I have become obsessed with a Mickey Mouse look-alike! Didn’t think I’d ever write that sentence and certainly not in the context of my project, but there it is. You may remember the images of toys at the end of last week’s post, screen-grabbed from Billy Wilder‘s The Death Mills, and the point beyond which I couldn’t/didn’t watch. The creature in the lower right-hand corner of photo no.1, a distant cousin of Mickey Mouse/Micky Maus, called me back and back again, with its singular&startling liveliness amongst the piles of pillaged toys, its direct address, those open arms. This little figure stands where everything is strewn about, and I wonder if the camera-man placed it just so, straining towards something that for the tiniest moment lifts him/us from this place of terror, suffering and death.
The dolls, dull with their inert stances and dead stares, are too close to the shock, the knowledge, of sick and dying, no, murdered, children. In one photo a weave of curly hair streams into the image – for an instant you might take it for a dead girl’s. In this context my focus on the almost-Mickey Mouse accords a barely out-breath-sized stay, feeding a fleeting phantasy of escape, of survival – as if it might yet leap out and get away from these horrors, its owner in tow.
These are the facts: ‘The Germans and their collaborators killed as many as 1.5 million children, including over a million Jewish children and tens of thousands of Romani (Gypsy) children, German children with physical and mental disabilities living in institutions, Polish children, and children residing in the occupied Soviet Union. The chances for survival for Jewish and some non-Jewish adolescents (13-18 years old) were greater, as they could be deployed at forced labor.’
Do I know this? Is this knowable?
I suddenly had an urgent desire to own such a toy, from that time. Had no idea that vintage Micky Mice are highly priced collectables, that almost as soon as the first films were out in the US and enthusiastically received (during the Great Depression) the Walt Disney-industry started producing a huge and ever expanding range of merchandise. Mickey Mouse was quickly sanitised for this, away from the original raucous figure to one representing to-be-aspired-for morals and family values*. Licensed and unlicensed, said merchandise conquered markets in Europe in the 1930s, and after the war around the world.
Micky Mouse and Donald Duck were even given bit-parts in the US-war effort: Mickey featured in war-propaganda, on posters warning of spies and selling war-bonds, and, ominously, gas-masks for children were manufactured in its image. Donald Duck was the protagonist in ‘The Fuehrer’s Face’ (1943), a Walt Disney-production which won an Oscar.
Hitler too was initially a fan (1937 Goebbels gave him several reels for his home-cinema as a Xmas-present) but when the US entered the war Micky Mouse-films were banned in Germany. That didn’t stop some Luftwaffe-crews from painting their chosen mascot on bomber-planes, as did their American counterparts. In 1934 a Japanese animation was made: ‘Evil Mickey Attacks Japan’.
The little figure which sent me off on a wild mouse-chase (displacement activity) is likely to belong to the motley lot multiplied through unlicensed merchandise. Its earless difference makes it more touching for me, but… still… why this urge, this yearning, to have one? I don’t like this one bit – it’s wrong in this context. I like this very much – it gives me a loophole, through which to scurry out and away, for a while.
Susan Stewart writes in her book ‘On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection’: ‘Nostalgia is a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience. … Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack.’ (p. 23)
I untangle strands of wishful thinking. I long for something tangible from my father’s childhood (‘before’). As you know I’ve declared the little sailor-suit a heirloom stand-in (see posts 1 April, 28 May, 4 July 2014), but no matter how sweet, how precious, it merely modulates military bustle. I guess Micki Maus could weave itself from my dad’s childhood into mine, although I have no idea if he actually ever saw a Walt Disney-film as a boy. Serialised comic strips appeared in German newspapers – maybe he saw one in his father’s daily? Wanting/owning a toy from those beleaguered times is an immediately curtailed and yet persistent attempt at fantasising ordinary lives against all I know.
Art Spiegelman starts the second volume of his brilliant graphic novel ‘Maus’ with this quote from a German newspaper article (1930): “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed… Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal… Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!“, which did not at all stop Mickey Mouse’s steady rise in popularity.
Nuremberg was Germany’s toy capital as well as the location for huge Nazi-rallies, as featured in Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will (see posts 21 May, 14 July, 1 Sept 2014) where masses of boys from the Hitler Youth stand to attention and salute their leader. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were passed during the party congress, defining citizenship along racial and blood lines and thus setting in motion and institutionalising the process of excluding German Jews from civic life. 1938 Jewish children were prohibited from attending German schools.
Each of the toys in the photographs leads back to a (nameless) child, transported to the camp with his/her family, clutching a favourite maybe, or one chosen because it could easily be carried. It’s likely that the owner of this little Mickey Mouse-look alike was dead when the camp was liberated, or, maybe, just maybe, he/she survived against all odds, severely traumatised, holding inside unspeakable, unthinkable, yet real experiences.
My entry-points into history are the size of a pin-prick and my pursuits are selfish.
I want to carve my father and mother (born in the year Hitler came to power) from the heaving, screaming masses which are so much on my mind nowadays, want to excise their charged childhoods, which counted as ordinary while those who were defined as other – Jewish people, Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled, were persecuted to the point of extermination.
The little mouse-figure, this inanimate object seemingly brimming with life, aids escape from that upside-down world where rights are wronged, and the baddies always win, and plunges me right in its middle.
In the end I bought a wooden Mouse, from the 30s, which should be on its way to me. Not the real thing, but a sweet wee stand-in, with the aspect of a child who wants to be picked up by an adult, and held.
* It appears that in the US Micky Mouse was perceived as white (by its creators and the white population?) as I’ve come across something called The Uncensored Mouse (1989) – reprints (unauthorised and disputed by Walt Disney) of uncensored MM comic strips from the 30s which are full of racial stereotypes against African-Americans