I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working in the Seeley Historical Library, Cambridge, where the selection of books on offer is resolutely targeted to the needs of undergraduate coursework. So, browsing the shelves in my chosen alcove in search of something to read in a spare five minutes, I found myself faced with a pretty unappetising selection of material – not least because it turned out that I’d chanced into the section of the library dealing with the Holocaust. In the end, the choice boiled down to Rose’s seminal Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (sample chapter title: “The German statists and the Jewish Question, 1781-1812”) or a copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’m not too proud to say that, after practically no soul searching at all, I plumped for Spiegelman.
Maus, for those who don’t know it, is a 300-page comic book which deals with Spiegelman’s father’s struggle to survive World War II – no easy task for a Polish Jew who fell into German hands as early as 2 September 1939. It’s a harrowing story, not least in its second half, which deals principally with the year that Vladek Spiegelman spent in Auschwitz, but though the book’s been out now for more than 20 years, I’d never actually read it before. It was with some surprise, then, that I stumbled across a couple of very interesting accounts of psychic phenomena within its pages.
The first occurs quite early in the book, when, as a result of the German conquest of Poland, Vladek finds himself interned in a forced labour camp during the first autumn of the war. One night he had a dream…
A voice was talking to me. It was, I think, my dead grandfather.
“Don’t worry, my child…”
It was so real, this voice…
“And you will come out of this place – Free! – on the day of Parshas Truma.”
I woke up right away. And when I went to sleep again, it was: ‘Parshas Truma! Parshas Truma!’
Truma, as Spiegelman explains, is the name of a section of the Torah, which is read aloud in synagogues once a year. Vladek asked a rabbi interned in the camp with him for the date on which Truma was due to be recited and was told it was the middle of February, three months hence. Weeks later, after so long that he had lost track of time, a group of German administrators arrived in the camp and the prisoners were released and sent home. While he was waiting for his turn to be interviewed, Spiegelman was accosted by the rabbi:
Someone sneaked next to me…
‘Do you know what day it is?
‘Saturday, of course.’
‘But do you know what Saturday? It’s Parshas Truma!’
At this point Spiegelman, the cartoonist, interjects a passage from his own interview with his father, late in the 1970s.
‘You mean your Parshas Truma dream actually came true?’
‘Yes. This for me is a very important date. I checked later on a calendar. It was this parsha on the week I got married to Anja. And it was the parsha in 1948, after the war, on the week you were born!’
A second instance of remarkably exact precognition occurs at the other end of the book. Vladek was separated from his son, Richieu, in 1943 when the couple sent the boy into hiding, and from his wife Anja when they were taken to Auschwitz. Both parents, astoundingly, survived the war, but both were convinced the other was almost certainly dead. With the fighting over, Anja returned to her home in Poland and, when there was no sign of her husband, she went, in despair, to see a Romany fortune teller, who told her:
‘I see tragedy… death!… You’ve lost your father, your mother, everyone!’
‘Y-yes. Only Lolek, my nephew, came back.’
‘I see a child – a dead child…’
‘Richieu! My little boy Richieu [sob].’
‘Wait! Now I see a man… illness… it’s your husband! He’s been very, very ill… He’s coming… he’s coming home! You’ll get a sign that he’s alive by the time the moon is full. [And] I see a ship… a faraway place… You’ll have a new life and another little boy…’
The next frame depicts Vladek returning home, after four years away, on the night of the full moon. And the remainder of the fortune teller’s prophecy comes true some years later; the Spiegelmans emigrate to Sweden, then America, where their son Artie, the cartoonist, is born.
What are we to make of these remarkable instances of apparent precognition? Well, scholars far more versed in the field than me have had their say already. But, from a Fortean perspective, I suppose that the first point to make is that this is by no means conclusive evidence. For one thing, the stories comes to us at second hand at best – from Vladek Spiegelman via his son, in the first instance, and from Anja to Vladek to Artie in the second – and both were told 30-40 years after they occurred, so there was plenty of time for them to be elaborated and polished. It’s also true, as more than one critic has pointed out, that the two instances of prophecy in the book serve the narrative and have a fictional ring – is it really credible that Spiegelman the cartoonist had never heard the Parshas Truma story before, given the fact that his parents later Bar Mitzvahed him on the auspicious date?
All that said, though, Art Spiegelman did tape and archive most of his conversations with his father, and requested that Maus be stocked with non-fiction titles in bookstores rather than with fiction (Michael Rothberg, ‘”We were talking Jewish”: Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” as “Holocaust” production,’ Contemporary Literature vol.35 no.4 (Winter 1994) pp.661-87). No critic seems ever to have claimed that Vladek’s account was anything other than an honest attempt to tell his story, so there’s no obvious reason to doubt that something of the sort did happen. And if Spiegelman’s account is true, both prophecies were pretty remarkably precise, and just as accurate. That’s something that’s vanishingly rare in the field of parapsychology.
It is of course entirely possible that the whole Parshas Truma incident was nothing but coincidence – some sort of psychological protection mechanism magicked into existence deep in Vladek’s brain, which had a 1:52 chance of being accurately fulfilled. It’s also true that any fortune teller confronted by a distressed Jewish woman late in 1945 would not have been taking an enormous leap to suggest that she had lost members of her family during the war and might want to emigrate. Still, according to Spiegelman, neither parent knew of Richieu’s death till months after Anja’s visit, Vladek had indeed been seriously ill, with typhus, and the Romany woman’s prediction of a second son – and only a son – certainly came true.
What really interests me about both stories is their psychological background. Both occurred at moments when the protagonist was in a desperate position, feeling considerable fear, some yearning, and had a need for comfort and hope. Might we term them instances of “crisis precognition”, in much the same way that parapsychologists have identified the phenomenon of the “crisis apparition” – ‘ghosts’ of the living that appear to materialise at psychologically critical moments, particularly the moment of death? If so, how many similar accounts might be collected to form a casebook? One for somebody applying for a Perrott Warrick fund grant, perhaps.