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Maus II, by Art Spiegelman

- Abstract

Whether or not Art Spiegel-man was aware of it when he chose to portray Jews as mice in his much-lauded comic-strip series about the Holocaust, he was preceded by Franz Kafka, whose “Josephine the Singer, Or the Mouse Folk” tells of a rodent people that lead “a precarious existence amid the tumult of a hostile world” and are “inured . . . to suffering, not sparing of themselves, swift in decision, well acquainted with death, timorous only to the eye in the atmosphere of reckless daring which they constantly breathe.” Whom Kafka had in mind when creating Josephine is a good question (most likely himself as a writer, although I once met an old woman in Jerusalem who had tutored him in Hebrew when she was young and claimed that Josephine was a portrait of her), but his “Mouse Folk” was clearly modeled on the Jews.

Nor, for that matter, was this an entirely original image of Kafka’s. If by no one or nothing else, it was given him by the German language, in which the noun Mauschel means a “kike,” and the verb mauscheln, to speak (and why not to sing?) with a Jewish accent. These two words, to be sure, derive from the Hebrew name Moshe, which in the German-Jewish pronunciation sounds like “Maushe,” but German-speakers can hardly avoid associating them with Maus and its diminutive Mäuschen. Theodor Herzl actually wrote a short essay called Mauschel in which, far from denying that the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew had a basis in reality, he identified it with Jewish opponents of Zionism and railed against them:



About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.