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MetaMaus: Look Inside a Classic

November 29, 2011

I remember the first time I read Maus. I was still in my teens and had stumbled across it (possibly just the first volume?) at my local public library. Periodically, I'd check out the stacks, looking for new books to read, to fuel my (I admit it) obsession with the Holocaust. Morbid, perhaps, but there was a time in my life when I could rattle off statistics about each ghetto and concentration camp. Thankfully, I found Maus around the time that I was looking for a more human way to reconnect with the history of the Holocaust. I was volunteering at my local Jewish seniors home and would regularly talk with survivors about their experiences. I went on a trip to Poland, with other Jewish teens, to visit the history first hand. And I had shifted my reading from non-fiction that added to my encyclopedic knowledge of WW2, to personal accounts, memoirs and journals.

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus (Book + DVD) is available now.

Maus was a perfect entry drug. By the time I had graduated from college, I'd read the then-completed two volumes numerous times. It had even been assigned reading in a few classes/courses.

For those who haven't read the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Maus: A Survivor's Tale is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, a biography of his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor's, experiences leading up to the war, getting through it and after. You might be thinking that a graphic novel is not the proper genre for such a story — you would not be alone in that thought. But as a graphic novel, Spiegelman is able to use animals instead of humans to show the story (mice represent Jews, cats represent Germans, and other animals are used to depict other nationalities, religions and races). Most animals of the same nationality are drawn almost identically, which helps the reader get lost both in the bizarreness of a mass approach to division and genocide, while also being very aware of differences. (There's a great scene involving mice donning pig masks as they hide.)

One of the other effects of depicting different groups of humans as animals? It's quite obvious when an interfaith relationship is woven into the narrative. Spiegelman ended up marrying a "frog," a woman from France who is not Jewish.

Which brings us to MetaMaus: a look at the making and impact of Maus. Anyone who has read Maus should read it. Not only does it give answers to some of the most common questions Spiegelman has been asked over the years — why the holocaust? why mice? why comics? — by using interview-style formatting, it delves into his creative process, his interviews with his father and others and the impact it has had on both his and his family's lives.

Which is, perhaps, the part of most interest to readers here. As mentioned, Spiegelman's wife, Françoise, is not Jewish. Their relationship is intertwined with the story of Vladek, his father. So it's fitting that she, along with their kids, are also interviewed for MetaMaus.

Daughter Nadja is questioned about the role Maus has played in her life. But then the questions shift, and she's asked if she identifies as French, her mother's ancestry. (The answer is that she feels like a New Yorker, mostly.) She's then asked if she's "felt identified with the Jewish part of [her] family," to which she responds:

On a religious level, no. I've always been an atheist. I had an anti-religious upbringing. "Religion is the opiate of the masses," was one of the first famous quotes I learned.

But still, when people ask me if I'm Jewish, I say yes. I can't say now. I know less about Judaism than most of my non-Jewish friends do. I've been to synagogues only for other people's bar mitzvahs. But I still say yes. A large part of my family was killed because of why they were. I can't deny that part of who I am.
MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman (book trailer).

Her younger brother, Dash, was asked similar questions.

You mentioned that you were at the United Nations International School, you identified as French. You have an interesting family background. Do you think of yourself as being "multicultural"?

I was never really Jewish in the sense that I had to do Jewish stuff that was not fun. I didn't have to do anything that was a pain. And I also celebrated Christmas every year. It was just kind of like, take what you want, leave what you don't....

He goes on to talk about his experiences in France, and mentions:

France had this kind of magical quality to it, and once I learned that there's this, like, rampant racism, that was just a hard, hard blow. (I mean, I can't be sure, and if you want to put this inside the book you might want to talk to my parents and confirm, but I'm pretty sure my grandfather was really unhappy that my mom was marrying a Jewish man. But wasn't once he became famous.)
And it's funny because your dad's dad was bummed out that he was marrying a non-Jewish woman.

Yeah, yeah. Nobody was happy with that relationship. Just them two. That's all that matters. ... I think of myself as Jewish through heritage but not through culture. I also feel guilty about it a lot of times because a lot of times people are like, "Oh, that kid's dad wrote Maus... Tell me, what Jewish holiday is it today?" And I'm like, "F---ed if I know."

I could go on. But the family's insights and perspectives on religion, being a multicultural, interfaith family, are fascinating. Including Dash's views on his mother's conversion to Judaism, contrasted with Françoise's and even Art's.

As a bonus, the book comes with a "hyperlinked DVD" (I guess "CD-Rom" sounds too old school), including short films, access to drafts of the sketches and panels created for Maus, audio interviews with Vladek, family trees, essays and much more.

If you haven't already read Maus, do so. And once you have, make sure to pick up MetaMaus. The amazing depth of details, thought and care that went into the production will amaze you and keep you wanting more. (MetaMetaMaus?)

Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!")
Benjamin A. Maron

Benjamin A. Maron was the Director of Content and Educational Resources (formerly, the Managing Editor) here at InterfaithFamily.

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