Holocaust literature focuses on a multitude of different experiences, personalities, ethical choices, and behaviors-- both on the part of the victims and the perpetrators. Much of the literature that has been written on the subject focuses on the facts of the Holocaust; however, some of the literature focuses on the experiences of the victims and the aftermath that they experienced as a result of the Holocaust.
However, because this literature focuses on the same central event, it’s possible to identify many common themes that are woven into Holocaust-related short stories, poetry, drama, memoirs, and novels. In Night, Maus II, and The Diary of a Young Girl, the authors examine a number of different thematic ideas; each approaches these themes differently and develops their own way of dealing with the issues that they face. The primary thematic ideas that will be discussed here will be faith, morality, communication, sense of self and individuality, and family.
Each author has their own method for writing their story; as such, each also has their own way of addressing the issues that plagued them most during the Holocaust. As victims, each author had vastly different experiences; with these experiences came a plethora of different ways of dealing with the feelings that came from them.
- Faith and Belief in Good
As the war progressed and it became more and more clear that the Jews in Germany were being rounded up and killed, many people rightfully sunk into despair. The precious few photographs that exist from this time period show frightened people with sunken eyes; there was little hope in Germany for the Jews at this time. However, it was at this time that Anne Frank penned her immortal words in her diary:
It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. I simply can't build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, and that peace & tranquility will return once again (Frank et al.).
Anne, in the course of her growth from a child into an adolescent, did not lose her childlike wonder regarding the world and the people in it; despite the fact that her countrymen were actively trying to destroy all the Jews in the country, she did not lose faith that there were people who were still good at heart.
Perhaps Anne was influenced greatly by the Dutch family that kept her family hidden in the annex during the war; the Dutch family responsible for their safety and their stay in the annex shared food, clothing, and all other supplies with them, regardless of what it cost them to do so. This generosity seems to have affected Anne; it had a formative influence on her, despite the fact that others in the annex had a tendency to act greedily.
Anne herself struggles with feelings of guilt over her survival; although the reader knows that Anne does not survive the war, her diary shows a young woman who is deeply moral and deeply concerned with the well-being of her fellow human beings. She has not let the world make her hard or cold. Anne’s experience with the good people who hid her and her family shaped her; in a similar way, Elie Wiesel’s experience in the concentration camps shaped him. He struggled much harder to accept the existence of benevolence, both in the God that he had faith in, and the people around him.
Wiesel writes of his time in the concentration camps; the reader hears only of Anne’s seclusion, as she eventually perishes in the concentration camps, leaving behind a diary. Wiesel, on the other hand, survives the camps and writes of his experience. He questions his God, wondering why he should believe in a God at all after all the terrible things that God had, ostensibly, put him through:
Blessed be God's name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because in His great might, He had created so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar? (Wiesel).
Wiesel does not shy from the implication that he is making: that although the Jews are God’s chosen people according to the Old Testament, He has tortured and enslaved them for many thousands of years. Wiesel questions whether a God who does this to His people could truly be loving; could God truly love a people if He is willing to send them to their deaths in the ovens of Auschwitz and Buna?
Wiesel never answers this question for the reader; perhaps he never answers it for himself. Wiesel is wounded deeply by what he sees in the concentration camps, and rightfully so-- the images he paints with words are awful and horrific on a level that most people will never understand. Anne Frank appears still idealistic by the end of the diary-- and yet, she dies in the camps. Wiesel survives, but his idealism does not. The death of idealism is one of the first losses in the concentration camps; those who survive the camps never seem to rekindle the faith in humanity that Anne Frank demonstrates in her diary.
- Morality, Ethics, and Justice
Maus II is one of the more unique texts that have come out of the Holocaust; instead of telling the story as a piece of creative non-fiction, the author has designed a comic book in which the main characters are mice. On its face, this decision may seem almost insulting to the victims of the Holocaust; reducing these victims to mere animals. However, the reduction of the Jewish people to animals-- to lower than animals-- is exactly what Nazi ideology did. Nazi ideology reduced the Jewish culture to pests. They dealt with these pests by exterminating them-- thus the decision to use mice as the main characters of the graphic novels Maus and Maus II.
One more theme that is threaded throughout all three works is the idea that the moral high ground will not save anyone-- in fact, the only thing that can save anyone is the idea of self-preservation. Spiegelman laments that the bonds that everyone thinks are so strong are so easy to break, writing: “At that time it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself” (Spiegelman). Family ties are supposed to be strong; too strong to break. However, the Nazi regime was highly efficient at tearing apart families and ripping the normal bonds that keep people together asunder.
Perhaps it was just the enormity of what was happening that confused and disoriented people; Anne suggests, for instance, that all people are good at heart, but she does also suggest that they sometimes become led astray. Wiesel does something similar in his suggestion that illusion is highly dangerous; when people become invested in illusions, they can easily become lost, adrift in the sea of what used to be their own morality. People without morality and conscience flourish in these times; people who take the moral high ground are often incapable of surviving these kinds of trying times.
- The Difficulty of Communication
One of the fundamental themes of many different types of literature is the theme of loneliness, but for Holocaust survivors and for Holocaust literature, the theme of loneliness and communication is one that is threaded throughout the texts. Holocaust survivors experienced something so awful that they were dehumanized; as previously stated, the Nazi ideology turned people into less than chattel. Jews and other undesirables in Nazi Germany were treated as though they were pests that had to be exterminated, drains on the system; they were keeping the average German from success and prosperity, according to Nazi ideology.
Anne Frank experiences legitimate isolation in the small annex apartment where she and her family were hiding from the Nazis; however, her isolation was much deeper and more difficult than just her isolation from the outside world. Anne is confused because of her inability to help her friends; she seems vexed by questions about the meaning of all the conflict, and she is quite alone as a result.
In her diary, Frank writes about the loneliness she feels as a result of the war. She writes, “Is discord going to show itself while we are still fighting, is the Jew once again worth less than another? Oh, it is sad, very sad, that once more, for the umpteenth time, the old truth is confirmed: ‘What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does is thrown back at all Jews’” (Frank et al.). She cannot seem to fathom why she and her people are blamed for all that is wrong; she cannot understand the problems that will arise for her in the future merely as a result of her ethnicity and religion. And it is clear, also, that she feels lonely and isolated as a result of her exile from society: she is, after all, an adolescent, and one which craves acceptance and love as much as any other.
Wiesel, similarly, has had problems communicating since his experiences in the concentration camps. Night is a very introspective piece, perhaps one of the best pieces ever written in terms of Holocaust literature; Wiesel discusses the process of writing in Night, saying “Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness?” (Wiesel). If Wiesel is, indeed, mad, then he has every right to be: the terrible things that Wiesel saw in the concentration camps would be enough to drive anyone mad.
Maus approaches the idea of communication and loneliness in a slightly different manner, perhaps because of the medium that is used for the text itself. The graphic novel medium does not lend itself to long, thoughtful soliloquies in the same way that a piece of creative nonfiction like Night or the adaptation of a diary does; instead, much of the communication done between the characters in the graphic novel is, quite literally, dialogue. However, many of the characters spend a lot of time in the novel speaking past each other, ignoring what each other is saying, and participating in behavior that is both unethical and unhelpful to the other characters in the text.
- The Inward and Outward Self
The only way to survive the kind of awful, wrenching reality that exists in a concentration camp-- or in hiding-- is to revert to a kind of internal life. Wiesel notes that during his time in the concentration camps, he went on autopilot in his external life; his whole life became about bread and soup, rather than any kind of alternative pursuit of happiness. Speigelman’s protagonist, Art, writes in regards to his book: “At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I’ve gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a TV special or a movie” (Speigelman). Art seems to reject this on the basis that his piece is his internal self; he is unwilling or unable to share it with outsiders.
Anne Frank, on the other hand, seems perfectly willing to share her internal self with her diary-- probably because she assumed no one would ever read it. She laments about a number of issues that generally plague teenage girls, and comes across as shockingly normal, on the whole-- especially for a teenage girl who came of age in hiding in a tiny annex apartment. Anne’s internal life is very active; she is concerned about showing it to the other people in the annex, because she worries that she will be seen as excessively strange or unusual.
Both Wiesel and Spiegelman have an interesting relationship with the concept of family. Spiegelman notes with some bitterness that the concept of family is torn asunder by the war; there is no real concept of family anymore, as those bonds are too easily broken by the drive of self-preservation. Wiesel feels the bonds of family that he had previously felt with God broken; where he had once put so much faith in God, he now had none. Wiesel was alone in the world, and he felt as though his God had abandoned him, along with his family and his people.
Wiesel writes about the first night he experiences in camp, saying: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealedNever shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never” (Wiesel). This is the death of the relationship that Wiesel felt with God; the death of perhaps the most important father-son relationship in Wiesel’s life. It sent him into a tailspin, from which he only recovered when he started to live day-by-day in the camp.
Anne, on the other hand, spends most of her time with her family; she feels particularly close with them due to the close proximity in which they live. They are a supportive group, for the most part, and it seems as though Anne loves her parents and respects them greatly. This is, once again, a reflection of Anne’s goodness and willingness to see the good in everyone; even though she is experiencing hardship, she is not willing to fall into the trap of hating those around her-- even her family when they annoy her.
Anne Frank was, by and large, shielded from some of the terrible realities of war while she was in the annex. She was killed in the concentration camps before they were liberated, so the world will never know whether her idealism and enthusiasm for life would have endured such an awful experience. She writes, “Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!” (Frank et al.). This is the kind of youthful enthusiasm and joie de vivre that Wiesel and Spiegelman lack in their cold, harsh retellings of the events during World War II. This is not a value judgment on Night and Maus II; it is merely a comparison regarding how much the author dictates the overall thematic narrative and tone of any given piece.
There is no way to address the Holocaust and remain truly positive. Despite Frank’s outlook on life, she was eventually caught and killed; while Wiesel survived, he was never the same after his experiences in the camps. A deep sadness runs through both Maus II and Night, a sadness that belies the knowledge that human beings can perform such horrendous acts on each other with seeming impunity. This is the knowledge that the reader never has to see Anne Frank gain; it is for this reason that her diary remains an example of the idealism of youth.
Frank, Anne et al. The Diary Of A Young Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.
Wiesel, Elie, François Mauriac, and Stella Rodway. Night. New York: Avon Books, 1969. Print.