, the pig has an intense and abominable connotation. Pigs and pork are considered to be treyf (non-kosher), or unclean, in a way that other non-kosher animals are not. This is very important contextual information of which the students are not made aware. According to the Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center,
There is probably no animal as disgusting to Jewish sensitivities as the pig. It’s not just because it may not be eaten: there are plenty of other animals that aren’t kosher either, but none of them arouse as much disgust as the pig. Colloquially, the pig is the ultimate symbol of loathing; when you say that someone “acted like a chazir [pig],” it suggests that he or she did something unusually abominable.5 An Israeli court found a Jewish woman guilty of racism for putting up posters depicting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad as a pig. After a volatile demonstration against immigrants from Russia, heckled as “pork eaters,” David Benziri, a leading Sephardi rabbi and brother of an Israeli cabinet minister, said: “There is nothing so anti-Jewish as pig.”6 It is telling that Spiegelman chose this supremely un-kosher animal to depict the Poles, rather than the Germans.
Unfortunately, the image of Poles as being “unclean” has a long and shameful tradition. In Poland, when a Jew wanted to insult a Pole, he called him a “Polish pig.”7 This went hand-in-hand with the image – popular among Jews – of Poles as “stupid goys”. (“Goy,” a derogatory term for Christians, was commonly used by Jews to refer to Poles.) Samuel Oliner, a respected Jewish scholar, recalled his grandmother’s lament, “Shmulek will grow up to be a stupid goy!” “The presence of a gentile defiled the home of a Jew,” Oliner also recalled.8 We can see an allusion to that type of thinking in Vladek’s characterization of the Polish priest who comforted him in Auschwitz: “He wasn’t Jewish – but very intelligent.” Moreover, the similarities between the Nazi and traditional Jewish perception of Poles as stupid, disgusting animals are disturbing.
Polish inmates of Nazi camps were often called “Polish swine” by German officials and Kapos (i.e., prisoner functionaries who led work details or crews made up of of prisoners).9 Poles are also referred to as “pigs” in Jewish memorial books.10 MAUS employs the same imagery of the Poles as found in Nazi propaganda, where Poles were often referred to as “pigs.” Art Spiegelman was, of course, aware of these problematic associations when he chose to portray Poles as pigs. Are the teachers aware of it? Are the students being informed? How else would they learn about it?
Spiegelman, in MAUS itself, shows how carefully he selects the animals to depict the various nationalities when he ponders how to draw his French wife. (There is more on this later.) The choice of pigs was quite deliberate and sends a clear message that anyone with an understanding of the cultures involved and the historical context would appreciate. The narrative then plays into the stereotype by its relentless focus on Poles who behave brutishly, venally, and badly. Although not all pigs are portrayed as uniformly bad, the overwhelming impression is negative as those cast in a more favourable light are few and far between. (While most of the pigs in MAUS are simply shown in the background as part of larger groups of pigs, and are “neutral” at best, their role in the narrative is virtually none.)
In the past, Art Spiegelman has not been forthright as to why he chose to draw Poles as pigs.11 In MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus (New York: Pantheon, 2011), belatedly, Spiegelman divulges his actual reasons for portraying Poles as pigs: it is to bash Poles. With reference to his father’s attitude towards Poles, he quips, “So my metaphor [mice to be killed outright, and pigs to be exploited and eaten] was somehow able to hold that particular vantage point while still somehow acknowledging my father’s dubious opinion of Poles as a group.” (P. 122.) Despite the fact that Poland had for centuries given sanctuary to Jews persecuted elsewhere, Spiegelman adds: “‘And considering the bad relations between Poles and Jews for the last hundred years in Poland, it seemed right to use a non-Kosher animal.’” (P. 125.) Thus, the notion of bias functions on two levels in Maus: Vladek’s and the author’s.
Unfortunately, Art Spiegelman’s anti-Polish biases run deep. At an interactive meeting at Angelo State University in February 2011, Spiegelman dismissed as “silly” the notion that Poles and Polish Americans were offended by his pig depiction. He told the audience that he had read a book that supposedly proved that the Poles in Nazi-occupied Poland were in favour of the Holocaust. He alleged that Poles objected only to having to sit back and watch while the Nazis carried out mass murder, referring to a diary written by a Polish man that, Spiegelman claimed, showed that most Poles resented not being able to carry out the Holocaust themselves. Spiegelman then said he could not remember the author or the title of the book on which he based this slanderous claim, joking awkwardly that he has always accepted the fact that memory is imperfect.12 All of this supports what Erin Einhorn, a Jewish-American author, concludes as being the real inspiration for the pig metaphor:
… people like my grandparents, the survivor generation, emerged from the war with a blazing hatred for the Poles … And they passed that hatred on to their children. It was why, I suspected, Art Spiegelman, the son of a survivor from Sosnowiec, the town next to the one where my mother was born, drew the Poles as pigs in his holocaust comic book, Maus, and the Germans as comparatively pleasant cats. The implication from our parents and grandparents was that the Germans, while evil and calculating in the war, were basically intelligent people who were swept catastrophically into nationalistic frenzy, while the Poles were anti-Semitic pigs. There was a reason – I had been told many times with a wink – that the Germans located the death camps in Poland, that the German people never would have stood for such horror on their own land. Poles, I was told, had welcomed the camps. They’d embraced the chance to see Jews die around them. Even my mother, who was saved by a Polish family, told me the family only did it for the money. The reasonable part of me didn’t believe this. People don’t risk their lives for money alone, and such horrible, sweeping statements couldn’t possibly apply to an entire population without benefit of nuance or exception.13 That Spiegelman was under the influence of such biases is evident in MAUS itself. Nations or cultures he approves of are represented by noble or respectable animals, for example, Americans as dogs and Swedes as reindeer. However, cultures which he scorns are symbolized negatively. When discussing with his wife, who is French, how to draw Frenchmen, Spiegelman rejects her suggestion of bunny rabbits, as “too sweet and gentle” to apply to a nation [France] with a deep history of anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. Instead, he chose to draw Frenchmen as frogs, which could be seen as a slimy and lowly creature. However, since the French are peripheral to the MAUS story, their depiction as frogs plays no significant role in the book. One cannot say the same about the Poles, who appear front and centre and, for the most part, in a negative light. Their portrayal as pigs reinforces the notion that they were supposedly a nation of Nazi collaborators. Their portrayal at Auschwitz – overwhelmingly as brutal Kapos – is a striking and graphic illustration of that phenomenon.
The bigotry and historical distortions inherent in Vladek’s perspective on Poles are validated by the author. Spiegelman’s own presence within the narrative (e.g., during the discussion between himself and his French wife about how to depict French characters) would have allowed him, through the voice of his own mouse character, to call attention to those flaws within his father’s views. Instead, he purposefully supports his father’s bias against Poles. (In contrast, his own mouse character challenges Vladek’s racism against African Americans near the end of the book.)
The claim that the use of animals to portray nations (anthropomorphism) simply reflects Nazi German ideology is not true. The Nazis did not portray Germans as cats, the French as frogs or Americans as dogs. The Nazis had no singular, fixed image for any particular group that they despised. They often portrayed Jews and Poles as vermin. Moreover, the vermin did not have to be mice, or even rodents at all. Vermin could also be insect pests. In the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, Jews are portrayed as filthy, disease-bearing rats that had to be exterminated, not as helpless, emaciated mice. Nazi Germans also portrayed Jews as toadstools or poisononius mushrooms, for example, in the infamous Der Giftpilz, which was widely used to instill anti-Semitism in German children in Nazi Germany. Although the Nazis sometimes called Poles “swine,” as a form of debasement based on the Germans’ presumed racial superiority, this term was not directed solely at Poles. Jews, as well as others, were also often referred to as “swine.”14 According to extensive research, while the Germans often called Jews “rats” and insulted them with other animal names, their favourite epithets were “pigs,” “Jew-pig,” “swine,” and Saujuden (“Jewish swine”).15 So depicting Jews as pigs, rather than mice, would have been an apt choice. (Germans could then have been drawn as wolves.) However, it would be unthinkable – for religious and other obvious reasons – to draw Jews as pigs. There were no such qualms for Spiegelman when it came to “Polack-goys.” Choosing to depict Poles, rather than Jews, as pigs was clearly intended to deprecate the Poles as a nation.
Moreover, the pig metaphor does not accurately reflect the Poles’ actual place in the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany. While it is true that cats chase mice, pigs are not their natural enemies: cats do not eat pigs. There is no indication that Germany’s intention was not simply to occupy Poland, but to destroy it forever, and to enslave, starve and slaughter the Poles, which they did by the millions. Portraying Poles as well-fed pigs (while drawing the mice as emaciated) serves to underscore their alleged role as dull stooges. The leitmotif of Poles as Nazi sympathizers and henchmen reinforces the false image of Poles as a nation of collaborators. In fact, the Poles were one of the primary victims of National Socialist racial policies. Poland was the only country occupied by Germany that did not produce a collaborating government. The Poles mounted the largest anti-German underground, the Home Army, and staged the largest armed insurrection, the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. Writing in the Comics Journal (no. 113, December 1986) from the perspective of “a first-generation American Jew,” Harvey Pekar voiced his strong objection to Spiegelman’s portrayal of Poles as pigs:
It undermines his moral position. He negatively stereotypes Poles even though he portrays some hiding Jews from the Germans. ... I do not have general objections to anthropomorphism, but I do object to the way Spiegelman uses it. Art stereotypes nationalities, Orwell doesn’t. Orwell’s pigs do not represent a whole nation. They represent what comes to be the corrupt ruling class of a nation. Orwell didn’t portray the leaders of the animal revolution as pigs just to praise their intellects: he wanted people to view them as coarse and greedy, which is what people usually mean when they call each other ‘pig’.
No amount of literary “deconstruction” of the text will undo that harmful and indelible impression. So when students studying MAUS direct remarks like “Oink, oink, piggies” and “you Poles killed the Jews” at fellow students of Polish origin, as was reported in a Toronto high school in the fall of 2013 , they are actually quite perceptive in picking up on the message – the biases and negative stereotypes – conveyed in MAUS. The fault lies not with the students, but with the book itself.
3. Why is the depiction of Poles in MAUS objectionable from a historical perspective? MAUS promotes negative stereotypes in portraying Poles and contains serious historical misrepresentations regarding their role in the context of the Second World War. These two phenomena go hand in hand, one buttressing the other. They are ubiquitous. Among the many misrepresentations regarding Poles (which are addressed in more depth later) the following stand out:
Ordinary Poles are portrayed as Nazi sympathizers.
Poles are shown as occupying virtually all positions of brutal Kapos in Nazi German camps.
There is no mention that Poles faced the death penalty for helping Jews in any way. Instead, Polish helpers are portrayed as greedy and deceitful.
There is no mention that the Germans also relied on Jewish policemen and agents to hunt down Jews who escaped from the ghetto. That role is assigned exclusively to the Poles.
Anyone who has carried out any serious research on Auschwitz and the German occupation of this part of Poland, as Spiegelman purports to have done, could not have failed to come across the existence of many Jewish Kapos, the fact that there was a death penalty for aiding Jews, and the role of the Jewish police outside the ghettos. The treatment of these matters can be contrasted with Spiegelman’s decision to challenge his father’s recollection about far less significant matters such as the existence of a prisoner orchestra in Auschwitz. However, he does not challenge his father’s recollection on the make-up of the Kapos and the risks Poles faced for helping Jews. The failure to include such important information is a deliberate narrative choice that seriously compromises the status of MAUS as non-fiction, which is how the book is essentially passed off and wherein lies its supposed didactic value for students.
MAUS relies on negative stereotypes to portray the Poles in an unfavourable light. Depicting Poles as disgusting and brutal animals is eerily reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer. Significantly, this point is usually omitted by reviewers of MAUS, even though the image of fat, fascist pigs permeates MAUS and is all too glaring to overlook. The fact that MAUS employs the same imagery of the Poles as found in Nazi propaganda, where Poles were often referred to as “pigs,” could perhaps be explained, provided teachers and teaching materials addressed this matter squarely. The fact is they almost never do. (The handout, Ian Johnston’s “On Spiegelman’s Maus I and II,” provided students in a Toronto high school, does not mention this. Rather, it refers to the animals’ unexplained “symbolic quality.”) But even pointing out such facts would not expose the depth of prejudice and misinformation that the pig metaphor represents.
There is certainly nothing sympathetic or cute about the pigs in MAUS. The predominant portrayal of the Poles is undeniably negative. Except for the odd Pole who is shown in a light that is not entirely unfavourable, Spiegelman does not humanize the Polish “pigs.” He humanizes only his Jewish mice characters, while depicting his Polish pigs essentially as racist stereotypes. By focusing on negative characters like the camp Kapos, Spiegelman implies that the Poles, who were also victims of the Nazi regime, collaborated with their fascist enemies. Unfortunately, these crude stereotypes are, for the most part, simply perverse history and would be unacceptable in any other context.
Let us consider the frames showing Poles, drawn as fat pigs, who greet each other with a Nazi hand salute and say the words “Heil Hitler”. It would have been almost impossible to find any Pole saluting Hitler to another Pole during the war. Yet these frames strongly suggest that that is how ordinary Poles tried to convince one another that they were genuine Poles. Polish pigs are also shown wearing uniforms with Nazi insignia, even though the Poles did not and could not join collaborationist formations like the SS. (This was unlike any other occupied European countries, which did in fact produce large, voluntary, national SS formations in the service of the Nazis).16 Throughout, the pigs are also shown as fat, whereas the mice are emaciated, even though the Germans imposed near-starvation food rations on the Polish population. (In 1941, the food allotment for a Jew amounted to 253 calories, 669 calories for a Pole, and 2,613 for a German.) Quite simply, this is a perversion of the historical record. No amount of literary deconstruction of the animal metaphor will erase this falsified portrayal of the Poles as alleged sympathizers and beneficiaries of the Nazi regime.
The depiction of Poles in Auschwitz is overwhelmingly that of cruel, greedy and brutal Kapos. All of the Kapos in Auschwitz are drawn as pigs, from the moment Vladek arrives at Auschwitz. Polish Kapos are shown as “partners” in crime standing alongside the Germans at the entrance to Auschwitz. Polish Kapos are ubiquitous. They appear in frame after frame after frame – dozens of them spread over 40 pages of the book. There is a seemingly endless stream of pigs who are Kapos. There is even a brutal female pig Kapo in Birkenau, even though the prisoners in that camp were almost exclusively Jewish. There is just one exception to the Kapo profile in Auschwitz-Birkenau, namely, a female mouse Kapo in Birkenau. But she is actually kind to Vladek’s wife, Anja. It is not surprising, therefore, that GradeSaver, a popular online student study guide provider, states a conclusion that becomes rather apparent from Spiegelman’s portrayal of Poles: “A ‘kapo’ is a Polish supervisor at a concentration camp.”17 A Teacher’s Guide Maus: A Memoir of the Holocaust, authored by Frieda Miller and published in 1998 by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, perpetuates the book’s pervasive and perverse myth of ubiquitous Polish Kapos persecuting Jews by not acknowledging the existence of Jewish Kapos (pp.13, 40).
The impression MAUS seeks to convey is rather clear: Poles helped to run Auschwitz for the Germans. They occupied strategic positions of power between the lowly Jews and the Nazi overlords, and collaborated with the Germans in oppressing the Jewish prisoners. This is patently false history. The Kapos did not run the camp, even on a day-to-day basis. They were prisoners of various nationalities who were appointed by the Germans to carry out supervisory tasks with respect to a group of fellow prisoners.18 There was no shortage of “cat” personnel to oversee the operation of the camp itself. Some 8,000 to 8,200 SS men and some 200 female guards – who were Germans and Austrians – served in the garrison during the camp’s existence.19 MAUS’s Polish Kapos excel at mistreating Jews. Otherwise, Polish prisoners (pigs) are almost invisible in MAUS, even though the Auschwitz concentration camp was originally built for Poles and held mostly Polish (Christian) prisoners until 1943. In total, some 150,000 Christian Poles were imprisoned in Auschwitz.20 Although half of the Polish prisoners perished, mostly from malnutrition and disease, the Polish pigs in MAUS are drawn as fat as ever, while the mice are shown as emaciated. Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany, was originally intended for political prisoners. Later it held “asocials” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals) and prisoners of various nationalities including Jews. In 1940, Dachau became filled with Polish prisoners, who constituted the majority of the prisoner population until the camp was liberated in 1945. Dachau was also the principal camp for imprisoned Christian clergy from all over Europe. Of a total of 2,720 clergy imprisoned at Dachau, the overwhelming majority, 95%, were Catholic and 65% were Poles. About 90% of the clergymen put to death in Dachau were Poles. A large number of Polish priests were chosen for Nazi medical experiments.
Against this background alone, the association of Poles with Kapos is a travesty. This is no mere coincidence or accident, because all of the Kapos in Gross-Rosen and Dachau are also drawn as pigs. Spiegelman carried out extensive research for MAUS, which he clearly makes known so as to enhance the authenticity of his account. Therefore, he could not have been unaware of the hundreds of Jewish testimonies that describe the activities of Jewish Kapos in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps. Thus, it is fair to conclude that there is a deliberate cover-up of the existence, and brutality, of Jewish Kapos at the expense of Poles. This is racist. As the historical record clearly shows, Kapos cannot be associated with any one nationality. Although there were some Polish Kapos in Auschwitz and other camps, the suggestion that the Kapo function was almost exclusively a Polish domain – repeatedly reinforced in MAUS – is simply untrue. There were also many Jewish Kapos, as well as German Kapos.
When Vladek arrived in Auschwitz in 1944, the vast majority of new arrivals were Jews from Hungary – more than 400,000. (MAUS alludes to this fact.) There was, therefore, little use for Polish Kapos as they would be unable to communicate with the Hungarian Jews. Most East European Jews, on the other hand, had a common language, Yiddish, so – as Jewish testimonies show – Jews became prominent and invaluable in the Kapo function. Interestingly, Marysia Winogron, a cousin of Vladek’s wife, who was in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the same time as Vladek’s wife, recalls her physical tormentors as Czech Jews, both Kapos and block elders, and adds, “I never got beaten by the Germans.”21 The compilation, in Appendix 1, of representative Jewish accounts fully substantiates these assertions. Numerous Jewish survivors attest to the cruelty of many of the Jewish Kapos they encountered in the camps featured in MAUS: Auschwitz, Birkenau and Gross-Rosen. One Jewish testimony compares a Polish Kapo favourably to a Jewish Kapo. Another accuses a Jewish Kapo of targeting Poles for abuse and sparing Jews. The accuracy of this historical analysis is beyond question. However, it is a complex reality that Spiegelman’s MAUS deliberately eschews and that its student readers will never learn about. The book’s malicious portrayal of Poles in Auschwitz is taken at face value by educators. There is no evidence that this aspect of the book has ever been challenged in the instructional materials or by any teacher in the classroom.
In this context, one must ask the question whether any school board would approve the use of a book, written from the perspective of a Polish prisoner of Auschwitz, that suggested that all of the Kapos were Jews, even if that was based on the prisoner’s actual experiences. We believe that the answer to that question is apparent. Such a book would be discredited. Even if Spiegelman’s father had claimed that all of the Kapos in Auschwitz were Poles, which we doubt (this was likely the author’s own embellishment), he could have confronted his father on this point in MAUS, if he had wanted to, in order to set the record straight. Spiegelman chose to do just that with regard to the prisoner orchestra that played in Auschwitz. (Vladek was unaware of it, but Art had read about it in his research.) So Erin Einhorn, cited earlier, read Art Spiegelman quite accurately when she points out that his treatment of the Poles is from a skewed, ethno-nationalist perspective. Not only does MAUS fail to expose this bias, the author perpetuates it. Yet the book is touted by educators as breaking down stereotypes, thereby giving further legitimacy to those negative stereotypes.
Again, no amount of deconstruction of the text will expose, or erase from the students’ minds, this inaccurate and defamatory portrayal of ordinary Poles as Nazi sympathizers or as Kapos in Auschwitz. Moreover, none of the study materials we have been directed to or have found address or correct these false impressions. None of the students we have spoken to recall their teachers dealing with the perverse portrayal of the Poles we have described. The limitations of literary analysis are all too apparent when one is faced with a text that plays fast and loose with the historical record. Those literary “tools” are no substitute for hard knowledge of the facts when one is dealing with a book that is treated as non-fiction.
The overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the Poles in Auschwitz pushed by MAUS is an affront to the memory of the camp’s 150,000 Polish Christian prisoners. One such prisoner was Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish underground, who volunteered for an operation to get imprisoned at Auschwitz in order to gather intelligence. Pilecki escaped from the camp in 1943, after nearly three years of imprisonment, and filed detailed reports about conditions in the camp. How many students have heard of Witold Pilecki? Pilecki’s postwar fate is also worth noting. He was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security on May 8, 1947. His investigation was overseen by Colonel Roman Romkowski and his interrogation, during which he was repeatedly tortured, by Colonel Józef Różański, both of whom were of Jewish origin. After a show trial in March 1948, Pilecki was sentenced to death and executed at the notorious Mokotów Prison in May 25, 1948. During the years 1944–1954, 167 of the 450 top positions in the Ministry of Public Security, or 37.1 percent, were occupied by people of Jewish origin. (Ethnic Poles accounted for 49.1 percent, and the balance were filled for the most part by Soviet officers, who accounted for 10.2 percent of the cadre.) The overrepresentation of Jews, who constituted about one percent of the population, in the apparatus of terror was a primary reason for their precarious situation after the war. Jews accounted for no more than two percent of those killed during strife occasioned by the Soviet takeover of Poland. Unlike the vast majority of ethnic Poles, the Central Committee of Jews in Poland fully supported the Communist regime. Thus, the Polish and Jewish perspectives on this period, and the role of the Soviets as “liberators,” differ. Although MAUS shows Poles as hostile toward Jews after the war, it provides no context for this state of affairs.
Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, performed the unheard of deed of offering his life up for a fellow prisoner, a Polish family man who was part of a group of prisoners that were to be executed after a prisoner escaped. (Father Kolbe died on August 14, 1941, long before Vladek Spiegelman arrived at Auschwitz, so the priest depicted in MAUS is not Father Kolbe.) Sigmund Gerson, then a 13-year-old Jewish boy, recollected that Father Kolbe was “like an angel to me. Like a mother hen, he took me in his arms. He used to wipe away my tears. ... he gave away so much of his meager rations that to me it was a miracle he could live.” Another Jewish survivor, Eddie Gastfriend, recalled warmly the scores of Polish prisoner priests, who were subjected to particular forms of degradation in the camp: “They wore no collars, but you knew they were priests by their manner and their attitude, especially toward Jews. They were so gentle, so loving.” Father Kolbe is rightly called the Saint of Auschwitz.22 We are not aware of any teaching materials or teachers that have directed students studying MAUS to books like Witold Pilecki’s report, The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery (Los Angeles: Aquila Polonica, 2012) or Patricia Treece’s moving biography A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz(New York: Harper and Row, 1982). Moreover, students are rarely, if ever, directed to the website of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum (Internet: http://en.auschwitz.org/m/), which is the premier website and most authoritative source of information on Auschwitz. Thus, the chances of the students actually learning about the true narrative of the Poles in Auschwitz, other than their alleged prominent role as Kapos, is rather unlikely.
Furthermore, given the level of the audience (ages 12 to 17), it is even more unlikely that the teachers would be able to adequately explain all of these complex matters, or had the time to do so, even if they were aware of them. After all, MAUS is not being taught, from a critical perspective, in history classes. It is highly unlikely that the vast majority of English teachers would themselves be aware of these facts, as they are not specialists in history and the instructional aides do not adequately address these matters.
There is no reason to believe that the students would come to appreciate that the Poles as pigs metaphor breaks down in any meaningful way. With few exceptions, the pig people are simply not sympathetic characters. They are greedy and brutal beasts. Literary analysis tools are of no assistance here. They would not expose the serious historical misrepresentations we have described, just as they would not expose the religious and cultural biases inherent in the pig metaphor. Dr. Linda Kornasky, a professor of literature at Angelo State University, makes this very point when she states:
Maus does not actually achieve the deconstructive purposes that Spiegelman has claimed for it. In fact, Spiegelman’s admissions, cited in petition, that he did actually intend to represent inaccurate and hateful stereotypes are entirely true. He then simply has employed the cloak of “postmodernism” to hide the true import of his destructive portrayal of Poles.
We will limit ourselves to two additional examples of Spiegelman’s treatment of the historical record. As noted earlier, MAUS makes no mention that the German invaders imposed the death penalty on Poles for helping Jews in any way. German law also extended the threat of death to those who knew about a hidden Jew but did not report it to the authorities. This was not the case in most other occupied countries, and was unheard of in Western Europe or in Germany itself. In fact, sheltering Jews was not punishable by law in France, Italy, Denmark, Germany or Austria. Those caught helping Jews might face a fine or occasionally a short term of imprisonment, yet very few people came to the assistance of Jews. In the Netherlands, the maximum punishment was a three-months’ prison term, but this was not usually imposed in the case of first-time “offenders.”23
In occupied Poland, the death penalty for helping Jews was imposed mercilessly, and usually summarily. Often entire families including grandparents, teenagers (like the students), young children and infants in arms were killed for this “crime.” More than 1,000 Christian Poles were executed when discovered sheltering or helping Jews. Poles – 6,706 as of January 1, 2017 – also constitute the largest group of rescuers of Jews recognized by Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Even trading with Jews was a capital offence in occupied Poland. Testifying at the Eichmann war crimes trial in 1961, Frieda Mazia described a public execution she witnesses in Sosnowiec in the early part of 1941:
A Jewish mother had bought an egg from a Polish peasant so that her child would not die of hunger. Both mother and peasant were hanged: the bodies left hanging for two or three days, ‘so one couldn’t avoid seeing them – if we wanted to go out we had to pass them’.24 A selection of rescue stories describing the sacrifices and bravery of many Poles in the Sosnowiec area (where Vladek resided) is found in Appendix 2. Portraying these Poles as pigs is, by the standards of democratic values, simply unacceptable under any circumstances.
Most Polish helpers, however, have not been recognized by Yad Vashem. According to historian Gunnar Paulsson,
The 27,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw relied on about 50–60,000 people who provided hiding-places and another 20–30,000 who provided other forms of help … helpers outnumbered hunters by about 20 or 30 to one. The active helpers of Jews thus made up seven to nine per cent of the population of Warsaw …25
The Germans imposed near-starvation food rations on the Polish population, yet Spiegelman draws them as well-fed pigs. In 1941, the food allotment for a Jew amounted to 253 calories, 669 calories for a Pole, and 2,613 for a German. The typical Polish family occupied one or two rooms in a tenement house or cottage, without running water or a toilet. Thus, the vast majority of Poles were in no position to provide long-term shelter to anyone.
István Deák, a noted Columbia University historian, has eloquently made the following compelling argument:
The penalty for assisting or even trading with a Jew in German-occupied Poland was death, a fact that makes all comparisons between wartime Polish-Jewish relations and, say, Danish-Jewish relations blatantly unfair. Yet such comparisons are made again and again in Western histories—and virtually always to the detriment of the Poles, with scarce notice taken of the 50,000 to 100,000 Jews said to have been saved by the efforts of Poles to hide or otherwise help them … one must not ignore the crucial differences between wartime conditions in Eastern and Western Europe.26 Instead of pointing out the lethal risks for Poles associated with the rescue of Jews, MAUS portrays Polish rescuers as greedy and deceitful. The truth is that they were poor and frightened. None of the three Poles (drawn as pigs) who assisted the Spiegelman family, namely, Mr. Łukowski, Mrs. Kawka, and Mrs. Motonowa (actually Mrs. Matoń) of Szopienice, betrayed them. They were just afraid to shelter them any longer.
Similarly, the claim that the Polish smugglers who agreed to take Vladek and Anja to Hungary were Nazi collaborators and simply betrayed them does not stand up to closer scrutiny, though this is nowhere disclosed in MAUS. (Although an ally, Hungary was not occupied by Germany at that time and was safer for Jews.) The Germans did not set up smuggling rings to lure Jews out of hiding; however, they did use Jewish Gestapo agents to lure Jews out of hiding for this purpose.27 Smuggling people out of Poland, especially Jews, was an extremely dangerous undertaking. It was usually carried out by professionals and required bribing various officials. Like most smugglers, including Jewish ones, they did this for payment. MAUS implies that the Polish smugglers simply worked together with the Germans, and ended up in Auschwitz when they were no longer useful. However, the historical record, which is well documented,28 is quite different. One of the Polish smugglers, who had previously acted honestly and conscientiously, was caught by the Germans. In order to save himself, he agreed to cooperate thereby putting everyone at risk. Vladek exonerates his nephew, Abraham, who wrote a note with the message that he had been safely smuggled out of Poland, since he was forced to do so, and condemns the Polish smugglers as betrayers. Yet they were in no different position than Abraham, as they too were forced to cooperate with the Germans when the smuggling operation unravelled. While there was a remote possibility that cooperating with the Germans might have saved the smugglers, in Abraham’s case, it was futile from the outset.
In his incisive critique of MAUS (The Comics Journal, no. 135, April 1990), Harvey Pekar exposes this problem by the providing following illustration:
Fiore asks why, if Art meant to portray Poles negatively, he shows them aiding his parents to hide from the Germans. I answered that Art had to do this because it was an integral part of his father’s story. So get this: Fiore asks why, if Art can distort the account of his relationship with his father, he can’t ignore or distort the fact that some Poles risked their lives for Jews during the Second World War. Here’s the answer: Art quotes his father as saying he’d met a Polish woman, Mrs. Motonowa, selling food in the black market. Vladek pays her for a loaf of bread. She tells him she doesn’t have change. He says, “It’s OK … keep it for your little boy.” Art’s implication is that Mrs. Motonowa lied here about not having change so she could keep it.
Then Mrs. Motonowa offers to let Vladek stay at her farmhouse. So Vladek and his wife move there. At this point Art interrupts his father’s narrative to cynically remark, “You had to pay Mrs. Motonowa to keep you, right?” Vladek answers with some irritation, “Of course I paid … and well I paid … what do you think? Someone will risk their life for nothing … I also paid for the food what she gave to us from her smuggling business. But one time I missed a few coins to the bread.” When Vladek does this Mrs. Motonowa comes back in the evening without bread. Vladek comments, “Always she got bread, so I didn’t believe … But still, she was a good woman.”
What’s happening here is that Art is showing a poor Polish woman hiding his parents, but he’s strongly implying that she’s doing it for money alone, which is consistent with her pig image. To kill two birds with one stone, he pictures his father accepting her “mercenary” values. (“Of course I paid… Someone will risk their life for nothing?”) Maybe Art expects Mrs. Motonowa to turn down Vladek’s money, to support him and his wife for free, even though Vladek can pay for his expenses. Vladek justifies paying Mrs. Motonowa for risking her life to save his, but Art implies she’s taking unreasonable advantage of his father. This may illustrate that Art is even cheaper and more selfish than Vladek, maybe almost as cheap as I am!29
Actually, there were Poles of high moral character who saved Jews without expecting to be paid for it. But Artie portrays all Poles as pigs.
Given the approach validated by the author, there is no room for students to become aware – and this is something that should be impressed on them, had MAUS not missed yet another opportunity to rise above its biases – that sacrificing one’s life is not a simple act of kindness. No one has the right to demand of others that they should help someone if it means laying down their lives. Many honest Jewish survivors who were rescued by Poles have stated that they do not know if they would have been able to rescue Poles under such circumstances. Some have said emphatically that they would not have undertaken such a risk.
“I do not accuse anyone that did not hide or help a Jew. We cannot demand from others to sacrifice their lives. One has no right to demand such risks.”30 “Everyone who states the view that helping Jews was during those times a reality, a duty and nothing more should think long and hard how he himself would behave in that situation. I admit that I am not sure that I could summon up enough courage in the conditions of raging Nazi terror.”31 One Polish Jew who often asked this question of Jewish survivors recalled: “The answer was always the same and it is mine too. I do not know if I would have endangered my life to save a Christian.”32 “I am not at all sure that I would give a bowl of food to a Pole if it could mean death for me and my daughter,” a Jewish woman admitted candidly.33 “Today, with the perspective of time, I am full of admiration for the courage and dedication … of all those Poles who in those times, day in, day out, put their lives on the line. I do not know if we Jews, in the face of the tragedy of another nation, would be equally capable of this kind of sacrifice.”34 “And what right did I have to condemn them? Why should they risk themselves and their families for a Jewish boy they didn’t know? Would I have behaved any differently? I knew the answer to that, too. I wouldn’t have lifted a finger. Everyone was equally intimidated.”35 “I say this without needless comments, because I’ve been asked before: If I had a family I would not shelter a Jew during the occupation.”36 “I’m not surprised people didn’t want to hide Jews. Everyone was afraid, who would risk his family’s lives? … But you absolutely can’t blame an average Pole, I don’t know if anyone would be more decent, if any Jew would be more decent.”37 “When I later traveled in the world and Jews would talk to me about how badly Poles behaved with respect to Jews, that they didn’t hide them, I always had this answer: ‘All right, they could have done more. But I wonder how many could one find among you, the Jews, who would hide a Polish family knowing that not only you, but your children, your whole family, would get shot were you found out?’ After that there was always silence and nobody said anything more.”38 “To tell the truth, I don’t know whether today … there are many Jews who would do the same for another nation. We were another nation …”39 “As for the Poles: I do not bear a grudge because many of them did not want to incur danger for us [Jews]; I do not know how we would have behaved [towards them].”40 “When we come to Poland with Israeli youth and I tell them about what happened during the war, I say to them: ‘I know that if I had to risk my own life, and my family’s, for a stranger, I probably wouldn’t have the courage to do so.’”41 “One must pay tribute to those Poles who lost their lives rescuing Jews. Moreover, one cannot blame those who did not rescue Jews. We should not forget that one cannot demand heroism from ordinary, average people. True there are times and causes that demand heroism, but only certain individuals can aspire to that. One cannot harbour ill-feelings towards or have grounds for complaining about someone for not attaining that level.”42 “I always protest when I hear that Poles did “too little.” How can one judge people who found themselves in such a difficult situation? Human nature is such that one is concerned foremost about one’s own life and the lives of close ones. It is their safety that is the most important thing. One has to have great courage to risk death – one’s own and one’s children – in order to rescue a stranger. To require this of ordinary people terrorized by the occupiers is to ask too much. The Jewish people themselves didn’t pass that test either. Who knows how many heroes like the Polish Righteous would be found among the Jews.”43 “Would Roman risk his own life now to save others? ‘It’s funny that you should ask that question,’ he said, ‘because when I teach the children, sixth graders, and I tell them how Maria saved my life, I say to the children, ‘How many of you would be willing to risk your life to save someone else, knowing that if you’re caught you’ll be put to death?’ And, of course, after hearing my story, many of them say, ‘Oh, we would, Mr. Frayman, we would.’ But I say, ‘Put your hands down. Let me tell you honestly, if someone asked me if I’d do it, my honest answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ Would I be willing to sacrifice my children, my grandchildren, I don’t know. You don’t know that until you are in that circumstance. I don’t know how gutsy I am.”44 No religious code, including Jewish, imposes such a demand or condemns those who are not willing to put their lives on the line for others. Otherwise, except for a handful of people, we would all fail this test. At a recent screening of The Labyrinth: The Testimony of Marian Kolodziej, an award-winning film by Ron Schmidt, SJ,45 at Regis College, University of Toronto, Dr. David Novak of the Centre for Jewish Studies commented that sacrificing one’s life is not even condoned in Jewish teaching. The Torah teaches that a person is obliged to help, and to share, but at a point when helping endangers one’s own life nothing in the Torah permits that.46 Students deserve a better grounding in fundamental ethics than MAUS.
Moreover, there was nothing morally reprehensible – despite Spiegelman’s indignant assertion to the contrary – in rescuers asking their charges to contribute to their own upkeep. The much praised Danish rescue operation required enormous monetary payments on the part of the rescued Jews themselves.47 Nothing in MAUS addresses these important issues. What teacher’s guides or student resource materials point any of these important matters out to the students, who cannot but be left with a negative impression of Polish rescuers?
The lack of fulsome disclosure in MAUS of the role of Jewish ghetto policemen and agents in this part of occupied Poland impacts adversely on the image of Poles, who are portrayed as the only denouncers of Jews outside the ghettos. This is a historical perversion. Many Jewish survivors describe the Jewish Council and Jewish police in a far darker light than MAUS does. As the Jewish testimonies in Appendix 3
show, the Germans also relied on the Jewish police from Sosnowiec to hunt down Jews who escaped from the ghetto and to help liquidate nearby ghettos. While the Germans used local police forces throughout occupied Europe to round up Jews, the Zagłębie Dąbrowskie (which was incorporated into the Reich as part of Eastern Upper Silesia), the part of occupied Poland shown in Maus, the Polish police force was disbanded. The Germans set up a Jewish police to maintain order and to perform other tasks, including the liquidation of ghettos and searches for escaped Jews. There was no shortage of volunteers to fill positions in the Jewish police force or the Jewish Council. Those positions came with benefits (extra food, better lodgings, bribes from corruption, protection), and, ultimately, such persons had a significantly better chance of survival than other Jews.
MAUS refers to an “anti-Jewish riot” that allegedly resulted in two Jewish deaths in Bielsko. While there was a disturbance in that city, in fact there was no loss of life – only windows in some Jewish stores and homes were broken. Moreover, it followed on the heels of the killing of a Polish labourer by a Jew on September 17, 1937.48 As Israeli historian Emanuel Melzer points out, the “anti-Jewish excesses” in the years 1935–1937 usually resulted from the killing of a Christian Pole by a Jew.49 In total, 14 Jews were killed, as well as many more Poles. Polish rioters were often shot by police who intervened to restore order whenever such incidents occurred. Spiegelman is also quick to suggest that a robbery at Vladek’s factory may have been motivated by anti-Semitism, a claim that Vladek appears to dismiss. Spiegelman’s speculation lacks any solid grounding. In fact, there was a large Jewish criminal underworld in Poland at the time,50 and striking at business competitors was a frequent occurrence.