Remembering Maurice Sendak And His Dark, Politically Moving Illustrations

By Emily Glosser

As many of us know, Maurice Sendak died last week at the age of 83. He will be most remembered for his fantastical and whimsical drawings of “wild rumpuses” and a little boy flying a cake-batter plane over an enormous glass of milk, however, it is important to also pay tribute to Sendak’s darker images that pervade almost all of his picture books.

Sendak claimed that his picture books were not written for an age-defined audience, however, they are widely recognized as books for children. While Sendak used child protagonists throughout most of his picture books, he never sugarcoated childhood, recognizing that to be a child is to be vulnerable. And as Sendak drew his pictures, often with Mozart playing in the background and his dog Jennie by his side, he allowed himself to reach back into his childhood, and re-experience those fears and uncertainties.

Indeed, his childhood was truly a dark one. Sendak, who grew up in Brooklyn during the 1930s and 40s, spent much of his childhood sick, and haunted by the destruction of European Jews occurring abroad, some of which were his own relatives. His parents never spoke explicitly with him about the war; rather, he would listen to their hushed voices through doorways, knowing that something terrible was happening in the world. As a teenager, Sendak spent much time studying black and white photographs of his relatives who were murdered by the Nazis.

As a result, Sendak often translated his childhood, in which he lived in the shadow of the Holocaust, to his picture books, including images of concentration camps, starvation, and death (some of which were subtle and some more explicit) within his illustrations. We see some of these images in In The Night Kitchen, where Mickey is shoved into an oven by three Oliver Hardy chefs, and in Dear Mili, which has images of Anne Frank and trees that resemble emaciated corpses. However, Sendak’s Holocaust representations are most clear and politically moving in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy and Brundibar.

Within both Jack and Guy and Brundibar, Sendak combines images of the Holocaust with present day injustices, portraying the Holocaust not as a distant, barbaric event, but rather one that continues to echo within our contemporaneous landscape. His amalgamated images of past and present injustices bring to mind Walter Benjamin’s famous analysis of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” or angel of history. Benjamin describes the angel in this painting “as turned toward the past,” but where “we see a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” In his analysis of Klee’s painting, Benjamin makes a commentary on the dangers of a progressive, linear cognition of time, in which the past is kept neatly separated from the present. Rather, Benjamin sees history as a disordered pile, in which past events often mix and merge with the now. Similarly, Sendak debunks a progressive notion of history within Jack and Guy and Brundibar by mixing representations of the Holocaust with images that depict the harmful effects of modern capitalism. By combining these normally disparate ideas, Sendak shows how the modes of thinking that made the Holocaust possible continue today.

In We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak adjoins images of the Holocaust with drawings of 1990s Manhattan. This picture book, whose verbal text is comprised of two enigmatic Mother Goose rhymes, is saturated with large, unsettling illustrations of homeless children living together in a shanty community and having to endure squalid conditions. The story begins with two enormous rats kidnapping a small black boy from the shantytown, and Jack and Guy, two other homeless characters, set out to save him and eventually succeed. Yet throughout Jack and Guy’s mission, the reader is confronted with a strange concoction of images, such as a drawing of a factory-like building with an uncanny resemblance to the Holocaust crematoriums that is adjacent to an image of the ostentatious Trump Tower. In front of the Trump Tower, Sendak draws images of poorly clothed homeless children, thus creating an ironic juxtaposition of rich and poor images. Here, it appears Sendak is making a commentary on the class system and income gap in the United States, but why does he include this image only pages away from what appears to be a crematorium? Obviously, Sendak sees a strong link between American capitalist ideology and the bureaucratic and systematic thinking that was largely responsible for the Holocaust.


Homeless characters standing in front of the Trump Tower from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy


Crematorium from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy


The adjacency of these two images, I surmise, is Sendak’s way of making us very aware of the dangerous, alienating effects of capitalist culture, where we often fail to care for our fellow man. Indeed, we sometimes grow too comfortable with seeing homelessness while walking or driving in a city, but Sendak shows that we cannot and should not have such a casual and complacent mentality when viewing these modern injustices. After all, didn’t the Nazis also grow used to a lifestyle of death and murder? One may find these comparisons extreme or problematic, believing the cruelty and devastation of the Holocaust is not comparable to contemporary inequities. However, Sendak’s picture books seem to follow sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s belief that keeping the Holocaust distant and abstract is a dangerous view, one that does not allow us to see how the Holocaust was a product of modern, scientific, and rational modes of thinking that continue in contemporary society. Bauman claims that an awareness of the Holocaust’s echoes in the present is “of the utmost importance not just for the perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of the crime, but for all those who are alive today and hope to be alive tomorrow.”

Sendak and co-author Tony Kushner also link the Holocaust and modern capitalism in their picture book Brundibar. This picture book, which is set in Czechoslovakia during the German Invasion and has characters with yellow stars sown to their jackets, is about two children, Aninku and Pepicek, who are sent by a doctor to find milk for their ailing mother. With no money, they travel to a nearby city, in hopes that they will find a charitable milkman who will take pity on their cause. Instead, they discover the hurdy-gurdy player Brundibar, the villain of the story, with a striking resemblance to Hitler, who steals money and hates children. Eventually, Aninku and Pepicek defeat Brundibar with the help of animal friends and 300 school children, and are able to save their mother. However, Sendak includes an ominous note from Brundibar on the picture book’s final page, letting the reader know that we have not escaped from his evil doings and “we shall meet again.”

Brundibar was originally performed as a children’s opera in the concentration camp Terezin. At the concentration camp, officials decided a theatrical performance acted by the imprisoned children could be used as propaganda for Red Cross representatives, who were invited to inspect the camp and watch Brundibar. The Red Cross representatives left the camp with good feelings towards the Nazis and the atmosphere at Terezin, but unfortunately and inevitably, almost all of the children were sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

Sendak, who told a New York audience that Brundibar is a “reassuring closure for lifelong cultural and personal traumas inflicted by the Holocaust,” finds resolution in his wishful illustrations of the Terezin children (whom he draws as the 300 school children) successfully defeating Brundibar. I would add, though, that much of the resolution Sendak derives from this picture book comes from Brundibar’s threatening note. His note compels viewers to recognize the Holocaust as an event with a reoccurring potential, rather than making the intellectually comforting assumption that a crime as horrific as the Holocaust could never happen again.

To augment Brundibar’s threatening claim, Sendak includes within this picture book dedicated to Holocaust victims, images that are recognizable within Western, contemporary society. For example, in one illustration, Sendak draws awareness to the alienating effects of capitalism, by drawing a picture of a woman in a fur jacket with money falling from her clutch. This woman looks straight ahead as she walks her dog with a collar made of thousand dollar bills, failing to see, or even ignoring, the homeless boy wearing no shoes in the background of the same image. Similar to We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak draws this illustration adjacent to images that allude to the Holocaust, such as yellow stars sown to jackets. By doing so, Sendak creates a comparison between the bystander apathy that was largely responsible for the death of 6 million Jews and others, and the social separation that we experience many days in our own contemporary, consumerist culture.


Characters with excessive wealth and homeless boy from Brundibar


By creating links between the Holocaust and modern day injustices, Sendak tries to awaken and urge his readers to question the moral fabric of their own society and take responsibility for the well being of others.  Within his plot and illustrations, Sendak shows that collectivity, or social responsibility towards others, is the only way to thwart crimes against humanity. Both We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy and Brundibar conclude as a moral lesson about fellowship, and coming together as a collective in order to impede acts of evil. After saving the little black boy from the menacing rats, Jack and Guy decide to share with him two loaves of bread and their tiny shelter, and “bring him up as other folk do.” In Brundibar, the 300 school children or Terezin victims come to Aninku and Pepicek’s rescue, holding up signs that say “Milk for Mommy! Bullies must be defied!” and “People are happy helping. It’s never hard to find help. It is only hard to know that it’s time to ask.”

These moral tales encapsulate Emmanuel Levinas famous and beautiful quote “since the other looks to me, I am responsible for him.” As we remember Sendak, let’s remember the dark images accompanied by the call for ethical responsibility. A sense of moral accountability towards others will, after all, be the best way to defeat Brundibar if we do meet him again.

Emily is an MA student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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