A Convergence of Jews, Poles, & Pigs

Featuring Avi Katz, Benjamin Netanyahu, George Orwell, Art Spiegelman, and Piotr Bikont

It’s dangerous nowadays to attempt a two-week news-cleanse, as I intentionally attempted during a recent vacation retreat: you never know what you’ll have waiting for you when you get back home.

In my own case, what I had waiting, among many many other things, was the story about how Likudist parliamentarians in Jerusalem had passed themselves a new law summarily declaring Israel a “Jewish state,” in one fell swoop demoting the 20% of the country’s citizens who happen to be Arab to a nebulous second-class status, and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living under occupation to some sort of status well below that. The law seemed to have been drafted in anxious response to the growing awareness of the fact that, what with negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stalled if not permanently upended by an endlessly compounding array of government-implemented so-called “facts on the ground,” the Arab portion of the population of those under Israeli suzerainty was fast approaching a majority of all those residing between the Jordanian border and the Mediterranean sea.

Anyway, shortly after the vote, triumphant parliamentarians were photographed by Olivier Fitoussi of the AP celebrating the moment by casting themselves in giddy selfies alongside their smugly self-satisfied leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…

…which in turn led to veteran cartoonist Avi Katz referencing George Orwell in his sly skewering of the image in the pages of Jerusalem Report, an Israeli English-language fortnightly owned by the Jerusalem Post

…which in turn got the cartoonist, Katz, who had been contributing material to the Jerusalem Post for three decades, summarily fired. Supposedly for having perpetrated such a baldly anti-Semitic image, pork of course being trayf, which is to say decidedly not kosher, as things were piously explained…

…which of course missed (or more likely conspicuously misconstrued) the entire purport of Katz’s Orwellian reference, for in the anti-Stalinist allegory of Animal Farm, the pigs who had led the farm-animals in the uprising against their cruel human masters thereafter slowly transmogrified themselves, assuming human traits and donning human clothes and indulging in all manner of human satisfactions, until by the book’s famous ending, “No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” If Orwell had been suggesting that Stalinist communists had transformed themselves into an evil indistinguishable from the capitalist oppressors they’d once opposed, Katz seemed to be suggesting that Zionism itself had now taken on the full trappings of the European fascisms against which it had once rose up in desperate and righteous revulsion.

The whole incident in turn put me in mind of another controversy which occurred, back in the year 2000, when Art Spiegelman at long last managed to get his two-volume Maus chronicle translated and released in a Polish language edition by a diminutive Krakow publishing firm (none of the more established outlets would touch the thing), an edition which, sure enough, in turn was soon being roundly denounced, often in astonishingly strident terms, for the scandal of having rendered Poles as pigs.

At the time, Adam Michnik’s Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw’s foremost daily, asked me to interview Spiegelman himself on his intentions in that regard, and an English-language version of the resulting article was subsequently published in the July/August 2001 issue of the late lamented Lingua Franca. As you can imagine, the current fracas in Israel had me returning to that conversation, parts of which I append:

“There were a few countries whose translations really mattered to me,” Spiegelman explained in his SoHo studio, taking a drag on his ever-present cigarette. “France, for example, in part because my wife is French and in part because of the long and highly sophisticated tradition of literary comic books over there. And Germany, of course, where the book proved a considerable best-seller and even gets assigned in classes.

“But a Polish publication of the book has all along been particularly important to me because—how should I say this?—well, the kind of ambivalence the Poles feel toward certain aspects of their past is mutual with me and goes back to my earliest memories. As I was being raised in Rego Park, my parents regularly expressed negative feelings about the Poles; but those feelings were regularly being expressed in Polish, so that Polish is really my mother tongue and the comforting lullaby music of my infant life.”

But, I asked, what about the issue of having portrayed Poles as pigs? Countless Polish publishers have told me that if the Poles in Maus hadn’t been portrayed as pigs, there’d never have been the slightest problem about publishing the book.

“To begin with,” Spiegelman said, stiffening slightly, “let’s be honest about this: On this particular subject, if there weren’t any problem, that would be a problem. Look,” he continued, taking another long drag on his cigarette. “For the hundredth time…” He paused, redeploying his thoughts.

Whereupon he launched into a long story about how, after the publication of the first volume of Maus, in 1980, he applied to the Polish embassy for a visa to visit the country, in part so as to study actual locations prior to launching into several of the chronicle’s upcoming scenes. An appointment was made,

The day came, I went up to talk with the guy—entirely cordial. He indicated that they would be granting the visa, but he, too, wanted to know, very concerned: Why Poles as pigs?

“My initial reply, I suppose, was a bit facetious: ‘At first,’ I told him, ‘I tried to render Poles as noble stags, but I eventually found it just too hard inking in all those antlers.’ But then I went on, trying to explain how in the American cartoon tradition, pigs simply don’t carry any particular negative connotation: Porky Pig, for instance, is every bit as cuddly and beloved a figure as Mickey Mouse. Although it wasn’t lost on me that as far as my mother and father were concerned, the main thing about pigs is that they weren’t kosher. Beyond that, in terms of the narrative conventions of the text, the main thing to be noted about pigs is that they are not part of the book’s overriding metaphorical food chain. Pigs don’t eat mice—cats do. Pigs are relatively innocuous as far as mice are concerned.

“The embassy guy nodded politely, but clearly he wasn’t buying my explanations. ‘Mr. Spiegelman,’ he said gravely, at length, ‘the thing you don’t seem to understand is that in Poland calling someone a swine is a much, much greater insult than seems to be the case here in America. Swine, you see, is what the Nazis called the Poles.’

“‘Exactly!’ I replied. ‘And they called us vermin. That’s the whole point.’ You see, I didn’t make up these metaphors, the Nazis did. I was just trying to explore them, to take them seriously, to unravel and deconstruct them. I must say, I keep waiting for some Pole to take umbrage at the fact that I portray Jews as rodents—I mean, I’m not holding my breath or anything, though it would be nice.

“But actually, it’s interesting when you look at those metaphors in the context of the sort of suffering competition that so seems to define Jewish-Polish relations nowadays. Because if you think about the Thousand-Year Reich as a sort of animal farm, to borrow a metaphor, Jews as rodents or vermin were pests to be destroyed and exterminated first thing, indiscriminately, as a matter of course. Whereas Poles as pigs, like all the Slavic races in the entire Nazi conception, while not to be coddled, weren’t to be indiscriminately destroyed: They were to be put to use and worked for their meat. Neither status was enviable, but it’s a distinction worth noting nevertheless.

“Beyond that, though,” Spiegelman went on, “the main thing to ask is that people try to see past those initial metaphors. In terms of the narrative itself, in terms of what actually happened to my mother and father, it’s all very complicated: There were pigs who behaved well and pigs who behaved shabbily, just as there were mice who did likewise… And that’s what things were really like.”

Pausing, he took another deep drag on his cigarette. “That literal-minded way of thinking can get ridiculous. If Maus is about anything,” he concluded, “it’s a critique of the limitations—the sometimes fatal limitations—of the caricaturizing impulse. I did my damnedest not to caricature anybody in this book—and anyone who caricatures my efforts in any other light, I’m sorry, that’s their problem, not mine.”

And indeed, it’s an open question as to who should be getting fired up—and who fired—in the context of the publication of Katz’s cartoon, and the issues it so trenchantly surfaces.

What the Spiegelman interview surfaced for me personally, however, was something altogether different: fond memories of Piotr Bikont, the Rabelaisian Polish polymath documentary filmmaker/food writer/theater director/jazz vocalist/and beat translator (Ferlinghetti! Ginsburg!) who undertook the daunting task of translating Maus in the first place, seeing to its publication and then weathering the controversy. (Can you imagine the roiling complications involved in translating the distinctive Polish and Yiddish inflected English of Spiegelman’s parents back into Polish? And yet I’m told that Bikont’s stylings were singularly effective.)

In his book Metamaus, Spiegelman includes a completely fetching image of Bikont at the balcony of Gazeta Wyborcza, confronting a gaggle of furious nationalist demonstrators down below, merrily enswathed in a pig mask!

Aye, Bikont! Huge and hulking, he was one of my favorite informants during my years covering the Polish transition out of communism for the New Yorker. As a filmmaker he’d himself been one of the most vital documentarians of that transition, including a legendary scene in his August 1988 strike film in which the camera he had slung over his shoulder, as he was interviewing some of the resolute strikers, was suddenly yanked right off his back—having, just before that, registered the suddenly shocked faces of his interviewees. Hijacked by a regime police goon, the camera continued recording its kidnapping all the while, the frantic upside-down footchase to the seeming safety of the police barracks, and presently the ruckus outside as a besieging crowd of workers lustily demanded their camera back, a demand to which the abashed policeman presently acceded. (As a restaurant critic in the early days of the subsequent transition, Bikont liked to say he was engaging in a sort of delectable science fiction, so beyond the means of his average reader were the repasts he was initially reviewing—and yet how those pieces were themselves savored!)

Aye Bikont, I say, because just last year he was tragically and ridiculously killed: felled, his spine severed, when the car in which he was sitting was rear-ended by a recklessly speeding vehicle. I still can’t believe he’s gone.

As it happens, followers of The Believer/McSweeney’s universe may remember Bikont as the booming declaiming voice in his jazz band’s rendition of Ad Reinhardt’s “Art is…” soliloquy, featured on the accompanying CD to McSweeney’s issue #6. Easier nowadays, perhaps, to catch one such performance of that Free Cooperation group’s piece “Convergence” by googling a video online (or just tapping the image below).

Bikont’s performance of Ad Reinhardt’s ART IN ART IS ART-AS-ART (Art-as-Art, Dogma Part III)

Nobody quite like Bikont, bless his anarchic soul, channeling Reinhardt (bless his, too!) to set us all straight on what’s what and what’s not when it comes to art and truth. Amen.

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