Some thoughts on “My Father Bleeds History” by Art Speigelman

CW: Detailed discussion of genocide

I am not the child of Holocaust survivors, not directly. My great-grandparents came to America at some point in the 1920s, before the Nazis rose to power. Whether they were chased from Poland and Germany by antisemitism directly, I’ll never know. Our lives did not overlap, and anyway, as Mr. Speigelman elegantly shows, most people of that generation did not speak of their memories.

My mother’s grandparents were not Jewish, though they did survive a genocide: the Armenian genocide, Hitler’s inspiration for the Holocaust. Strange though it is to think of it, I lost a litany of direct relatives: my great- great-grandparents and two great-uncles, who were about two and four when they were murdered in front of their mother. She hid with her brothers, unable to save her parents or her sons, and then she started walking. Somehow she made it to the US. We don’t know the details, though there is a complicated family legacy about this story, how it was recovered, and how much of it is true.

Suffice it to say that very few of the details in MAUS are shocking to me. Although apparently some people have had a terrible education on the Holocaust, enough that cartoon depictions of its horrors are shocking and upsetting to them and they don’t think people should have to learn about this stuff. I had to learn about it. I don’t remember how old I was. I have always known the word “genocide,” I’m pretty sure. I don’t remember anyone explaining it to me. It was always part of my world, knowing that there were people out there who looked like my friends and neighbors and one day might decide they wanted to murder me for who I was and there was nothing I wanted to do about it.

A lot of people are up in arms about MAUS right now, saying kids should be protected from this. But no one protected my grandfather’s brothers, the ones he never met, shot in their kitchen while their mother hid and watched with her hands over other childrens’ mouths so at least someone would survive. No one protected the Speigelmans’ son, poisoned by a relative to save him from Auschwitz, or the millions of other children who have been victims of genocide. If only those children could have learned about the gas in a cartoon book with mice and cats, not with their tiny lungs and small eyes closed forever.

I think what some people don’t realize is this isn’t just history, what we’re bleeding. Those children aren’t just an abstract statement of horror. The little boy who was killed? That was Art Speigelman’s brother, though he never names him as such in the text. Nor did I ever hear my grandfather say the boys who were killed in the genocide were his brothers. Just “my mother’s children.” Nonetheless, they are our brothers and sisters, these dead ghost children, our mirror selves. They haunt us with everything we are not, even generations later.

They haunt my father, too. He also bleeds history. What else is it when a man who has never had to go hungry is still stockpiling cans of beans in the garage, hiding them from his waste-free wife but unable not to keep a store, just in case?

They haunt me. If I ever have children, I know I’ll have to tell them what my parents told me. I will have to look at the face of my newborn baby and know that there are people who want to kill them. Brothers and sisters of theirs bayonetted for entertainment. Babies buried alive. Generations of ghost children who starved or burned or gasped to death, watching blankly, silently the lives they never lived.

And you know what? They ought to haunt you too. We shouldn’t have to carry them on our shoulders alone. You should have to know this weight, at least a little bit. Everyone in this world, every grandparent and every child, should have to help the survivors carry this memory. Don’t hide behind ignorance. It was always a lie.

This is the moment Speigelman ends the book on: his parents (one of whom shares my name, Anja), looking at the gates of Auschwitz. They knew, he tells us, what lay on the other side: death.

I asked my grandfather this, my father’s father, who was not a survivor, whose parents had gotten them out in time. In 1940 he was not a prisoner in Germany or a corpse in a camp. He was a boy in Brooklyn, riding the subway down to the beach to sell ice creams to tourists, playing ball with a multicultural neighborhood of immigrants, Jews and Poles and Italians, going home at night to two living parents. I was in middle school, and we had to interview our grandparents for a living history project before our b’nai mitzvah. (If you are a Jewish child in the aughts, your grandparents bleed history, like Speigelman’s father did). I asked him if he knew what was happening. I thought it was honestly a little boring that he didn’t have a daring tale of escape or a tragic tale of oppression, the way the other kids had, the way my other side of the family had. I expected a boring answer–he was not a very good interview subject. (Forgive me, I was about twelve. Twelve-year-olds are horrible, self-centered creatures).

We were sitting in the library in his house, a little musty room with two brown leather couches and a collection of dreary fiction. I sat on one couch and he on the other, and I asked him what they knew about what was happening in Germany when he was a boy. After all, I had been taught in my non-Jewish school that no one knew, that in fact America rode in to rescue the poor helpless Jews just as soon as they found out about that whole nasty Auschwitz visit. I wanted to know how he had felt when he found out: the shock, the horror, the sudden realization.

Instead, he stared off, like he was looking for something very far away. He said in a very small voice: We knew. We knew all along.

I didn’t ask him any more questions after that.


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