Saturday, March 7, 2009

History 112: Maus and the Use of Holocaust Survivor Testimony

I worked for two summers for the MALACH program at the University of Maryland. This program worked on the creation of a computer system to do word searches through audio databases. We are all familiar with programs, such as Google, which can search through text. MALACH was attempting to do something much more difficult; it was trying to get a computer system to accurately translate sound waves into text in order to be searched. As a test subject, the MALACH program was using the Shoah Foundation’s database of Holocaust survivor testimony. This was a computer science project in which we historians were brought in to test the program for accuracy. Over the course of these two summers I gained an intimate acquaintance with Holocaust survivor testimony; its strengths and weaknesses. Once, one of the computer science people asked me if the widespread accessibility to these survivor testimonies would be useful to historians. I answered her no.

The problem with Holocaust survivor testimony, as with any form of personal recollection, is that it offers no context. Mr. Schwartz you tell us that you were shipped by train to Auschwitz. On what day did you arrive? How many people were on the train with you? How do you know that those in the other line were sent to their deaths? How do you know that there were gas chambers or that the smokestacks you saw were from cremated bodies? What can you tell us about the survival rates for camp inmates? It is unlikely that our hypothetical Holocaust survivor would be able to offer satisfactory answers based on his personal experience. Holocaust survivor testimony comes up particularly short when compared with hard documents. I have the German documents to tell me on almost any given day how many trains arrived in Auschwitz and how many people were on board. These documents tell me all I need to know about the operation of the gas chambers and the crematoria. The documents tell me what the survival rates were from camp inmates. As a historian, therefore, I do not need Mr. Schwartz. (What I did not mention in class, for obvious reasons, was that there are also serious accuracy problems with survivor testimonies. It was a running joke for those of us working on the MALACH program that every high ranking German officer in these testimonies was either Heinrich Himmler or Adolf Eichmann and that every doctor was Josef Mangele. It is for this reason, as well as what I said previously, that Deborah Lipstadt made a specific point of not using survivor testimony during her trial with David Irving. Instead she lined up professional historians armed with documents to take the witness stand and call Irving a fraud and a liar.)

Holocaust survivor testimony does serve a useful purpose, though, in that it can put a human face on material. The assigned reading, Maus by Art Spiegelman, is an excellent example of this. Maus is a graphic novel based on the experiances of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, during the war. There is a certain irony in this in that the people in this story are all portrayed as animals along racial lines. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Poles pigs and the French frogs. This is Art Spiegelman turning Nazi ideology on its head by deliberately playing according to its stereotypes. The lines between races is very clear cut in Maus yet the personalities portrayed goes flat against that. There are decent Poles and really rotten Jews, The Jews may be mice but they are most certainly not vermin.

At various points in the novel the characters wear masks. For example Vladek wears a pig mask when walking the streets a Pole. Art portrays himself at one point as a human wearing a mouse mask. The species that we are faced with are revealed to be nothing more than masks. Everyone is human though circumstances have forced them to wear animals masks and assume a given identity.

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