It has been nearly eighty years since that decisive day when Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camp complexes, was liberated under Allied banners. And yet, it is unthinkable that humankind will ever be completely free from the tragedy and atrocity of the Holocaust—nor should we be. Engendered by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany and radicalized by the onset of the Second World War, the Holocaust was an anti-Semitic campaign that saw the systematic extermination of some six million European Jews. When educating ourselves on the grievous realities of a historical event such as this, no accounts are more invaluable than those of survivors, many of whom have been brave enough to render their personal experiences into published works. Through analyzing the differences in format, narrational perspective, and focal themes between Art Spiegelman and Henry Oster’s respective novels Maus II and The Stable Boy of Auschwitz, we can better appreciate how both works distinctly contribute to Second World War and Holocaust literature, and also serve to expand and challenge public perception of these catastrophic events.
Both Maus II and The Stable Boy of Auschwitz are classified as memoirs, but these two narratives vary importantly in terms of format. The sequel volume to his avant-garde Maus I, Maus II is a postmodern graphic novel not only written by Art Spiegelman, but illustrated by him as well. What makes the graphic style of this story so crucial to its effectiveness is Spiegelman’s decision to depict human beings as rather crudely anthropomorphized animals. With Jews represented as mice, Germans as cats, and the Polish as pigs, Spiegelman provides a visual commentary on power-imbalance, racial prejudice, and loss of humanity. Over the years, Spiegelman’s artistic approach to dealing with such sensitive matters has generated as much controversy as it has critical acclaim, but none can argue its evocativeness. Jagged-edged, darkly shaded images of Art sitting atop a fly swarmed mound of naked, emaciated rodent corpses (Spiegelman 41.3) as seen in Chapter Two: “Auschwitz (Time Flies)” are the sort that make readers necessarily discomfited and that stay with them long after the page has been turned. In comparison, The Stable Boy of Auschwitz is a more traditionally autobiographical novel. With the assistance of Dexter Ford, Oster takes us readers on a harrowing journey—his harrowing journey
—from childhood to adulthood, internment to freedom, desperate survival to hopeful normalcy. Without the visual rhetoric that Spiegelman is known for, the potency of The Stable Boy of Auschwitz resides in the absolute rawness of his account. Oster’s vulnerability and candor makes reading this novel feel more like a one-sided conversation than a story. For example, in the aftermath of a random, pulse-racing massacre of Auschwitz captives recounted in Chapter Twenty-Four: “In the Line of Fire,” Oster writes, “If the Germans had seen that we had escaped from the courtyard, we were sure that they would finish us off. I've never been more terrified in my life. I had to struggle to control my breathing when I finally got to our barracks. I found that I had soiled my pants in my terror—I was a real mess” (102). No exaggerated verbiage, no attempted eloquence, just the truth; the truth in and of itself is poignant enough. But more on Oster’s narration later. For now, it is to be acknowledged that while the formats of these two memoirs offer completely different reading experiences, they are equally successful in revealing the horrors of the Holocaust.
Spiegelman and Oster’s survival narratives are further differentiated by the fact that one is told from a secondhand perspective, and the other is told from a firsthand perspective. While Vladek Spiegelman, Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, is the apparent protagonist of Maus II, his son, Art, or Artie, is the author and true narrational voice. This complex dynamic between survivor and storyteller is an additional source of tension throughout the novel’s already tension- high events. Because no matter how brutally thorough Art’s father certainly was in communicating his experience, and no matter how faithfully Art was able to then artistically relate said experience, the younger Spiegelman can never fully comprehend what it was to live through a Nazi concentration camp. In a moment of frustration while talking to his psychiatrist in Chapter Two, this is something that Artie admits: “My book? Hah! What book?? Some part of me doesn't want to draw or think about Auschwitz. I can’t visualize it clearly and I can't begin to imagine what it felt like” (Spiegelman 46.1A). Conversely, in The Stable Boy of Auschwitz, Henry Oster tells his own story, and as such, there is a level of intimacy about this novel that is simply impossible for Spiegelman to equal. This intimacy is entirely unromantic and at times stomach-turning to read, as is especially the case in Chapter Twenty-Four. Before relating one of the worst traumas he endured at Auschwitz, Oster states, “In all the years since I was imprisoned in Auschwitz, there is one story I never talked about, one experience I never shared with anyone else” (98). He then proceeds to describe in terrible detail what it was like to be penned in with other unlucky victims when “Two machine-gun crews that had been concealed in the trucks started firing, their muzzles flashing in the darkness, spitting bullets right into the crowd of prisoners” (Oster 101). Susan Oster, second wife of Henry Oster, spoke to us about how her husband was hesitant to share this event even with her, and when he did, it was with weeping— so terrible was the trauma still. This should only cause us to appreciate Oster’s vulnerability in this novel more. He is inviting the public into the darkest, most tormented recesses of his memory, and it is frightfully powerful. Now, to be clear, the deeply personal quality of Oster’s narrative in no way suggests that Spiegelman’s is somehow less authentic. Rather, having access to the perspective of a survivor as well as that of a survivor’s child allows us multi-dimensional insight into the suffering of Nazi persecuted Jews.
Although there are definite thematic through-lines running between Maus II and The Stable Boy of Auschwitz—most essential being survival and trauma—Spiegelman and Oster offer different and independently edifying explorations of these. Trauma is a transmittable thing, and it is this theory that is at the very heart of Maus II. In Chapter Two, Spiegelman confronts intergenerational trauma head-on, exposing through a therapy session how his psychology and identity have been negatively altered by his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. To his psychiatrist, Artie confesses that despite the wholesale success of his graphic novel, he often feels like a failure or a fraud for not having survived what his father survived at Auschwitz. Abashed, he says, “No matter what l accomplish, it doesn't seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz” (Spiegelman 44.3A). This comment then cracks open an important conversation about survivor’s guilt, which is another vital sub-theme of Maus II. Between Artie’s petulant attitude and Vladek’s overbearing expectations, father and son never did have an easy relationship. Even after Vladek has died, Artie harbors a lot of resentment toward him, which he feels guilt over, considering all that his father endured. But Artie’s psychiatrist suggests that it was Vladek’s guilt as a survivor that caused the discord between them to begin with. He submits, “Maybe your father needed to show that he was always right—that he could always survive— because he felt guilty about surviving” (Spiegelman 44.3B). What he is saying, more or less, is that Vladek’s survivor’s guilt and Artie’s non-survivor’s guilt are inseparable. In Oster’s The Stable Boy of Auschwitz, Heinz’s trauma is exhibited as more individual and more immediate.
Throughout the novel, Oster never allows readers to relax, to get comfortable, which only evinces the constant threat that Jews were under. The worst part is that, in the end, it didn’t matter how well they performed their assigned jobs; they had no control over whether they lived or died, as is so violently exhibited in Chapter Twenty-Four. In that same chapter, Oster talks about how, existing in that kind of reality, he had to mentally remove himself from the trauma. But in doing so, he, like so many others, sacrificed a part of his humanity: “Even though we Jews were being persecuted—and often executed—as a group, in order to survive in this hellhole, you first had to look out for yourself. We were desensitized, demeaned and dehumanized. We were like robots, doing whatever we could to stay alive” (Oster 104). For these people, rewired by brutality and terror, or reduced to their most animal selves, as Spiegelman portrays, survival became the only objective. This is the most consequential theme in both Maus II and The Stable Boy of Auschwitz.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus II and Henry Oster’s The Stable Boy of Auschwitz are comparable in that both make accessible the experiences of Holocaust survivors. That said, it would be negligence to assume that one survivor’s story is the same as another’s. Indeed, as discussed in this essay, the different formats, narrational perspectives, and themes the authors present in these two memoirs are what make them such valuable contributions to Holocaust and Second World War education. And yet, there are those who have claimed that such upsetting, honest material has no appropriate place in school curriculum. This conservative mentality has been met with much objection, and the counterargument is simple: These books, however difficult they are to read, are history, and history cannot be censored. The Holocaust must be taught and studied because it happened, and because it could happen again. But if we are to have any hope at all for a better humanity, it is imperative that we remember with active rumination the evil we are capable of.