July 16, 2012
Dr. Seuss and the Holocaust in France
Seventy years ago this week, 15-year-old Annie Kriegel was sitting in her Paris high school classroom, taking an exam, when her mother suddenly burst into the room and warned her not to come home—the Nazis were preparing to round up and deport any Jews they could get their hands on.
More than 3,000 miles away, the cartoonist known as Dr. Seuss was setting pen to paper to alert America about what was happening to the Jews in France.
Annie found a place to stay that night. The next morning, as she later recalled, she was making her way towards the city’s Jewish quarter when, “at the crossing of the rue de Turenne and the rue de Bretagne, I heard screams rising to the heavens.” They were “not cries and squawks such as you hear in noisy and excited crowds, but screams like you used to hear in hospital delivery rooms. All the human pain that both life and death provide. A garage there was serving as a local assembly point, and they were separating the men and women.”
Stunned, the teenager sat down on a nearby park bench. “It was on that bench that I left my childhood.” (Kriegel’s experience is recounted in Susan Zucotti’s 1993 book, The Holocaust, the French and the Jews.)
Over the course of the next two days, more than 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris by the Germans, with the active collaboration of the Vichy French government headed by Nazi supporter Pierre Laval. The majority of those arrested were couples with children. They were held for five excruciating days in the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium, in the summer heat without food or water. Eyewitnesses described it as “a scene from hell.” Then they were deported by train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
The brutal details of the roundup process were amply reported in the American press. The New York Times described the “scenes of terror and despair” in the streets of Paris, including suicides, Jewish patients dragged violently from hospital beds, and children violently separated from their parents. Unfortunately, the article was relegated to page 16.
Theodor Geisel, who drew editorial cartoons for PM under the pen name “Dr. Seuss,” was outraged by the news from France and decided to use his cartooning skills to help publicize the plight of the Jews.
The future creator of such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham employed stark and disturbing imagery in his July 20 cartoon. He drew a forest filled with corpses hanging from the trees, with a sign reading “Jew” pinned to each body. Adolf Hitler, with extra rope draped on his arm, and Vichy leader Pierre Laval were shown singing happily.
The first words of the Hitler-Laval song, “Only God can make a tree,” were taken from “Trees,” a famous Alfred Joyce Kilmer poem about the unique and eternal beauty of trees. The killers’ second line, however, “To furnish sport for you and me,” was a lyric concocted by Hitler and Laval to celebrate their “sport” of mass murder.
In one important respect, Seuss’s cartoon was prescient: unlike many of his contemporaries, he correctly perceived that France’s Jews were doomed to be killed. At the time of the roundups, the Germans claimed the Jews were being sent for “work in the East,” and the deportees’ true destination was generally unknown abroad.
One senior U.S. diplomat in France, S. Pinkney Tuck, urged the Roosevelt administration to take in 4,000 Jewish children who had been separated from their parents, on the grounds that they should be regarded as orphans since the Nazis would not let their parents survive. But State Department officials complained that Tuck was exceeding his authority, and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles assured American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise that the deportees were just being relocated for “war work.”
Dr. Seuss drew many anti-Nazi cartoons during his years at PM, but for reasons that are unclear, he never returned to the subject of Hitler’s Jewish victims.
The dangers of fascism seem to have haunted Seuss for many years to follow, however. Reworking a scene of a tower of turtles from one of his 1942 cartoons, he used the framework of what was ostensibly a child’s fable to inveigh against totalitarianism in his 1958 best-seller, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. Yertle is the king of a turtle pond who exploits his fellow-turtles in order to increase his power and personal glory. Furious when he realizes the moon is higher than he is, Yertle commands his subjects to form themselves into a tower so that he can stand on them and reach the sky.
Seuss said later that Yertle was meant to symbolize Hitler, and the story was a warning against fascism.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with comics historian Craig Yoe, of the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”