Did Art Spiegelman's Maus Have an Unlikely Precursor?
Maus, Art Spiegelman’s most famous graphic novel, has in many ways changed the way the Holocaust is represented in popular culture. But as it turns out, Spiegelman may have had an unexpected precursor, one working from the very heart of the Holocaust which Spiegelman tried to depict.
Published for the first time as a book in 1986, Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel revolutionised the book industry but more importantly it transformed our ideas about how the Holocaust can be represented in mass culture.
Spiegelman’s decision to turn his father’s Holocaust surivor story into the seemingly inappropriate medium of a graphic novel was unique in many ways, but perhaps the most important part of the concept was portaying the story's characters – Jews, Germans, Poles – as animals, that is mice, cats and pigs, respectively.
A surprisingly similar kind of artistic approach, including a comic-like technique and zoomorphic representation, can be found in a couple of drawings produced some 40-odd years before Maus, right in the heart of the Warsaw ghetto and at the height of WW2 and the Holocaust.
Stunning for their brutally realist content and astounding in their use of seemingly contemporary comic technique, these drawings remain one of the only few surviving graphic testimonies of life behind the ghetto walls. Some of them feature figures with animal-like faces, one of which is strikingly similar to Spiegelman’s Maus character.
Rozenfeld, Ringelblum, and the archives of the Warsaw Ghetto
The drawings – which survived the war buried underground in milk cans – formed part of the Ringelblum Archive, a trove of various documents collected during the war by Emanuel Ringelblum and other members of the Oneg Shabbat organisation to document the everyday life and reality of the Warsaw ghetto.
The cans were uncovered only in 1946 and 1950, and since then their invaluable contents have been examined and gradually published by researchers from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. However, the five surviving drawings were not shown to the public until 2012. It was only then that they were first shown at an exhibition in Warsaw.
All surviving drawings, kept today at the Jewish Historical Institute (see images), are signed Rozenfeld. While we don’t know anything about the artist (not even his first name), it is believed that the drawings were made in the autumn and winter of 1941, and were most likely commissioned by the Ringelblum Archive. This was just several months before the Nazi operation Grossaktion Warschau which effectively exterminated the vast majority of the ghetto population.
The drawings, which come with titles and detailed commentary probably written by Rozenfeld himself, show real-life scenes from the ghetto and while they’re not comic strips, they also have a story to tell. The commentary includes detailed information on places, dates and in some cases also the names of the people shown, which makes it a quasi-illustrated chronicle of ‘everyday’ life in the ghetto.
In their depiction of these ghastly scenes taking place at the ghetto assembly point, hospital or on its streets, these drawings are objective and ironic, often verging on grotesque. In their technique they seem eerily contemporary.
Mice, cats, children
One of the scenes, titled Assembly Point, portays ghetto children lined up in front of a towering policeman, their weak bodies contrasting sharply with the imposing posture of the man and the corpulent body of a woman seated at the desk. Rozenfeld’s commentary to the scene reveals that the kids were smugglers caught outside the walls of the Jewish Quarter by the German or Polish gendarms, and handed over to Jewish Order Service in the ghetto. As we see them standing in the police station under interrogation they faced a 6-month prison sentence, unless their family paid a fine.
Looking closer at the children one can note that some of their figures and faces are strongly reminiscent of little animals: a mouse, a cat, a dog… The figure of the boy in the first row strikes one as particularly reminiscent of the Maus character. This zoomorphic representation of children by Rozenfeld is likely intended as symbolic of their low status and humble condition in the face of a man epitomizing supreme authority.
However, his other drawings can hint at quite something else. While the face of a child seen pushing the cart in the drawing called The Porter’s Wife’s Funeral [see below], may be striking for its similarity to a cat’s face, it is also evocative of representations of victims of famine: their features changed, skin sunken and withered.
Another face, that of a boy lying on a hospital bed surrounded by two seemingly sympathetic policemen, can be considered a realist depiction of a child in the terminal stage of starvation. Rozenfeld’s commentary brings a detailed story of the 10-year-old boy Chaim Sztarkman, who was caught in the Praga district of Warsaw and brought to the police station in the ghetto (most likely the same one which is seen in the Little Smugglers). After attempting to escape by jumping out of the window of his cell in the third floor, he was taken to the surgical hospital on Leszno Street ‘where, under the watchful eye of the Jewish Order Police, his life ended on 16 December 1941.’
Rozenfeld – Spiegelman's precursor?
But while the anthropomorhic portayal in Spiegelman’s Maus and the stunning animal-like representations found in Rozenfeld’s ghetto drawings may seem strikingly similar, they also share important differences.
Spiegelman’s concept of portaying people as animals was allegorical in nature – in fact it originated as a result of intellectual reflection on racism. As Spiegelman explained he had first thought of using an animal metaphor when ‘trying to draw black folks’, in a conscious attempt to highlight dehumanising racist imagery, an allusion to the way African Americans were once depicted as monkeylike creatures. Find more here.
Rozenfeld’s technique, as similar to Spiegelman’s as it may seem, stemmed from very different sources: careful observation of the world around him, people who've reached the end of their tether and at the very moment when their acts and even bodily features are not much different from those of animals.
Which means that Rozenfeld's depiction of his characters is much more realist than we might think. In other words, if Rozenfeld drew his characters as reminiscent of animals, it is because this is what they actually looked like in the extreme reality of the ghetto. It may seem like an irocnic paradox that this realist observation rendered the effects almost allegorical.
While we don’t know anything about Rosenfeld himself, we can be almost certain that he perished in the Holocaust within months after drawing these powerful images. A portrait of a man scribbling in his note-book, which we can find in the left hand upper corner of The Porter Wife’s Funeral, remains likely the only image of the man. The image shows him on the edge of a crowd of people, all of whom are shown with their backs turned away from the scene. Shown from profile Rozenfeld is the only person whose eyes seem fixed on the image, his hand recording what the eye sees.
Rozenfeld's drawings in high resolution are available in digital format at the Central Jewish Library
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 24 August, 2016