The use and representation of Yiddish in "Maus" by Art Spiegelman

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

23 Pages, Grade: 2.3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction
A. Yiddish, America and Yinglish/Anglish

II. Jews in Poland and their use of yiddish

III.The occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany
A. Upper Silesia

IV. Art Spiegelman
A. The graphic novel “Maus“

V. The use and representation of yiddish in “Maus“

VI. Conclusion

VII. Bibliography
A. Sources
B. Literature


“‘Ss brent, Brider, ‘ss brent!

Oj, es kon, cholile, kumn der Moment:

Unser Schrot mit uns zusamm

Sol ojf Asch awek in Flamm,

Blajbn sol - wie noch a Schlacht -

Nor pusste, schwarze Went!

Un ir schtejt un kukt asoj sich mit farlejgte Hent,

Un ir schtejt un kukt asoj sich, unser Schtetl brent!“[1]

The verse is an extract of a yiddish song called “‘Ss brent, Brider, ‘ss brent!“ and was written 1938 in Poland by Mordechaj Gebirtig. It deals with the pogroms that took place in Poland and was a forerunner of the sad events to come with the invasion by the German Reich. The song deals with the burning of a “Schtetl“, a yiddish town, and the citizens who are watching but not helping to extinguish the fire.[2]

The song is a good witness of the things that happened to Jews during the 1930’s not only in Germany. Jews were treated as pariahs in a lot of countries and they had their own language: Yiddish. During that time, about 5,2 million Jews were able to speak Yiddish in Eastern Europe,[3] but after the Second World War almost five million of them were dead. This led to a declining importance and use of the Yiddish language. But it is not a dead language but a language that gained interest of the descendants of the former yiddish-speaking Jews and research at the universities and gets more and more known. Furthermore, there are still speakers of Yiddish, mostly in the ultra-orthodox milieu in Israel.[4]

To show that Yiddish is still used I will examine the graphic novel “Maus“[5] by the American author Art Spiegelman whose parents immigrated to the USA in the early 1950’s.[6] It deals with the story of his jewish father in Poland during the Second World War. This paper shall deal with the use of Yiddish and Yinglish and its representation in the graphic novel. The aim of this paper is to show that traces of Yiddish can be found even in a graphic novel.

Following that aim, chapter I.A deals with the immigration of Jews to the USA and the impact that the big jewish community in America had on the American language - the influence of Yiddish on English and the other way round. The second chapter (II.) focuses on the life of Jews in Poland and their use of Yiddish. The chapter shall give an overview of the social premises, the Jews lived in. Nevertheless it shall also give a short introduction of the Yiddish language and how it was used. As the graphic novel deals with the Holocaust, the third chapter (III.) sums up the events after the invasion of the German Reich to Poland and shows what the Germans did to Poland. Furthermore the important polish places for the graphic novel are introduced. The next chapter introduces Art Spiegelman and gives a short biography of him. Furthermore his work “Maus“ will be represented and a short summary of the graphic novel focusing on the storyline in the 1930’s and 1940’s will be given. Chapter V. now analyzes the use and representation of Yiddish and in the last Chapter a conclusion will be drawn towards the question, how Yiddish is represented in “Maus“.

A. Yiddish, America and Yinglish/Anglish

“It was Walt Whitman who first described the United States as a ‚nation of nations.‘“[7]

What Bluestein wanted to tell us by citing the phrase by Walt Whitman is, that within the United States a lot of people came together from different cultures and places. Bluestein continues to draw the following conclusion:

“Rather than suggesting an exclusive relationship to God, Whitman proposes that the unique fate of our language is to develop and change by incorporating the traditions of those millions who left their homelands yearning for freedom.“[8]

This leads to the blending of the different languages been spoken in America under the flag of the american - english language. Therefore she speaks of two different resulst: firstly the anglicized Yiddish known as “Anglish" and the yiddishized English what is described as “Yinglish“.[9]

As mentioned, the USA always was the aim of the persecuted and this means that there were a lot of jewish people coming to the USA. A lot of jews, at least those who could afford going to the USA, emigrated from Europe beginning with the 1880’s. During that time almost 2.4 million jews immigrated to the USA, compared to the smaller number of 200.000 jews from 1840-1880. Most of the people who emigrated lived in Russia that had several pogroms happening in the late 19th century. After the Great War emigration decelerated and the USA enacted laws that restricted immigration. Nevertheless during 1921 and 1925 nearly 280.000 Jews came to the USA. The amount of Jews trying to immigrate to the US swelled during the 1930’s and the rising tension in Europe, mostly initiated by the Nazis: Nearly 350.000 Jews had left the German Reich, Austria and the Czechoslovakia before the War began.[10] This shows that a great amount of jewish people came to the USA and lived there. This is one of the reasons why, for example, Hitler thought that the USA is some kind of a ‘headquarter‘ of the “Weltjudentum“ -[11] a term that describes the irrational belief that all Jews work together like proclaimed in the fictional “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion“.[12]

The Yiddish language is described by the Encyclopedia Judaica in the following way:

YIDDISH LANGUAGE, language used by Ashkenazi Jews for the past 1,000 years. Developed as an intricate fusion of several unpredictably modified stocks, the language was gradually molded to serve a wide range of communicative needs. As the society which used it achieved one of the highest levels of cultural autonomy in Jewish history, the Yiddish language too became an unusually vivid record of Jewish cultural specificities.“[13]

The term “Ashekanz“ describes the Jews living in the german territory and its descendants who emigrated to other european countries like Poland and other Eastern European countries and Russia.[14] Yiddish was a language that was spoken by nearly all Jews living in Europe during the late 19th century. That implies that Yiddish was more than a language of a minority but it was an official language in the territories of the former U.S.S.R and generated a rich literature. Unfortunately most of this yiddish lifestyle was exterminated during the 1930’s and was eradicated by the end of the Second World War. Today, Yiddish is still spoken mostly in an ultra-Orthodox milieu. Nevertheless interest in Yiddish began to rise during the past years because of universities and their intellectual interest but also because of nostalgic feelings.[15] Moreover it has to be mentioned that there is nothing like ‘one yiddish language‘ but there are of course different dialects that are influenced by the country in which it is spoken. That means that the yiddish of a german Jew may be highly different from a russian Jew.[16]

The most noticeable thing about the grammar is that it is derived of the Middle High German. This means that it does not use the simple past but always uses the present perfect. Furthermore it does not use the right grammatical case but often mixes up dative and accusative case. Additionally interesting are the strange syntax and the use of the double negative.[17] Bluestein now differentiates between Yinglish - that means that english words are integrated into Yiddish - and Anglish - Yiddish words are integrated into English.[18] What is used in the book will be examined in chapter V.

II. Jews in Poland and their use of yiddish

Antisemitism is not just a problem that was situated in Germany in the 20th century but a problem that was also in existence in nearly every european state at that time.[19] In Poland radical antisemitism dominated the population between 1919 and 1923. After that period antisemitism still existed but below the surface. Jewish people were discriminated through policy, for example by an unofficial numerus clausus that regulated the of Jews at the university. Moreover, Bergmann writes that the antisemitism in Poland was part of the nationalist views at that time. A polish citizen was someone who spoke polish and was catholic. This means that not only the majority of Jews were not polish according to the polish people but also that most of the german inhabitants of Poland were not seen as polish after the treaty of Versailles. The polish nationalist view was very strict by totally excluding the Jews. Furthermore this means that the polish nationalists did not differentiate between orthodoxe and secular Jews - the antisemitism against the jews was not a religious one. This indicates that nearly ten percent of the inhabitants of Poland - and these are only the jewish people - were excluded of the public life. The life of the jews was not a simple one. Although most of the jews were not working in the agricultural sector, like the majority of the polish people, they did not succeed in establishing some kind of a wealthy middle class. This led to the statement of Isaac Giterman, who worked for the jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Warszawa, that the antisemitism in Poland is “substantially economic and a fight for bread.“[20] There were no workplaces for people who were better educated. Consequently there was a fight for work between the jewish and the polish population. Furthermore this was combined with the catholic anti-judaism and transformed to an antisemitism that became a vital and viral part of the polish politics.[21]

A milestone in the politics of Poland is the December of 1936. At that time the Polish People’s Party ratified a new program that was nationalistic and social revolutionary but antisemitic at the same time. That development was a sign of the rising tensions in Poland and the radicalization of the people working in the agricultural sector. But it was not only a sign of rising tensions between the polish and the jewish people but also a sign for the tensions between the opposition and the the authoritarian government.[22] Nevertheless the weak economic position of Poland following the world economic crisis of 1929/1930 was a major reason for the difficult situation in Poland. Next to the ideological reason for antisemitism, the economical crisis in Poland was promoting antisemitism, although as mentioned above, the jews were not homogenous. As Alexander proclaims the life of a secularized jewish lawyer could not be compared to a yiddish-speaking monger living a traditional life. Furthermore the death of Pilsudski exacerbated the situation of the jewish population and the polish government encouraged the jewish people to emigrate. The jewish people lived a more or less hopeless life and were definitely unwanted. Nevertheless, according to Alexander, there is a huge difference between the german and the polish antisemitism. Whereas the german antisemitism was built upon the racial views of that time, the polish antisemitism was not racial. Admittedly, this did not change the situation of the Jews living in Poland and whatever the antisemitism was built on, they were hated out of different reasons by the majority of the polish population.[23]

Coming to our main topic within the jewish society, this paper mainly deals with the Yiddish language. At this point I will give a short overview about the Yiddish language in Poland. One must state, that there is nothing like “one“ yiddish language but there are different dialects because of the migrating of the jewish people. Especially the ashkenazi culture in the east of Europe developed numerous of different dialects. As a result of the exclusion of the Jews during the middle Ages the Jews did not have the chance to assimilate to the polish people. There was nothing like a group of polish people within the polish society the Jews could have seen as some kind of “standard“ which they could assimilate to.[24] In east Europe after the First World War, the Zíscho (Central Yiddish School Organization), built up a network in Poland embracing kindergartens, elementary schools, grammar schools and a teacher’s training college. The curriculum within these places was mostly in yiddish and put emphasis on the religious and orthodox-jewish education. Nevertheless the jewish pupils had to learn Polish at there places too. In contrast to the schools of the “Zíscho“, the hebrew and mostly zionist hebrew schools did not teach yiddish as it was a taboo to speak yiddish within this social context. Yet most of the jewish people went to the public schools in Poland because of a simple reason: They were costless. Aptroot and Gruschka come to the result that probably polish would have become the main language of most of the Jews.[25]

The yiddish speaking milieu in Poland was depauperated and, with the above mentioned changes during the 1930’s, the possible assimilation of the yiddish speaking people came nearly to an end. A majority of the 5,2 million jews who were killed by the Germans during the Holocaust in Poland, the Baltikum, the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania and the Czechoslovakia spoke Yiddish. Whereas the killed jews out of France for example did not speak yiddish as their first language.[26]

After outlining the situation of the jewish society in Poland and the use of the yiddish language, one can say that the jewish life in Poland was not easy. They were neither integrated or assimilated into the polish society nor were they in a good economical position. Yiddish was used a lot this time and was a living language among the jewish people but they were without friends in Poland.

III. The occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany

In 1939 the world began to change. Germany and mainly through the influence of Adolf Hitler, Germany gained new territories. The main aim of Hitler was to expand into the East; to gain “Lebensraum im Osten“.[27] The national socialists wanted to gain space in the east to be able to be prepared for the growth of the arian race. Furthermore they wanted to establish a self-sustaining economy.[28] This idea of the “Lebensraum im Osten“ was mixed with the belief that the inhabitants of the east were members of an inferior race. To put it in a nutshell, this was the justification for the war in the east and the result, if Germany had been successful, would have been the extermination of the polish people.[29] Nevertheless the main aim in the east were the Jews.[30] In Poland there were living 3,35 million Jews, who were nearly ten percent of the people living in Poland.[31]


[1] Benjamin Ortmeyer (ed.): Jiddische Lieder gegen die Nazis, Witterschlick/Bonn, 1996, p. 28, as following: Ortmeyer: Lieder.

[2] Ortmeyer: Lieder, p. 28.

[3] Marion Aptroot and Roland Gruschka: Jiddisch. Geschichte und Kultur einer Weltsprache, München 2010, p. 150, as following: Aptroot: Jiddisch.

[4] Aptroot: Jiddisch, p. 168-175.

[5] Art Spiegelman: The Complete Maus, London 2003, as following: Maus.

[6] Art Spiegelman: MetaMaus. A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus, New York 2011, p. 292, as following: Spiegelman: MetaMaus.

[7] Gene Bluestein: Anglish - Yinglish. Yiddish in American Life and Literature, Athens (Georgia)/London 1989, p. IX, as following: Bluestein: Anglish.

[8] Bluestein: Anglish, p. X.

[9] Bluestein: Anglish, p. X.

[10] Sergio DellaPergola/Usiel Oscar Schmelz: Art. Migration, in: Encyclopedia Judaica Online, Date: 22.08.2014, the complete URLs of all informations derived from online sources can be found in chapter VII. B. of the paper.

[11] A clear sign of that belief is that Hitler thought he could prevent the USA from declaring war on Germany by taking Jews as hostages in the autumn of 1941, cf.: Kurt Bauer: Nationalsozialismus. Ursprünge, Anfänge, Aufstieg und Fall, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2008, p. 460-463 and , im Folgenden zitiert als: Bauer: Nationalsozialismus.

[12] Wolfgang Benz: Die Protokolle der Weisen von Zion. Die Legende von der jüdischen Weltverschwörung, München 22011, p. 31-45.

[13] Uriel Weinreich: Art. Yiddish Language, in: Encyclopedia Judaica Online, Date: 22.08.2014, as following: Weinreich: Yiddish.

[14] No Author mentioned: Art. Ashkenaz, in: Encyclopedia Judaica Online, Date 22.08.2014.

[15] Weinreich: Yiddish.

[16] Bluestein: Anglish, p. XIIV.

[17] According to the translators of the german version of “Maus“, cf.: Christine Brick and Josef Joffe: Anmerkungen der Übersetzungen, in: Art Spiegelman: Die vollständige Maus, Frankfurt am Main 92014, on the very last page, as following: Brick: Anmerkungen.

[18] Bluestein: Anglish, p. 5.

[19] Werner Bergmann: Geschichte des Antisemitismus, München 42010, p. 38-39, as following: Bergmann: Antisemitismus.

[20] Quotation after: Bergmann: Antisemitismus, p. 85.

[21] Bergmann: Antisemitismus, p. 84-85.

[22] Manfred Alexander: Kleine Geschichte Polens, Bonn 2005, p. 296-299, as following: Alexander: Polen.

[23] Alexander: Polen, p. 301-304.

[24] Aptroot: Jiddisch, p. 44-48.

[25] Aptroot: Jiddisch, p. 138-139.

[26] Aptroot: Jiddisch, p. 150.

[27] Bauer: Nationalsozialismus p. 340-346.

[28] Uffa Jensen: Art. Lebensraum, in: Wolfgang Benz/Hermann Graml/Hermann Weiß (Ed.): Enzyklopädie des Nationalsozialismus, München 52007, p. 620.

[29] Helmut Schaller: Der Nationalsozialismus und die slawische Welt, Regensburg 2002, p. 175, as following: Schaller: Welt.

[30] Bauer: Nationalsozialismus, p. 111.

[31] Beata Kosmala: Art. Polen, in: Wolfgang Benz (Ed.): Lexikon des Holocaust, München 2002, p. 176-177.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The use and representation of Yiddish in "Maus" by Art Spiegelman
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Historisches Institut)
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Judentum, Holocaust, Yiddishkeit, Art Spiegelman, Jewish Culture
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Christoph Kohls (Author), 2015, The use and representation of Yiddish in "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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