UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Constructing the Self Through the Destruction of Auschwitz: Charlotte Delbo’s Aucun de nous ne reviendra and Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Sophie Riemenschneider 

The primary purpose of Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz was to reduce and destroy its inmates. Strenuous forced labor aimed to reduce the prisoners to unthinking automatons undergoing the motions of daily routine, while death further reduced the prisoners to non-existence. It follows that literature of and about the Holocaust should replicate these themes of destruction. Texts like Charlotte Delbo’s autobiography Aucun de nous ne reviendra (1965), and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), work on multiple levels to demonstrate the destruction wrought by Auschwitz; however, the type of destruction represented in each text is different. This difference in the representation of concentration camp destruction is ultimately due to the relationship between the trauma of Auschwitz and the construction of identity. Spiegelman and Delbo’s representations of destruction in Auschwitz are intrinsically linked with their individual perceptions of selves, which accounts for the difference in their representations. Even as Auschwitz destroys things, it also constructs them. Paradoxically, in wreaking such complete destruction, Auschwitz created new identities and definitions of self in those who experienced, directly or indirectly, its trauma.


The primary purpose of Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz was to reduce and destroy its inmates. Strenuous forced labor aimed to reduce the prisoners to unthinking automatons undergoing the motions of daily routine, while death further reduced the prisoners to non-existence. It follows that literature of and about the Holocaust should replicate these themes of destruction. Texts like Charlotte Delbo’s autobiography Aucun de nous ne reviendra (1965), and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), which is both a biography and an autobiography, work on multiple levels to demonstrate the destruction wrought by Auschwitz; however, the type of destruction represented in each text is different.

Charlotte Delbo, for example, represents how Auschwitz wreaks destruction of the individual by demonstrating the collapse of the body and continuity of form in her text. While she does maintain some continuity in the text, this continuity is predicated on her pre-camp identity as a French intellectual, and, having little to do with the anonymous body she becomes in the camp, such continuity only reinforces the collapse brought about by the camp experience.

Art Spiegelman’s autobiography, on the other hand, represents the regression brought about by Auschwitz. His text demonstrates how in and because of the camps, individuals regress to inferior versions of themselves: humans become animals, language deteriorates…

While destruction is a theme inherent to the Holocaust experience generally and the Auschwitz experience specifically, the destruction represented by Delbo and Spiegelman is thus not the same. Why should two texts that are ostensibly about the same subject, and that contain similar themes, represent these themes in such different ways? For while Delbo’s text posits complete destruction, Spiegelman’s maintains only a regression, a return to a “less than” version.

Delbo’s and Spiegelman’s differing representations of destruction in Auschwitz actually have much to say about the authors’ individual perceptions and representations of their Selves. After an experience as traumatic as Auschwitz, that experience often becomes a defining aspect of the self. The self is defined in terms of that experience, and is difficult, if not impossible, to separate from it. This is why Delbo and Spiegelman both define themselves in terms of Auschwitz, even if in Spiegelman’s case he did not experience Auschwitz firsthand. Delbo’s text demonstrates how her self is completely eradicated by the experience of Auschwitz, and how unstable her post-camp identity is compared to her pre-camp one; while Spiegelman demonstrates how the horror and complete destruction that existed in Auschwitz, coupled with the fact that he experienced it all secondhand, caused him to view himself as an inferior version of his parents. The differing representations of the destruction wrought by the concentration camps found in Delbo’s and Spiegelman’s respective Auschwitz autobiographies thus serve as a vehicle for depicting the authorial perception of self, and the ways in which the trauma of the Holocaust comes to define the self.


Charlotte Delbo and Art Spiegelman’s relationships to the Holocaust, and to Auschwitz in particular, are very different. Charlotte Delbo was a French writer active in the French resistance during World War II. She and her husband worked with other French writers and artists, such as the poet Louis Aragon, and printed and distributed various anti-Nazi pamphlets and journals. On 2 March 1942, the couple was caught by the Nazis, and was subsequently arrested. They were held in prison for a time before Delbo’s husband was executed, and Delbo herself sent to Auschwitz in a group of 229 other Frenchwomen also imprisoned for their resistance activities. Aucun de nous ne reviendra was written immediately after Delbo’s release from Auschwitz in 1945. However, the work was not published until 1965 because Delbo wanted to be certain that her narrative did justice to the great trauma and suffering of the Holocaust.

Art Spiegelman, however, did not experience the Holocaust firsthand. His experience of it is mediated through his parents (and in Maus, through his father), Polish Jews sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Spiegelman himself was born in Sweden in 1948, after his parents had been liberated from the camps and then reunited; the family later emigrated to New York, where Spiegelman grew up. Maus was originally published as a three-page comic strip depicting Nazi cats persecuting Jewish mice; it was only after that strip was published that Spiegelman’s interest in his father’s personal experience of the Holocaust was piqued, and the longer Maus project begun.


Many Holocaust narratives focus on the physical experience of the concentration camps, describing in detail the bodily suffering associated with being held prisoner in a concentration camp. This narrative focus has its roots in Nazi ideology, for the physical nature of the camp experience is tied to the Nazi preoccupation with physical fitness and biological health: “the Hitler Youth movement had as its guiding principle the idea that the body of each child belongs to the nation, and thus each boy or girl was responsible for maintaining a healthy body.” [1] The Nazi obsession with physical fitness was such that the passage of a physical fitness test became a requirement for higher education; by 1935 students had to receive a passing grade in physical education to move on to the next grade, and even at the university level physical education was a mandatory subject.[2] This emphasis on physical fitness stemmed from Hitler’s own philosophy on biological health: “a man of little scientific education but physically healthy … is more valuable for the national community than a clever weakling.”[3] To Hitler, physical exercise was essential to rebuilding the strength of the German nation in the postwar world. The corollary to this philosophy, of course, was that there was no room in the German state for the biologically inferior or the physically unfit.

The prevailing Nazi ideology was that because they did not belong to the Aryan master race, Jews were naturally lazy, physically unfit, and hence biologically inferior, which in turn led to a natural tendency to shirk work. Jews were thus distinct from other “biologically inferior peoples,” since Jews had the ability to work, and it was only their natural constitution that prohibited them from engaging in physical labor. The Nazis thus set about to counteract this instinctive Jewish laziness by forcing them into meaningless physical labor.

Given this Nazi emphasis on the necessity of corporal punishment for Jews, it is therefore natural that the Jewish experience of the Holocaust be framed in similarly physical terms. As critic Gene A. Plunka observes, “the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that.” [4] Thus the concentration camps’ emphasis on physical labor reduced the prisoners to nothing but the object of corporal punishment, that is to say, to their bodies. Identity was superfluous in the camps, for survival was entirely dependent on the body’s continued ability to function and perform manual labor. Thoughts and identity disappeared; all that was left was the body, and the need to care for it.

The importance of the physical to the experience of the Holocaust led to the creation of “literature of the body,” as Plunka calls it. To fully express the extreme physicality of the Holocaust required a “writing that draws attention to the importance of bodily functions.”[5] In a sense, then, much of Holocaust literature is a literature of disembodiment, since it seeks to express the Nazi efforts to break down the Jewish body through labor and excessive physicality.

Charlotte Delbo’s efforts to demonstrate in her autobiography the complete destruction she underwent in the camps fall into the category of “literature of the body,” for in order to represent this destruction, she represents the collapse of the body, using metonymy, or substitution of a part for the whole body.


Nous ne sommes attentives qu’à nos pieds. De marcher en rangs crée une sorte d’obsession. On regarde toujours les pieds qui vont devant soi. Vous avez ces pieds qui avancent, pesamment, avancent devant vous, ces pieds que vous évitez et que vous ne rattrapez jamais, ces pieds qui précèdent toujours les vôtres, toujours, même la nuit dans un cauchemar de piétinement, ces pieds qui vous fascinent à tel point que vous les verriez encore si vous étiez au premier rang, ces pieds qui traînent ou qui butent, qui avancent. Qui avancent avec leur bruit inégal, leur pas déréglé. Et si vous êtes derrière une qui est pieds nus parce qu’on lui a volé ses chaussures, ces pieds qui vont nus dans le verglas ou la boue, ces pieds nus, nus dans la neige, ces pieds torturés que vous voudriez ne plus voir, ces pieds pitoyables que vous craignez de heurter, vous tourmentent jusqu’au malaise. (Delbo, 72-73)


In this case, the action of walking is so consuming that not only is every thought or ephemeral concept eradicated from the prisoners, they are reduced to their physical selves; they are even further reduced to merely the limbs responsible for the action. For Delbo, in the camps prisoners are not even bodies; they are merely the body part most immediately necessary for the task at hand. The importance of these truncated and metonymical body parts is emphasized through overwhelming repetition: the word “feet” is repeated 11 times in the course of the passage.

Moreover, the passage does nothing more than list the actions committed by these feet: they “advance,” they “trip” they “go naked in the ice or the mud.” There is no critical thought or interpretation; there is only a list of verbs and the motions committed by the feet. This emphasis on verbs, and thus on action and physicality, is reproduced throughout the book, such as on page 60, where the verb “courir” is repeated no less than 12 times (“Toutes se mettent à courir,” “nous prenons à courir, à courir,” “Nous courons. Vers quoi? Pourquoi? Nous courons.”). In thus reducing her focus from the body as a whole to a single body part, Delbo is able to emphasize the motion- and action-driven nature of the camps, and to reduce any linguistic or interpretive embellishments that would be out of place in this situation.

This theme of bodily reduction is prevalent in Delbo’s work. But in some instances in which she uses metonymy, though the body is reduced to its parts, it remains explicitly in the possession of its owner: “cette jambe qui est celle de Lulu, ce bras qui est d’Yvonne, cette tête sur ma poitrine qui m’oppresse, c’est la tête de Viva” (Delbo, 89). Even though the body is so oppressed as to be reduced to parts, the prisoners still have some modicum of control over their dissected features, since they still maintain ownership of those parts. In other instances, though, the body is so reduced that the prisoners are no longer even people, but things: “Alles raus” (Delbo, 102). In this case, the subtle use of the German indefinite article indicates that the prisoners are not considered people, but objects, physical entities without thoughts or feelings. Sometimes the body is so reduced that it is no longer even an object, but ephemera incapable of belonging to anyone: “Chaque corps est un cri. […] Chacune est un cri matérialisé, un hurlement—qu’on n’entend pas. Le camion roule en silence sur la neige, passé sous un porche, disparaît. Il emporte les cris.” (Delbo, 56). In this case the body has been so reduced that it has disappeared, and only screams remain. Though the screams are ephemeral things that cannot belong to anyone, they can, however, be carried away by the trucks, which serves as a reminder that they were once people and bodies.

Delbo actively creates “literature of the body” so as to demonstrate how the body, among other things, is reduced and deteriorated in Auschwitz to the point of non-existence. For her, the camps were not just about the sheer physicality of labor and suffering, they were about the body’s degradation, to the point that it becomes less than, reduced to parts, objects, and ephemera. However, Delbo also goes beyond “literature of the body,” and shows how Auschwitz degrades more than just the physicality of its inmates. For “literature of the body” restricts its focus solely to the bodily deterioration experienced in the camps, while Delbo posits that the camps destroyed nearly everything, not just the bodies of its prisoners.


Similarly, the very form of Delbo’s text collapses and even disappears, mirroring the destruction of Auschwitz. All consistency of form is eradicated from the text. The opening of the book, for example, seems to establish the form as being that of a traditional narrative text: there is a chapter title (“Rue de l’arrivée, rue du départ”) and the sentences maintain proper grammatical structure (“Il y a les gens qui arrivent”).[6] Events are recounted in chronological order, such that the sequence of events is easy to follow throughout the narration. However, this traditional form soon begins to fall apart; this starts to happen on the very first page of the book. Grammar is abandoned as punctuation and capital letters disappear, and sentences develop a semi-poetic formatting through the use of enjambments:


Mais il est une gare où ceux-là qui arrivent sont justement ceux-là qui partent

une gare où ceux qui arrivent ne sont jamais arrivés, où ceux qui sont partis ne sont jamais revenus.

c’est la plus grande gare du monde.[7]


The text’s form continues to fluctuate as the narrative progresses, with the form diverging ever further from the traditional chronological narrative structure that it began as. Thus the text moves from a titled, chronological account of Delbo’s arrival in Auschwitz to a series of untitled poems whose subject matter has seemingly little to do with the overarching narrative, that of Delbo’s camp experience (one of her poems, for example, talks about her mother), and even to a series of dialogues between unidentified characters. These poems and dialogues are never contextualized within the broader narrative; their chronology within Delbo’s camp experience can only be surmised from their placement within the text. These new formats thus seem to resist even the basic chronology inherent to traditional narration. However, the form of Delbo’s text is so inconstant that it eventually returns to its original, traditional form: titles return (“La Tulipe,” “Le Matin”), as well as proper grammar and chronology (“De l’obscurité une voix en écho criait « Stavache », et il y avait un remuement noir d’où chacune tirait ses membres.”).[8]

In a sense, the fluctuation of form in Delbo’s text serves to eradicate form entirely, for with so many different formatting styles being used, it becomes impossible to determine which of these forms most defines the text. That the text begins with an established form before breaking down, though, demonstrates how form is progressively reduced, before it is eradicated altogether. Further, the text “is neither prose nor poetry; it’s both. Genre isn’t the point either. Auschwitz and After documents experience that makes the boundaries and conventions that shape life outside the camps seem hollow.” [9] The complete eradication of form thus reflects how Auschwitz has caused the “boundaries and conventions” of pre-camp life to slowly collapse in on themselves before finally disappearing altogether. Thus even the form of Delbo’s text is affected by the trauma of Auschwitz, for even the form must mirror the reduction and eradication that Delbo experienced in the camp. Thus textual form, like the body, is reduced and deteriorated by Auschwitz to the point of non-existence.


Delbo’s autobiography is not entirely focused on reduction and collapse, though. There are moments of stability in the text, most notably those in which she references her pre-camp identity, that of a French intellectual. This identity is referenced, for example, through her linguistic choices. She reproduces, rather than translates, the German phrases she hears in the camps: “ « Weiter, » nous crie l’anweiserine.” [10] On the one hand, the blending of German and French allows Delbo to accurately reproduce her auditory experience of the camps, in which the authority figures spoke in German, but the prisoners around her spoke French. However, her spelling of the German words does more than merely mimic her auditory experience of the camps. Feminine German words end in “in,” such as “Studentin” or “Amerikanerin,” not “ine,” the way Delbo spells them. The “ine” ending that Delbo provides is inherited from a French linguistic tradition, for in French, the letters “in” would be pronounced /ɛ̃/, whereas with the addition of the letter “e,” the “n” is pronounced, and sounds much like the German pronunciation of “in.” Additionally, German nouns are capitalized, so Delbo’s choice to not capitalize the noun “anweiserine” marks the word as being not an original German one, but rather an invention of Delbo’s. The lack of capitalization, combined with the French phonetic spelling, demonstrates that Delbo’s auditory experience of the camp is filtered through her perception as a French woman. Delbo does not just experience the German words being thrown at her; she experiences them as a French person, and her choice to transliterate the words, as she believes them to be spelled, according to the rules of her language, is indicative of how her entire experience in the camps is filtered through her linguistic heritage. The way in which Delbo perceives things is thus not interrupted by her move to the camps, or by her traumatic experience therein; she perceives things just as she would back in France, as a French woman. Language thus remains a source of continuity, even as other things like bodies and form degrade into nothingness.

However, Delbo’s experience of the camps is not merely that of a French woman filtering everything she hears through her linguistic heritage; she is a French intellectual, and the language in her autobiography reflects that. Her linguistic choices throughout the text hearken back to the French literary tradition, and anchor her speech within the French literary canon. Her use of anaphora and apostrophe is reminiscent of classical French plays, like those of Racine or Hugo: while Delbo exclaims “O vous qui savez,” [11] Racine says “Ô cendres d’un époux! ô Troyens! ô mon père!”[12] and Hugo writes “Ô soldats de l’an deux! Ô guerres! Epopées!”[13] Delbo’s linguistic style, more than just marking her as a Frenchwoman, marks her as being a French intellectual. These literary linguistic particularities are thus another source of continuity in Delbo’s text, for her literary style of writing, like her use of French, is not interrupted by her time in Auschwitz. These literary particularities furthermore link Delbo to a long history of French literature and literary style, thus providing an even stronger sense of continuity and stability than her use of French alone. By locating herself within such an established pantheon and chronology, she establishes a continuity based not just on her own experience, but on history and literary tradition.

Another source of continuity in Delbo’s text occurs through her use of symbols from classical French literature to capture difficult-to-phrase moments and emotions. Delbo subtly drops this symbolism into the middle of sentences through her use of similes: “J’entends mon cœur, et je lui parle comme Arnolphe à son cœur.”[14] The mere reference of the name “Arnolphe” is enough to conjure not only a very particular monologue, but also an entire play and plotline. Arnolphe is the main character in a 1662 Molière comedy who, afraid of being cuckolded, resolves to raise a young ward in complete seclusion until she is old enough to marry; however, having been raised to be utterly naïve, she instead falls in love with the young son of Arnolphe’s old friend and begins a secret romance, much to Arnolphe’s chagrin. There is a famous monologue in Act IV, scene 1 of the play, in which Arnolphe, having discovered that he has been tricked despite his many precautions, parses out his feelings. He is torn between his mind, which reasons that he should hate his ward and want to punish her for her treachery, and his heart, which admits that, despite himself, he truly loves her and wants to forgive her. Arnolphe talks to himself, trying to determine the best course of action, and which of his feelings to follow. With that single word, that single name, Delbo succeeds in evoking these many layers of plot and context. This evocation ultimately allows Delbo to verbalize thoughts that she would otherwise have difficulty conveying to her readers. At this moment, Delbo is struggling with her desire to give up, to give in to death, and her knowledge that she must press on. While it is easy for her to describe the two options she is wavering between, she struggles to explain her personal difficulty in making the choice. The decision is not as clear-cut as we might imagine, and death seems very enticing, especially when living involves such hardship and physical suffering. To convey her profound struggle to an audience that likely will never fully understand her situation, then, Delbo’s use of symbolism provides a solution. Through her simile, she does not need to explicitly mention her internal struggle between heart and mind: the single word evokes it, and transmits that meaning to the reader.

Delbo’s invocation of the furies, another classic symbol in French literature, similarly manages to convey an entire context and secondary meaning in just a few words. In Greek and Roman literature, the furies are marginalized divinities, who roam the world seeking revenge for their marginalization at the hands of the greater Olympian gods; they are responsible for the disappearance of men at war or at sea, and for following cursed humans for the rest of their lives and punishing them for the crimes they have committed. The furies appear in numerous Aeschylus plays, translations of which are popular in France, as well as in several of Delbo’s contemporary plays: they appear in Jean Giraudoux’s Electre (published in 1937), as well as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches (published 1944). In Delbo’s text, they appear at the end of a long and abusive work day, in which two of her companions passed away from overwork: “Les furies aussitôt se précipitaient, les battaient, les battaient.” [15] On the surface, the sentence is doing no more than relating the fact that the “anweiserines” and “kapos” rushed forward to beat the prisoners. However, by calling them furies, Delbo succeeds in describing in great detail the manner in which they rush forward to beat the prisoners. For they are not simply beating innocent people: they are doing it with a vengeance, with the clear purpose of punishing their victims. They intend to follow their victims forever, until they are overcome by the suffering inflicted on them and they give in to death. This vengeful sadism of the camp guards is difficult to put into words, and even more difficult to convey to the reader who did not experience Auschwitz alongside Delbo. However, her evocation of the furies plays on accepted French symbolism, and invokes an entire subtext not immediately present in Delbo’s narration. Like her use of French literary language, this invocation of French symbols allows Delbo to create continuity within her narrative. These symbols link her to a rich literary and cultural past, and ground her narrative within history.

However, this continuity, rather than counterbalancing the reduction occurring elsewhere in Delbo’s text, only reinforces it. These sources of continuity, Delbo’s linguistic and cultural heritage, are intimately linked with her pre-camp life and identity. Her pre-camp existence has nothing to do with her camp experience, and so it must necessarily be contrasted with her life in the camps. This contrast only serves to highlight, then, the level of degradation Delbo is experiencing in the camps. For while her pre-camp existence remains stable and unchanged, everything around her in the camps is being progressively degraded, until nothing remains (as when bodies become so degraded that they disappear, replaced by screams). To see how stable her pre-camp life was, so much so that it was rooted in a long history, only reinforces how ephemeral her life in the camps is, since at any moment things, people, and existence can disappear.


Reduction and degradation are thus central to Delbo’s autobiography. Reduction appears in multiple contexts throughout the work; while Auschwitz literally degraded the body, and Delbo’s text imitates this physical degradation, the degradation also extends to other things, like the very narrative form the text takes. The text does maintain some type of continuity through Delbo’s linguistic and symbolic choices, which draw on a rich French literary and cultural history. However, because this continuity is grounded in Delbo’s pre-camp lifestyle, it only reinforces, rather than counteracts, the sense of degradation that pervades the rest of the text.


The reduction found throughout Delbo’s text is ultimately indicative of Delbo’s conception of self. As previously described, the purpose of concentration camps like Auschwitz was to stamp out the self, to render the prisoners, if not dead, then unthinking physical shells, remnants of their pre-camp selves. Delbo’s excessive focus on the physicality of her experience demonstrates how her self, once capable of critical and poetic thought, has been stamped out by Auschwitz; all that is left is the present moment, and the physical body that once contained her self. The critic Rose Yalow Kamel describes such moments, in which physicality is emphasized and Delbo’s self disappears, as demonstrating “the narrator’s fragmented self.”[16]

The moments of stability, in which Delbo’s pre-camp identity is evoked, are somewhat problematic, though, for their presence seems to insist that Delbo’s identity remains unchanged, and continues to exist despite the trauma of the camps; this is indeed the very argument that Nicole Thatcher puts forward in her article “Roles of Literature in Charlotte Delbo’s Testimonial Writings”— that through the presence of literary references, Delbo manifests a particular self that experiences the camps in a particular way: “for Delbo, a non-believer, literature played a role similar to that of religion, giving her a basis for her identity.”[17] However, in my reading, the literary references refer to the history of French literature, and recall a national culture rather than an individual identity. While Delbo is a writer, the references she makes are not to her own works or her own experiences, but to the works of other authors. She is referring to a body of national literature, a collective cultural reference, not a personal one. The very use of these references is predicated on the fact that the reader shares them, that they are common enough knowledge that Delbo can drop them into the text and the reader will comprehend her meaning.

That these cultural references persist in the text, then, demonstrates that while Delbo’s self has been completely eradicated by the camps, she still maintains a position within a national community. In other words, while she is no longer an individual self, she continues to be a part of a larger group with its own defined identity. Though her self has been eradicated by the camps, she finds solace, and in a sense a replacement identity, as “an organic part of her comrades’ French identities.”[18] The identity of the nation, though, is distinct from that of the individual. An individual’s identity can be defined in part by nationality, but belonging to a nation does not inherently provide an individual with a self. National identity, for example, is based on a broad history not necessarily involving the individual, what is often a multiplicity of languages and dialects, as well as practices and holidays that the individual does not necessarily celebrate. Individual identity, on the other hand, is composed in part by belonging to a nation, but more so on individual experience, personal interests and tastes, activities and careers, and personal relationships. Individual and national characteristics and identities do not necessarily overlap, and so the identity of the nation versus that of the individual must be considered separate and distinct. In Delbo’s text, it is the French identity that survives, not her own self. Because she can relate to the French identity, she still belongs to the broader community affected by this national identity; however, the existence of the national identity does not inherently imply the existence of Delbo’s self. That this French identity should survive in Auschwitz, even as everything else is being eradicated, is no accident: “Unlike the deliberate fragmentation the Nazis imposed upon Jewish prisoners—brought from many countries without a common language, and therefore without an important prerequisite solidarity—a common (albeit frayed) language made it possible for the French prisoners to help each other in all sorts of ways.”[19] A common language thus made it possible for Delbo to maintain some small means of self-perception, even if that self-perception must be done in terms of a broader national community.

Much as bodies and form are reduced in her text, so is Delbo’s self. When she emerges from Auschwitz, she is incapable of defining her individual identity except in terms of this experience. The French linguistic and literary references she maintains throughout the text, rather than pointing to the maintenance of a self, in fact demonstrate how Delbo’s self has been destroyed and replaced by adherence to a broader national community. Delbo’s loyalty to this French national community serves as a substitute for her own identity, which has been so completely destroyed.


Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical comic Maus, like Charlotte Delbo’s autobiography, seeks to demonstrate the destruction caused by Auschwitz. However, unlike Delbo’s text, which demonstrates the reduction and degradation caused by Auschwitz, Spiegelman’s instead represents the camp destruction as regression. This regression is most obvious in the animal metaphor that runs throughout the text, with people drawn as animals rather than as humans. For in being represented as animals, the characters are being represented as inferior, less developed versions of themselves, since animals are inherently less evolved than humans. The cat-and-mouse metaphor central to the text illuminates this theme of regression, for the metaphor, which is in fact borrowed from the Nazi impression of Jews as “vermin,” implies that Nazis and Jews have regressed to animals whose essential purpose in life is to hunt or be hunted. The metaphor is naturally reminiscent, as Spiegelman mentions in Metamaus, of cartoons like Tom and Jerry, whose entire plot is based on the cat chasing the mouse; so to draw Nazis and Jews as cats and mice is to, in appearance at least, simplify them to their food-chain relationship. In the case of the Jews, who are represented as mice, this regression is especially striking. By drawing Jews as mice, Spiegelman expounds on a well-known facet of Nazi racial ideology: to the Nazis, Jews were not only biologically inferior, they were subhuman, the “vermin of mankind.” [20] In Auschwitz, for example, the Nazis took this perceived parasitic quality of the Jews to an extreme literal level, using the gas Zyklon B to kill prisoners in the gas chambers; Zyklon B being, as Spiegelman says, “a pesticide manufactured to kill vermin—like fleas and roaches.” [21] Drawing Jews as mice thus depicts them from the Nazi perspective, not merely as animals, but as the most undesirable of animals, parasites at the very bottom of the food chain. However, Spiegelman does not allow the Jews to regress that far, to being seen solely from the Nazi perspective. He makes a point of drawing the mice on the same scale as the cats, such that the cats do not loom over their prey, as they do in real life. Jews thus have some agency, some capacity to defend themselves: “to equalize them in scale didn’t mean to give them equal power, but it didn’t put the mice necessarily at the total biological disadvantage the metaphor otherwise implies.”[22] In Spiegelman’s comic, then, Jews regress to being perceived from the Nazi perspective, but this regression does not imply a complete loss of agency or self-sufficiency; Jews can still defend themselves, and are not entirely limited by their regression. To say they are regressed is not to say that they are powerless; they are merely “less than” their normal human selves.

Regression in other aspects of the animal metaphor is subtler, however. The Poles, for example, are represented as pigs. Pigs are outside the cat-and-mouse food chain: they are neither hunters nor victims, and their position during the war is thus inherently ambiguous. The Poles never actively persecuted the Jews, but neither did they try to help them. For as Spiegelman himself says, “Look, Poles suffered terribly under the Nazis, but they were also often victimizers of Jews.”[23] Poles passively participated in the persecution of the Jews, and pigs convey this duality well, since they are both adorable and endearing, like Porky Pig, as well as sinister and swine-like, like Napoleon in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In general, though, a pig metaphor serves to convey pejorative characteristics; to say someone is “a pig” is to insult them. Thus the pig metaphor conveys how Poles have also regressed because of the war. They have become not only animals, but evil ones, victimizers of Jews and people they once considered to be their countrymen. The duality of the metaphor only reinforces this regression, for it demonstrates that Poles truly have the capacity for both good and evil, and yet have regressed to an animal state that favors evil behavior rather than a compassionate human one.

The animal metaphor that runs through Spiegelman’s text thus shows how Auschwitz has caused those who experienced it to regress. All those associated with the war and Auschwitz regress to animals, becoming biologically lesser-developed creatures. Even when the metaphor is more nuanced and less straightforward, as in the case of the Poles, who have a dual identity as Nazi victims and Jewish victimizers, the nuance ultimately only reinforces the regression, and how far those who experienced the war regressed from the compassionate, thoughtful humans they usually are.


Language in Maus also serves a regressive function. In particular, the English language maintains a central place in Spiegelman’s narrative, for Spiegelman emphasizes what a large role the language played, on multiple occasions, in his father’s survival.[24] In the camps, English enables Vladek to garner favor with the kapos: in one episode, a kapo is seeking someone to tutor him in English, and when Vladek provides this service, he is rewarded with much-needed food and clothing. Similarly, when a French prisoner, who is separated from the other inmates by a language barrier, is desperate for someone to talk to, English allows Vladek to communicate with the Frenchman; the grateful Frenchman showers Vladek with material rewards such as Red Cross rations that supplement his meager concentration camp meals. Thus in the camps, Vladek’s use of English is presented as extraordinarily “competent,” to borrow a term from Rosen.[25] His use of English in the camps is a strength, a means of overcoming adversity, and Vladek’s ability to harness this tool and use it to his benefit marks him as being competent. The English that Vladek uses to narrate his story therefore seems out of place and at odds with the image that is presented to us of Vladek in the camps, for though English is presented as an important means of his survival, Vladek narrates his story in broken English. He uses phrases like, “I’ll pack the foods what Mala left to return it over to the Shop-Rite. Help yourself for a little cereal…”[26] Vladek’s post-camp English is, as Rosen dubs it, “incompetent.” Because of his poor English, we see him as pathetic and bumbling, incapable of fending for himself. This perception of him is only reinforced by episodes like the one at the beginning of Maus II, when Vladek insists that Art and Françoise drop everything and join him on his vacation because Mala left and he cannot bear to be alone. Of course, Vladek’s poor English is due to the fact that he is a non-native speaker and is now living as an outsider in America. However, Vladek is portrayed as an outsider in other sections of the text as well, as when he meets Anja for the first time: not only is he from a different town than Anja, but she is from a wealthy family, while he “had to quit school at 14 to work,” implying that Vladek is also an outsider to her family’s lifestyle.[27] In these sections, though, because they occur before Vladek’s experience in the camps, he succeeds in using English to his advantage, and to thus overcome his outsider status: the intimacy created between Vladek and Anja because of Vladek’s understanding of English allows their relationship to progress, ultimately to the point of marriage. It is through marriage to Anja that Vladek overcomes the outsider status depicted in that scene, for by marrying Anja he is welcomed into her family. Vladek’s inability to overcome his outsider status in the post-camp world, as evidenced by his poor English, stresses the fact that Vladek’s post-camp self is more limited than his pre-camp one.

However, unlike what Rosen argues, Vladek’s poor post-camp English does not merely serve as a “vehicle for his testimony,” wherein the “tortured” nature of his language imitates the torture he experienced in the camps.[28] Rather, the contrast between Vladek’s camp and post-camp English demonstrates how his language has regressed as a result of his camp experience. Not only does his language literally regress, with his post-camp English grammatically inferior to the one he uses in the camps, but it also goes from being a tool he adeptly manipulates to enable his survival, to an indicator of his feebleness and incompetence. In the camps, Vladek’s English is a symbol of his independence and self-sufficiency, how he takes matters into his own hands to improve his lot and enable his own survival. After the camps, the language becomes a symbol of how he has devolved into a helpless old man incapable of doing things for himself. His post-camp English is thus “less than” his camp English, for it is reduced from a symbol of strength to one of incapacity.


The regression prevalent in Spiegelman’s text ultimately bears on Spiegelman’s own conception of self. The question of identity and the capacity to self-identify is a central theme in Maus. As previously discussed, the cat and mouse metaphor is an essential and particularly distinctive characteristic of Spiegelman’s narrative, and it is made possible by the visual aspect of the narrative’s form. Through Spiegelman’s drawings, though, we see that the characters are not literally cats and mice, but rather are wearing masks that reflect their dominant identity, that is to say, what the Nazis perceive to be their dominant identity. Thus for Vladek and Anja, though they are both Jewish and Polish, they wear the mouse mask of Judaism, because they are perceived by the Nazis to be, above all else, Jewish. The masks do not merely collapse multiple identities into one, though; they also erase variations within each identity, and flatten identities to their most basic level. For example, though Vladek and Anja are both nominally Jewish, Vladek comes from a very religious household, while Anja had a more secular and materialistic upbringing. In the eyes of the Nazis, though, Jews are Jews, and the masks that Vladek and Anja are forced to wear throughout the comic reflect that. In Spiegelman’s narrative, then, the Nazis very literally impose identities on Vladek and Anja by forcing them to wear masks: they are forced to wear the Nazis’ perception of their identity superimposed on top of their own faces and actual selves. Anja and Vladek do not even get to choose which mask they wear, but are instead forced to be branded as whatever identity the Nazis perceive to be their dominant one. Moreover, the masks they wear reflect the oversimplified vision the Nazis have of those identities, such that they become caricatures of themselves. The form of Spiegelman’s text thus allows him to replicate the way in which identity is collapsed, simplified and then imposed on those who lived through the Holocaust.

On the other hand, form also allows Spiegelman to demonstrate how identity was removed during the Holocaust. In the camps, prisoners’ heads were shaved, thus removing one of the most distinguishing features, and they were dressed in identical striped uniforms; such practices reduced the prisoners to their purely physical selves, for they ensured that the prisoners were not seen as individuals, but rather as a mass of anonymous bodies. Spiegelman similarly attacks the individuality of his characters by drawing the mice as triangles, with dots for eyes and noses; each mouse looks just like another, and it is only through context and dialogue that we are able to tell one character from another. Spiegelman acknowledges that, “Although the characters don’t have their heads shaved, the effect of the almost identical mouse heads is analogous to dehumanizing prisoners by shaving their heads and rendering them anonymous, harder to recognize as individuals.” [29] Spiegelman’s style so completely removes the characters’ individual identities that we cannot even distinguish the mice’s genders; in the scenes in the concentration camps, the only thing that allows any distinction between men and women is the fact that men wear pants and women wear skirts. From the waist up, though, they are all just bodies, with nothing to identify them as individuals. The effect of drawing the mice so completely alike thus does more than merely dehumanize them by stripping them of their identities: Spiegelman’s drawing style ensures that we see them only as bodies filling up space on the page, nothing more. The particular form of Spiegelman’s text, with its emphasis on the visual, serves to heighten this sense, since if one opens to a page at random, we literally see only a mass of bodies taking up literal space; one has to actually read the text and deduce from context who the individual characters are.

These questions of identity, of self-identification versus imposed identity, are so central to Spiegelman’s narrative that they haunt the story even in the post-Holocaust moments. In the opening pages of Maus II, for example, we see Art struggling to decide how to draw his wife Françoise. Art’s main dilemma is how to distill French identity into a single animal; he needs to find an animal that accurately represents “the centuries of anti-Semitism” so, in his opinion, characteristic of the French.[30] But more than the problem of trying to distill national identity within the metaphor of a single animal is the question of which identity people most identify with. Françoise is French, but converted to Judaism, and so she insists on being drawn as a mouse, since she sees that as the most dominant aspect of her identity: thus when Art asks “What kind of animal should I make you?” Françoise enthusiastically asserts, “Huh? A mouse, of course!” [31] However, Art’s reply is particularly telling: “But you’re French!” Even so many years after the Nazis, we continue to see the disjoint between how people self-identify and how others identify them. These questions about identity and self-identification follow Art throughout the narrative, as he struggles to decide whether or not to identify as a Jew, but somehow incapable of throwing off his identity as Jew and progeny of survivors. Art’s identity is thus intimately linked with that of his parents: not only does he struggle to define himself in much the same way his parents did under the Nazis, but his definition of self is dependent on his parents’ identities as Jews and as survivors.

Ultimately, Maus is both an autobiography and a biography: it is a biography of Spiegelman’s father that Spiegelman then uses as the framework for his own autobiography. This complex relationship with his father is key to Spiegelman’s understanding of his own self, for his perception of self, like his autobiography, is predicated on his father’s identity. Take, for example, the Parshas Truma episode. Vladek explains that in the POW camp he was held in at the beginning of the war, he had a dream that he would be released on Parshas Truma. This comes true, and he later realizes that “it was this parsha on the week I got married to Anja. … And this was the parsha in 1948, after the war, on the week you were born! … And so it came out to be this parsha you sang on the Saturday of your bar mitzvah!”[32] Art’s coming into manhood in the Jewish tradition is thus predicated not only on his father’s experience in the POW camp, but also on some of the other most important episodes in his father’s life, such as marriage and the birth of a child. “Art’s identity, then, becomes a function of his father’s biography […]. The sacred texts he reads have significance that is familial, not personal. Implicit here is a privileging of the father’s legacy and a burdening of Art with the imperative to measure up.”[33] Thus not only is Spiegelman’s identity intimately linked with that of his father, it is in fact predicated on it. Spiegelman enters into a comparative relationship with his father, constantly comparing himself and his identity to that of his father. It is this comparative relationship that ultimately leaves Spiegelman feeling as though he is a regressed, inferior version of his father.

In the opening pages of Maus II, Spiegelman explicitly acknowledges this sense of his being an inferior version of his parents: “I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did. Sigh. I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams.”[34] This sense of guilt and inadequacy is synonymous with regression. Because of the comparative relationship Spiegelman has with his father, all his experiences are viewed in terms of his father’s, and they necessarily fall short. Any adversity Spiegelman has overcome in his life is nothing compared to surviving Auschwitz; any success of his is small compared to the triumph of surviving a Nazi concentration camp. Such comparisons thus leave Spiegelman feeling “guilty” and “inadequate” because he is such an inferior version of his father. Even his efforts to overcome this inferior status fall short: he attempts to “reconstruct [his father’s] reality” so as to, in some limited way, share his father’s experience, but his efforts to do so are ultimately “inadequate.” Auschwitz thus looms large in Spiegelman’s definition of self, despite the fact that he did not experience it firsthand. That Spiegelman did not experience it firsthand is ultimately what leaves him feeling like an inferior version of those who did. Auschwitz thus comes to define Spiegelman’s sense of self as an inadequate, regressed version of those who survived it, like his own father.


While the destructive nature of Auschwitz is conceived of and represented differently in Delbo and Spiegelman’s respective autobiographies, this is ultimately due to the relationship between the trauma of Auschwitz and the construction of identity. Spiegelman and Delbo’s representations of destruction in Auschwitz are intrinsically linked with their individual perceptions of selves, which accounts for the difference in their representations. For Delbo, destruction is equated with reduction and complete disappearance. Thus in her text, things disappear: bodies, narrative form… She struggles to maintain some form of stability and continuity in her text through her references to French literature, but ultimately, because these sources of stability are so tied to her pre-camp life, they only reinforce how Auschwitz is reducing everything around her to nothingness. For Spiegelman, on the other hand, destruction is equated with regression. For him, Auschwitz does not entirely eradicate things to the point of non-existence, as Delbo conceives of it, but rather, returns things to an inferior and previous state. Thus in Spiegelman’s text the characters are not destroyed, but returned to a non-human, animal state. Similarly, language does not disappear, but is reduced to an inferior version of itself, as exemplified by the eroded grammar.

For Delbo, who perceives the destruction to be nearly complete, leaving almost nothing in its wake, her self has been completely erased by Auschwitz and its trauma. To replace it, she clings to the French community and the national identity it offers. Though this new identity belongs to the nation, and cannot fully replace the loss of her individual self, it does allow her to define herself in some limited way—limited because of the broad and non-personalized scope of defining oneself in terms of an entire nationality. Spiegelman, on the other hand, views his self as an inferior version of his father’s. His identity is intimately linked with his father’s, which is evident in the very nature of his text: while it is his own autobiography, it is also a biography of his father and his Holocaust experience. The intertwining of their identities naturally leads to comparison, which ultimately only demonstrates Spiegelman’s inferiority when compared to his father. He has no experiences as traumatic as his father’s, nor any successes as great as his father’s survival. The very purpose of his autobiography is to reconstruct his father’s experience, so that he can bridge the gap between his self and his father’s, but in Spiegelman’s opinion, even this attempt falls short: Vladek haunts the narrative even after his death, for the last panel is of Vladek’s grave, ensuring that the last impression of the text is one of Vladek, not Art. Spiegelman thus perceives of himself as inadequate, and just as Auschwitz regresses other things, he too has been regressed by it.

Thus even as Auschwitz destroys things, it also constructs them. For both Delbo and Spiegelman conceive of their selves in terms of Auschwitz. They are defined by Auschwitz even if, as in Spiegelman’s case, they did not experience it firsthand. Paradoxically, then, in wreaking such complete destruction, Auschwitz created new identities and definitions of self in those who experienced, directly or indirectly, its trauma. Moreover, the destruction of Auschwitz also created new means of creative expression. Both authors, in struggling to convey the destruction of the camps to their readers, created innovative new forms of literature: for Delbo, it was a text that had no clearly defined form, that was simultaneously poetic and novelistic, and for Spiegelman, it was creating a medium that was both visual and textual, and that accurately represented the simultaneity of past and present, of his father’s narrative and his own. The simultaneity present in both texts—simultaneity of form for Delbo, simultaneity of chronology and medium for Spiegelman—allows the authors to overcome the void left in the wake of Auschwitz’s destruction. These two authors posit, then, the capacity to represent the void of concentration camp trauma through the representation of everything at once. By wreaking such destruction, then, Auschwitz ultimately enabled creation—creation of self, as well as creation of literature and means of expression.


Works Cited


Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz et après: Aucun de nous ne reviendra. Editions de Minuit. 1970.


Elmwood, Victoria A. “”Happy, Happy Ever After”: The Transformation of Trauma Between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.” Biography 27.4 (2004): 691-718. Web. <http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.uchicago.edu/journals/biography/v027/27.4elmwood.html&gt;


Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim. Boston. 1971.


Hugo, Victor. “Ô soldats de l’an deux! … ” Les Châtiments.


Kamel, Rose Yalow. “Written on the Body: Narrative Re-Presentation in Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 14.1 (Spring 2000): 65-82.


Keys, Barbara. “The Body as a Political Space: Comparing Physical Education under Nazism and Stalinism.” German History 27.3: 395-413.


Plunka, Gene A. “The Holocaust as Literature of the Body: Charlotte Delbo’s Qui rapportera ces paroles? and Michel Vinaver’s Par-dessus bord.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 28.1 (Fall 2009): 32-54.


Rosen, Alan. “The Language of Survival: English as Metaphor in Spiegelman’s Maus.” Proof texts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 15.3 (Sept. 1995): 249-62.


Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History. Pantheon Books New York. 1986.


Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books New York. 1991.


Spiegelman, Art. MetaMaus. 1st Ed. Pantheon Books New York, 2011.


Thatcher, Nicole. “Roles of Literature in Charlotte Delbo’s Testimonial Writings.” Australian Journal of French Studies 43.2 (May-Aug 2006): 179-194.


Tougaw, Jason D. “”We Slipped into a Dream State”: Dreaming and Trauma in Charlotte Delbo’s “Auschwitz and After”.” JAC 24.3 (2004): 584. Web. <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.uchicago.edu/stable/20866644?seq=2&gt;


[1] Plunka, 33-34

[2] Keys, 395

[3] Hitler, 408-9

[4] Plunka 37

[5] Plunka, 32

[6] Delbo, 9

[7] Ibid

[8] Delbo, 100

[9]Tougaw, 584

[10] Delbo, 96

[11] Delbo, 21

[12] Racine, Andromaque

[13] Hugo

[14] Delbo, 110

[15] Delbo, 128

[16] Kamel, 68

[17] Thatcher, 181

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 115

[21] Ibid

[22] Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 118

[23] Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 121

[24] Rosen, 249

[25] Ibid

[26] Spiegelman, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, pp. 78

[27] Spiegelman, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, pp. 16

[28] Rosen, 258

[29] Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 145

[30] Spiegelman, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, pp. 11

[31] Ibid

[32] Spiegelman, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, pp. 59

[33]Elmwood, 700-701

[34] Spiegelman, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, pp. 16