Holocaust in History and Life Writing. An analysis of the parallels between historical resources and life writing and the use of historical symbols and knowledge in the life writing novels or memoirs "Maus and Night".

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

42 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Novels and History Books
2.1 Night by Elie Wiesel
2.2 The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
2.3 Historical Literature for Comparison

3 Analysis: Symbols and Images for Holocaust Happenings
3.1 The beginning of the War and the Discrimination against Jews
3.1.1. Expropriation
3.1.2. Marking Jews and Establishment of Ghettos
3.1.3. Deportation-“Trains”
3.3 Concentration Camps and Death Camps
3.3.1. Registration Process and Marking
3.3.2. Daily Routines at a KZ
3.3.3. Mistreatment, Abuse and Terror
3.3.4. Hierarchies within the Camps - “Operative Prisoners”
3.3.5. Food and Living Conditions
3.3.6. SelectionProcess
3.3.7. Surviving a Concentration Camp
3.4 „The Final Solution“ - Killing Methods and Handling of the Dead..
3.4.1. Deadly Showers - „Gas Chambers“
3.4.2. Burning the Corpses - „Looting“ and „Chimneys“
3.4.3. Mass Shootings - „Mass Graves“
3.4.4. Evacuating Camps - „Death Marches“
3.5 The Role ofPrior Knowledge or Historical Research for Reading Holocaust Memoirs

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited and Additional Resources

6 Appendix
6.1 Vladek, a survival artist
6.2 Other Excerpts from the Book

List of Figures

Fig.l: Anti-Semitic acts before the war

Fig.2: Establishing ghettos

Fig.3: Entrance to Auschwitz

Fig.4: Walking over corpses

Fig.5: A Jew at a KZ

Fig.6: Registration and marking process

Fig.7: Drills until they drop dead

Fig.8: Killing Jews for fun

Fig.9: Count the blows

Fig.10: Food deprivation as punishment

Fig.11: Food as a means of discrimination against Jews

Fig.12: Overpopulated barracks

Fig.13: Spilling Soup or asking for more food

Fig.14: Vladeksjobs during his stay at the KZ

Fig.15: Burning pits

Fig.16: One way out - through the chimney

Fig.17: Trains delivering prisoners to the gas chambers

Fig.18: Mass execution - shooting Jews

Fig.19: DeathMarches

Fig.20: Liberation at Starenberger Lake

Fig.21: Transportation in cattle cars

Fig.22: Saving goods fortrade

Fig.23: Exchange valuables for smuggling services

Fig.24: Teaching English to a Kapo

Fig.25: Getting ajob as tinsmith

Fig.26: Becoming a shoemaker

Fig.27: Map of Auschwitz

Fig.28: Detailed description of gas chamber

Fig.29: Entrance to Auschwitz

Fig.30: Distribution of ill-fitting clothes

Fig.31: Enough food to die more slowly

Fig.32: Selection

1 Introduction

“Again the Holocaust?!...” is the answer, a lot of pupils ask when the topic is brought up in school. This might derive from the way the holocaust is taught: mainly fact based without personal encounter of survivors or personal stories. A different approach could be to read novels and memoirs of holocaust survivors to bring more personal aspects into the classroom.

But my hypotheses is that - in order to understand those novels - the readers need historical basic knowledge about the holocaust. I assume that memoir authors use symbols and images that refer to the happenings without further explanation. By doing this, they leave more space for personal and emotional stories that cannot be found in pure fact based books or encyclopedias about the holocaust. To get a full picture of the holocaust and understand the novels completely the reader needs to know the meaning of certain symbols for example “chimneys” or “death marches.”

In order to analyze this theory, I am going to use historical literature as a reference point to see what events are neutrally described and taught as facts. Then I will compare these facts to the novels The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel to see whether they took time to explain the events more detailed or whether they just refer to a symbol or happening that would be counted as 'common knowledge'.

First I will give an introduction to the novels to summarize their story and highlight peculiarities and differences. In this part, I will also give an overview over the historical literature that will be the basis for this paper.

In the second part I will highlight the most important facts, symbols, and images that are connected with holocaust events and recognized as general knowledge. I will explain them shortly and present passages from the books that refer to these events.

In the end I will test my hypotheses and explain whether it has been proven as a true statement or not. I will present my conclusion on the importance of memoirs and historical resources for a general overview on the topic of the Holocaust and NS- regimes.

Annotation: During the years the function of concentration camps as well as their naming changed multiple times. There were Conviction Camps, Concentration Camps, Death Camps, Work Camps, Incoming Camps, Transit Camps, and many more terms. Some camps started as concentration and work camps and evolved to death camps over time. Since a detailed explanation on the historical changes in establishing, naming, and functionality of camps would exceed the limits and topic of this paper and in order to keep it consistent, I will only use the term Concentration Camp (KZ) which works as a superordinate term. For a detailed insight to the change in functions and naming I recommend reading Kosthorst/Walter (1985), Orth (1999; 2000), and other encyclopedia on historical events.

2. The Novels and History Books

2.1 Night by Elie Wiesel

Night is a slim book with a powerful autobiographical story that won the Nobel Peace Price in Literature 1986. The book is written by Elie Wiesel, born 1928, a holocaust survivor from Sighet, Transylvania, who experienced the deportation and KZ together with his father. He wrote the book in order to preserve his memory and hand it over to generations to come - so that the enemy does not have his final victory by having the memory of his crimes erased from the peoples minds.

The book starts out with Elie and his family being safe and sound in their hometown. Although people heard of terrible happenings in the world through the Nazi-Regime, they neither could believe that other humans could possibly commit such cruelties nor that it would happen to them in their peaceful town. But shortly after, the German troops arrived. One by one the villagers were deported and Elie describes his experiences. The focus lies on emotions and thoughts that he recalls while he describes events that he and his father had to go through.

The book ends with the narration of the liberation and the thoughts that were on their minds, after they realized that they are free man again. In retrospect, Elie cannot tell why he survived. He calls it a miracle for he was not very strong, rather shy and had not had any special traits or skills that would have served him beneficial. His survival was therefore more luck than anything else.

2.2 The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Price. In comparison to Night the book differs in two major aspects. First in its style: it is not a written novel but a black and white comic book where the factions are represented through different types of animals. The Jews - no matter what nationality - are displayed as mice, the Germans as cats, the Americans as dogs and the Poles as pigs. Through this the cliche animal enemy roles are emphasized: Cats chase and kill mice, dogs will chase cats while swines are dirty animals of “lower class”.

The second difference lies in its perspective: while Night is written autobiograph­ically from the survivor himself, Art Spiegelman belongs to the second generation holocaust survivors. His father Vladek went through the KZ before he managed to emigrate to the United States where he spent the final days of his life. In a very long and time consuming process, Art met with his father to interview him about and record his memories.

With this in mind, Maus is still a memoir but not autobiographical like Night. The drawings and delineation of holocaust situations are therefore derived from his fathers descriptions in comparison with historical research. In order to draw the comic, Art had to analyze history books and reports to get an accurate depiction.

While Night is only the survivors memoir of the holocaust, Maus takes it one step further and integrates the creation process of the book. The holocaust story is regularly interrupted by memories of Art about his childhood and the meetings with his father. The reader therefore gets not only an insight to the creation process but also experiences the life after the holocaust that Vladek led, the troubles he had and still has to the point of the interviews. He gets to know the personality of Vladek and how it changed through the past events.

While the survival of Elie is a mere miracle, Vladek could be referred to as a survival artist. He used every opportunity to make situations work in his favor.

The love story between Vladek and Anja gives the book a very personal note and includes many feelings. Anja and Vladek fled together several times but were separated at one point. But the love to her and the hope for a reunion in the future was what kept Vladek going and helped him to find the strength to survive.

Vladek ends his story in the interview with the reunion of him, Anja and their family after the liberation. At that point, he is displayed as a very old and exhausted man laying in bed and giving Art the last information he needs to finish the book with a happy ending. The book then ends with the tombstone of Vladek and Anja, being peacefully reunited in death for all time.

2.3 Historical Literature for Comparison

For my historical research literature I use history encyclopedias as well as history books dealing with the Nazi regime time of 1933-1944, KZ, and the crimes of the SS. Since the novels content mainly focuses on the experiences in KZ plus the trans­portation I will concentrate my research on these aspects.

In order to give an unbiased overview - as far as possible - I will read and compare the barren facts of history books, original documents, and reports from that time with the novels to highlight similarities and differences. For the whole literature list please take a look at the works cited section at the end of this paper.

3 Analysis: Symbols and Images for Holocaust Happenings

The holocaust during the German Nazi regime is a horrible historical event that cost millions of lives in the 20th century. To be not forgotten and prevent a repetition, the crimes committed by the SS are taught in schools over and over - mainly from neutral formal perspective.

In the following section will outline the terrible happenings that are documented in literature and compare them to the novels. It will explain shortly what happened according to history books and then see, whether the novel authors also explained the situations or whether they expected the readers to know already about it. Each sub headline will address a prominent topic from history books that can also be found in one or both of the aforementioned novels.

3.1 The beginning of the War and the Discrimination against Jews

The first actions against Jews in the holocaust were massive political, economic, religious and social discrimination - but not racial at that point - on a state wide level (Förster, 2005). Jews were publicly denounced as spenders, enemies of German soldiers, anti-German agitators, lazy malingerer, and thieves (Angrick, 2005: 121). Later, Hitler declared that the war should be used to eradicated the Jewish race in Europe (Gebhardt, 1985).

Wiesel mentions the discriminating acts in Budapest against Jews, who “live in an atmosphere of fear and terror. Anti-Semitic acts take place every day, in the streets, on the trains. The Fascists attack Jewish stores, synagogues. The situation is becoming very serious” (9). But although the people in his hometown Sighet knew about this, they were still optimistic that the war would end soon and no one would get harmed here. The shock came, when soldiers arrived shortly after and established two ghettos in Sighet, where the Jewish citizens had to reside, before they were transported to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

At that point, Wiesel did not know about Hitlers plan to annihilate the Jewish race. Thus he does not mention it in his book and requires the reader to have this knowledge. Spiegelman, on the other hand, knew about the pogrom and anti-Semitic acts for he had friends and family in Germany. He summarizes the first anti-Semitic acts - marking, expropriation, pogrom, violence - in five pictures (Fig. 1).

3.1.1. Expropriation

Society was told not to buy from Jewish stores, so over a longer period, Jews went bankrupt. All Jewish stores and factories had to be marked as such (Angrick, 2005) and some stores were taken away violently by the regime and handed over to Aryan shopkeepers. All people that disobeyed and still purchased goods at Jewish stores were imprisoned for a short time. Slowly but steady, Jews lost their stores and factories and had to find other means to survive or - which was intended - leave the country.

This knowledge is important to fully understand the second picture in Fig. 1: in the back of the picture one can see the marking of Jewish stores but it does not explain that Germans were forbidden to buy goods there. The sky is replaced by a Swastika, symbolizing this happens in towns with Nazi-leaders. In the modern world, this symbol is self explanatory and should be seen as common knowledge.

Wiesel did non experience the pogrom in Germany, but describes, the expropri­ation during the establishment of Ghettos. Every Jew was “forbidden to own gold, jewelry, or any valuables. Everything had to be handed over to the authorities under penalty of death” (2006: 10).

3.1.2. Marking Jews and Establishment of Ghettos

In Germany, Jews were marked with the yellow star as were their properties and stores. Next to taking away Jewish property came the establishment of Jewish ghettos especially in the occupied areas. Jews were driven out of their homes without a chance to secure or take their belongings with them. They were forced to live in enclosed and guarded Ghettos that were established in town, while Germans took over their houses. All was followed by deportation to KZ, but during the time in the ghetto they also faced maltreatment, terror and pogrom like mass execution through the occupants (Förster, 2005; Agrick 2005; Gebhard, 1985). Those who tried to flee were shot instantly. Before the execution, they selected the Jewish craftsmen out and let them go (Ungváry, 2005) so that the mass execution targeted especially women, children, old and disabled Jews.

In Night the reader is confronted with the marking of Jews with the yellow star and the establishment of two ghettos, a larger and a smaller one, encircled with barbed wire and guarded day and night (Wiesel, 2006: 11). But although this was a huge discrimination against the Jews and although they had to give up all their properties, they still did not feel threatened and saw the positive aspects of forming a small Jewish republic and being surrounded by Jewish family and friends. The intended fear that the Nazis and the police tried to evoke did not occur until deportation started (ibid).

Vladek was also requested to move to a ghetto with his family (Fig.2). In the back of the picture a sign is visible, calling out to give

3.1.3. Deportation - “Trains”

The deportation took place with trains. Human beings were forced into cattle cars and brought first to a transit camp before the route continued to a final KZ (Gebhardt, 1985). All KZ were therefore connected to the Reichsbahn of Germany to allow a fast transportation to and in between the camps.

Though not explicitly emphasized in the historical literature, “Trains” became a crucial symbol to prisoners of the holocaust and often instilled terror during their whole life. Trains are a symbol for deportation to often lethal final destinations. The transportation methods were rough as can be seen in Maus (Fig.21) as well as Night:

“The next morning, we walked towards the station, where a convoy of cattle cars was waiting. The Hungarian police made us climb into the cars, eighty persons in each one. ... The cars were sealed. .if someone managed to escape, that person would be shot Lying down was not an option, nor could we all sit down. We decided to take turns sitting. There was little air. The lucky ones found themselves near a window ... After two days of, the thirst became intolerable, as did the heat. ... There was still some food left. But we never ate enough to satisfy our hunger. Our principle was to economize, to save for tomorrow. Tomorrow could be worse.“ (Wiesel, 2006: 22-23)


One of the most prominent pictures in history books and museums all over the world is the entrance to Auschwitz, marked by a gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei”. “But no sooner had we taken a few more steps then we saw the barbed wire of another camp. This one had an iron gate with the overhead inscription: Arbeit macht frei. Work makes you free. Auschwitz” (Wiesel, 2006: 40). These famous words were found on several KZ. Below is an original photograph of the Auschwitz entrance and a picture from Maus.

Regarding the fact, that Spiegelman himself never went to Auschwitz, he probably has taken similar photos as background information for his drawing. Since the words are flipped, the reader needs to have prior knowledge in order to recognize the words on the fence. The drawing in Fig.29 is even closer to the photo below.

3.3 Concentration Camps and Death Camps

When Hitler rose to power he tried to rid himself off of all the people posing a threat to his leadership or the society. He tried to form the society in his own ways by punishing and imprison everyone who would not behave accordingly and by elimi­nating marginal groups, that do not fit into his image of a perfect society. In order to enforce his ideas he established new principles:

“Als neue Strafprinzipien waren Vergeltung, Abschreckung (Terror), Unschädlichmachung durchzusetzen. Dahinter stand das Menschenbild Hitlers: das Recht der Stärkeren, der Kampf ums Dasein - der Sozialdarwinismus, für den es eine unantastbare Menschenwürde nicht gab” (Kosthorst/Walter, 1985: 315).

The KZ were therefore not only containing Jews but also marginal groups (like Roma), Poles, communists, marxists, and socialists, homosexuals, disabled, prisoners of war, unemployed and others perceived as enemies (Pohl, 2005; ). He managed to arrest these people under the newly interpreted law of protective custody, to protect the society from any harm (Kosthorst/ Walter, 1985). But it was just another instrument of structured terror. The fear of imprisonment kept many habitual criminals from continuing their bad deeds (Drobisch/Wieland, 1993).

Besides that, he blamed Jews for everything bad in the world and thought of them as a threat to the white European Aryan race. While at first, Jews were imprisoned for a short time to break them and pressure them to leave Europe, in the end Jews were imprisoned and mostly killed, if their work force ceased. “Was in den Lagern wirklich vor sich ging, darüber erfuhr man wenig, oder es bewegte sich jenseits der Grenzen des bürgerlichen Vorstellungsvermögens” (Kosthorst/Walter, 1985: 22). This is perfectly illustrated in Night, when Elie and his father first met other inmates:

“'Shut up, you moron, or I'll tear you to pieces! You should've hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn't you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn't know? In 1944?' True. We didn't know. Nobody had told us. He couldn't believe his ears.” (30)

In contrary to Elie, Vladek knew what Auschwitz was about. They had connec­tions to Germany and heard about the terrible stories of gas chambers and the burning of corpses (Fig.29). But overall, the handling of prisoners and especially the killing methods in the death camps were kept secret from the public for the longest time (Gebhardt, 1985) and disguised through positive reports by outside authorities that only got to see perfectly humane conditions, when they were invited on a tour through the camps by the NS-regime (Kosthorst/Walter, 1985). Though the truth is, that more people were killed because of inhumane conditions and maltreatment than through direct execution (Orth, 2000).

In the novels it looks primarily like the aggression was turned only towards Jews, not also against political enemies and other unwanted people. The reader needs to have background knowledge at this point, in order to know the full history and to see small details in the Maus that might not be visible for the uneducated eye: Fig.4 shows prisoner corpses; but there are not just mice but also cats and pigs, highlighting that there were not only Jews but also Poles and Germans that must have been arrested for some - unmentioned - reason.

3.3.1. Registration Process and Marking

Registration and marking, in combination with a first selection, always took place when new prisoners entered a concentration camp. During the process - that sometimes lasted several days - the prisoners got no food or water. Being registered, they were assigned a number that they had to stick to their clothes and by which they were addressed in the future. Additionally they were marked by colored triangles or stripes to represent their imprisonment reasons (e.g. Migrants, Religious Fanatics, Political Prisoners, Criminals, Jews) and the mark was sown to their clothes (Drobisch/Wieland, 1993). Jews were often marked with a Star of David symbol, either by handing them a star or by combining two colored triangles. The marking served the guards to identify different groups and treat them differently. Jews and Poles were treated worse than other prisoners.

The close-up drawing in Fig. 5 illustrates perfectly the registered prisoner in Auschwitz: The prisoner stands behind barbed wire, guarded from a watch tower; The assigned number attached to the shirt in combination with the star symbol made of two triangles. The triangles had different colors, assigning the prisoner multiple categories: Jew, plus whatever color was given to him - an information that only readers with prior knowledge would know.

Besides attaching the number to the clothes, it was also tattooed on the arm, as it is described in Night (Wiesel, 2006: 42). Once a number was assigned, the name lost its function.

Another part of the registration process was the sheering of the head and all other body hair and then the distribution of clothes. “'To the barber!' Belt and shoes in hand, I let myself be dragged along to the barbers. Their clippers tore out our hair, shaved every hair on our bodies” (ibid: 35).

This gave the guards options to terrorize the inmates by handing out wrong sizes or two wooden shoes for the left foot. Any prisoner who complained or asked to switch was beaten up (Kosthorst/Walter, 1985). In Night the process of handing out of unfitting clothes becomes visible, but not the cruelty of torture when trying to switch:

’’Very long tables. Mountains of prison garb. As we ran, they threw the clothes at us: pants, jackets, shirts ... In a few seconds we had ceased to be men. Had the situation not been so tragic, we might have laughed. We looked pretty strange! Meir Katz, a colossus, wore a child's pants, and Stern, a skinny little fellow, was floundering in a huge jacket. We immediately started to switch.” (36-37)

The torture as well as the whole registering and marking process is perfectly illustrated on two pages by Spiegelman (Fig. 6) below. After the distribution of clothes, the prisoners looked like a mess, as Wiesel describes it above. Spiegelman shows Vladek's friend who became a such a “clothing victim” and labels all the ill- fitting parts (Appendix: Fig.30).


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Holocaust in History and Life Writing. An analysis of the parallels between historical resources and life writing and the use of historical symbols and knowledge in the life writing novels or memoirs "Maus and Night".
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
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Night, Elie Wiesel, Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, Holocaust, Life Writing, History
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Sina Laura Rautmann (Author), 2016, Holocaust in History and Life Writing. An analysis of the parallels between historical resources and life writing and the use of historical symbols and knowledge in the life writing novels or memoirs "Maus and Night"., Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/370039


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Title: Holocaust in History and Life Writing. An analysis of the parallels between historical resources and life writing and the use of historical symbols and knowledge in the life writing novels or memoirs "Maus and Night".

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