“I Thought we Were in the Middle of Armageddon”

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman personally witnessed the September 11 attacks in New York. In an interview with DW-WORLD he talked about fear, racism in America and his Jewish identity.

Art Spiegelman is best known as the author and illustrator of Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II, a holocaust saga in which Jewish mice are exterminated by Nazi cats. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the Maus series.

In recent years, Spiegelman has also illustrated several covers for the New Yorker magazine. He is also co-founder and editor of RAW, the acclaimed avant-garde comics magazine.

Beginning today, Spiegelman will also exclusively publish a comic series on September 11 called In the Shadow of No Towers (photos) in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit for a full year.

September 11, Art Spiegelman

In an exclusive interview with DW-WORLD in Berlin, Art Spiegelman reflected on the Sept. 11 attacks and his Jewish identity.

Mr. Spiegelman, where were you on the morning of September 11th?

It was a morning on which my wife and I had just gone out of our lower Manhattan loft to go vote, it was a primary (election) day. We live 12, maybe 15 blocks from the world trade center. As we were walking north, we heard a plane roar overhead and then we heard this crashing sound. We turned around just after the plane went into the building. At that point we both began to worry about our daughter because she had just started to go to a school right below the towers. I went upstairs to call the school. While I was trying to get through, I turned on the TV to find out what happened. All of a sudden we heard this other crash on the TV screen and we saw the second tower. At that time my wife went bizarre and shouted: "Just go to the school right away!'.

When people began to run out of the neighborhood, we were beginning to run in. While I was in the school lobby I couldn't see what was going outside. Listening to the Spanish radio, I heard the word 'pentagon'. At that point I had no point of reference anymore. It just seemed somehow we were in the middle of Armageddon. At some point the building shook. I thought: we are gonna die in this building. That was the moment when the first tower fell, as I found out later. I found my daughter and only five minutes later we were back on the street when we heard a sound like a waterfall roaring "sssh" it was the tower - all that was left were the glowing bones of the building, there was no building anymore.

My wife Francoise, Nadja and I turned back into the corner of our street and it made me realize for the first time in my life how much I really like my street. I think I now understand why the Jews didn' t leave Berlin after Kristallnacht.

What connection is there between the Third Reich, Reichskristallnacht, and the 11th of September?

I grew up with parents who both survived Auschwitz. I lived my comfortable American life and yet grew up with this implicit understanding that you are walking on eggshells. I was clearly in the middle of something that was the ugly skull, the grinning face of history knocking on our front door in our neighborhood. My connection to the Kristallnacht moment had to do with 'why on earth, when it became clear that this was not a safe place to be if you are a Jew, why didn't everybody just pack up and go?' But it was the world they knew and that's how I felt about myself and New York.

September 11, Art Spiegelman

Afterwards (after the September 11 attacks), in my head it was still Sept 11th 8:45. a.m. It wasn't even reasonably going away at that point. Not only didn't I leave the city, I barely left my lower Manhattan neighborhood. I wanted to be as close to the house as possible. When I go uptown I feel confused because people didn't experience it the same way. I thought how callous these people are. There are away in some other universe where everything is just normal to them. There is a different way of perceiving, an insane aristocracy of suffering. I guess that every block from the epicenter brought a different perspective.

One year later, do you feel that there is a new wave of racism in the United States?

Actually, I am impressed by how much little violent hate crime has been directed against Arabs after the first few weeks. What is true is that there are forces in the American government that are using the events of September 11 to justify an agenda that seem to include the curtailing of civil liberties. I think personally we've lived through a peaceful coup d' etat. Everything which has happened since has been an implementation of a government I found myself unhappy with. I have no interest in going to war with Sadam Hussein personally.

September 11, Art Spiegelman

Why is your comic on the 11th of September not published in an American newspaper?

I am too European for Americans. My vantage point is not a mainstream American one. I created a German-Jewish access of publishing. My news is disaster. The news that gets me to work is not to draw beautiful women, wine and palm trees. What makes me focus my attention I suppose is the Memento Mori - that thing that reminds you are dying rather sooner than later.

I realized 'Spiegelman, you've been working on essays and a play but comics only got occasional attention from you. You are gonna to die and you spent the last years without doing comics at all.' "