‘What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.’ Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on the 27th of January every year, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to remember the more recent genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website provides life stories, information and resources: https://www.hmd.org.uk/
We put together a display at Christ Church library to mark the day. This post shines a spotlight on three of the books in our display: a graphic novel, a memoir and a collaborative autobiography.
Maus, Art Spiegelman
In Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. The comic moves between the father and son’s conversation and depictions of Spiegelman’s father’s memories. Throughout Maus, as the title hints to, characters are depicted as animals rather than people, and specifically depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. This novel combines biography, autobiography, history and fiction in a piece that became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Maus comes from humble beginnings, originally published in serial form in Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s eclectic comics anthology ‘RAW’ in the 1980s. Chapters one to six were later published in ’86 in a volume titled Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and the latter five chapters were published in 1991 as Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles. The text in our display contains both these volumes.
RAW Magazine began life in whirrings of a living room printing press in the house that Spiegelman and Mouly still share. (Each publication was adorned with its own cheeky subtitle, two of my favourites being ‘Required Reading for the post-literate’ and ‘Open wounds from the cutting edge of commix’). This set up goes a little way to paint a picture of the world Spiegelman was living in. He was working in the underground comic scene, the predecessor of which he had grown up on in ‘60s New York. It was from Justin Green, a fellow alternative cartoonist whose work was often featured in RAW Magazine, that Spiegelman learnt:
“confessional, autobiographical, intimate, unsayable material is perfectly fine content for comics.”
Maus shows how the medium of comics can be one that communicates harrowing themes and strained relationships in a way that feels both sensitive and charged. The experience of reading Maus is one of constant stock-taking. You have to sit with the often-disturbing images, move back and forth between them as you progress through the novel. Spiegelman’s conversations with his father about his experiences in Auschwitz not only frame the recollections, but also often intrude upon the narrative. The form of a comic works exceedingly well as something that can interrupt itself. Embodied memories barge into the present as Spiegelman plays with comic strip borders and ratios. In an interview with Alexandra Alter for the The New York Times, Spiegelman says of the cartoon format, and particularly of depicting the people in the story as animals, that:
“For me, it was powerful just because it allowed me to deal with the material by putting a mask on people. By reliving it microscopically, as best I could, moment by moment — it allowed me to at least come to grips with something that otherwise was only a dark shadow.”
An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, Gad Beck
“For them I was a boy from outside. Why? I was visiting theatres, I was dancing, even ballet dancing.”
Gad Beck and his sister Margot were born in Berlin in 1923. An Underground Life recounts the story of how Beck was able to escape the Nazis and stay living in Berlin throughout the duration of World War Two. Being both Jewish and gay, Beck was doubly at risk of persecution from the Nazis. Nazi conceptions of race, gender and eugenics very much shaped the regime’s aggressive policy on homosexuality. Repression commenced within days of Hitler becoming Chancellor. In spite of all this, Beck’s voice throughout the memoir is playful and unbelievably positive.
Beck decided to actively resist Nazi persecution, taking on a principal role in the Chug Chaluzi Jewish resistance group. The Chug Chaluzi (circle of pioneers) was an illegal group founded on the day that all Jewish forced laborers were arrested and most of them deported. The group was as small as 11 members when it started, but had grown to around 40 by the end of the war.
Jizack Schwersenz was the director of a Jewish youth group that Gad Beck attended in Berlin. In a letter from March 1942, Schwersenz writes about how Erwin Tichauer responded to the continued deportations during a secret gathering of the group in 1942:
“Then one of our members, Erwin Tichauer, stepped forward—at first we had no idea what he was about to do —and read to his group the names of all those who had been taken from us during the past months, since the deportations had begun, and as he read each name the members replied as one: ‘Here’, that is to say, that even those who were missing were with us on this occasion, for we are always with them in our thoughts, just as they are surely with us in their thoughts…”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum holds a very precious item in its collection – a handmade book made by a boy that Gad fell in love with, Manfred Lewin. In the same way that the youth group remembered those that had been deported, Gad remembered Manfred through this gift. Small enough to fit in a pocket, this book and Beck survived the war.
Beck and Lewin met at the Jewish youth group in the build up to the war. Clumsy illustrations in green felt tip pen populate the pages of this token of affection, depicting shared memories and private jokes. Slightly underwhelmed with the gift at the time, Beck recollects thinking ‘It’s very simple book, booklet, very simple … and he’s not an artist’. I hope the thoughtful Beck we meet in An Underground Life was on duty that day, and he managed to keep these thoughts to himself…
With time, and the outbreak of the war, this gift took on a new significance.
‘Dear, kind Gad, I owe you a present, no, I want to give you one, not just so that you get something from me that you can glance through and then lay aside forever, but something that will make you happy whenever you pick it up.’
What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng Dave Eggers
‘Since you and I exist, together we can make a difference!’
I had only encountered Dave Eggers through his short stories up until this point, so this novel felt like something of a departure for me.
While nominally a novel, the experiences recounted in this book are true. Written in 2006, What is the What is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng. Deng was a child when the second Sudanese Civil War broke out, a civil war that was to last twenty-two years. Deng was able to immigrate to the United States through the Lost Boys of Sudan programme. Escaping conflict required moving through war zones, however. Named ‘lost boys’, many of these children spent years in life threatening circumstances. Many lost their lives due to hunger and dehydration. Travelling to Ethiopia and then Kenya for safety, around 10,000 boys between the ages of eight and eighteen arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp, ‘a sprawling, parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years’.
Deng and Eggers came together through Deng’s desire for his story to reach a wider audience. He says that he sees his mission as being to help others ‘understand Sudan’s place in our global community’. While having told his story to many audiences through public speaking, he felt a book about his experiences would reach more people.
‘Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story by way of tape recording, by electronic mailings, by telephone conversations and by many personal meetings and visitations.’
This collaboration has resulted in a gripping read – Deng’s story, communicated to Eggers through so many different modes, finds a fluidity on the page that you can’t help but be engrossed by. As with Maus, the story moves back and forth between past and present. At the time of recounting his story to Eggers, Deng is ‘trying to survive an altogether different struggle: assimilation into a culture defined by its short-term memory and chronic indifference to the world beyond its borders’.
I hope this starting point will encourage you to follow Elie Wiesel’s model from the top of this post for a normal life – make yourself some toast and some tea and get reading – just remember no food in the library.
 A quotation from an interview with Gad Beck from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/do-you-remember-when/page-2
 Find a page by page break down here: https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/do-you-remember-when/cover
 A translation of the first page of Manfred’s book
 What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng, Dave Eggers (Penguin Books: London, 2006) p.xv
 What is the What, p.xiv
 Ibid., p. xiv