In the Shadow of the Holocaust, Murray Sendak Shows Us Ourselves

As someone who grew up reading Little Golden Books in which mommies and daddies take care of their obedient children, I love how Maurice Sendak’s stories, by contrast, dive right into the fray of real life—warts and all.  As a librarian, I also appreciate what a pioneer Sendak was and how his stories and illustrations broke barriers in children’s literature.  I love the edgy realness of his characters—and especially relate to bratty Pierre of I-don’t-care fame who reminds me of my young self answering my own mother.  Sendak’s kids are not gift wrapped with pretty paper or shiny bows.  Like him, they’re real and gritty and honest.

Sendak was not a mainstream guy; he ignored conventional rules.  Lower class, Jewish and gay, he only wanted to be straight, so his parents could be happy, he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.”  Add in his sickly growing-up years, the Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, in which many of his family’s relatives perished, as well as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 and is it any wonder that little Murray Sendak was anything but fearful and insecure in his Bensonhurst apartment?  Is it any wonder that these fears and insecurities are reflected heavily in his works?

In 1969, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who never actually read Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, chastised him in a Ladies’ Home Journal advice column for punishing Max, criticism that haunted Sendak for years. A 2005 exhibit at the Jewish Museum exhibited 140 pieces of Sendak’s work, and explained how strongly the Holocaust influenced his drawings.  Quoted in a 2011 essay, Sendak said, “I developed characters who were like me as a child, like the children I knew growing up in Brooklyn—we were wild creatures. So to me, Max is a normal child, a little beast, just as we are all little beasts. But he upset a lot of people at the time.”

With Sendak leading the charge, children’s literature certainly has come a long way since the Golden Book era.  A Jew who rejected Judaism, Sendak leaves us with a deep legacy of how the Holocaust surely shaped him, and continues to resonate in us.  I agree with Margalit Fox, who notes in her obituary of Sendak his enthusiasm for “the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them.”

Deborah Rood Goldman is a member and the librarian of the Garden City Jewish Center in Garden City, NY. She also is the URJ librarian and a member of the Marketing and Communications team.

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Deborah Rood Goldman

About Deborah Rood Goldman

Deborah Rood Goldman is a member of the Garden City Jewish Center in Garden City, N.Y. She also is the URJ librarian and a member of the Marketing and Communications team.

17 Responses to “In the Shadow of the Holocaust, Murray Sendak Shows Us Ourselves”

  1. avatar

    I remember reading Where The Wild Things Are, with my younger sister, author of this blog. Sendak’s books truly stood out from the other books we read, and were indeed remarkable and captivating. I appreciate learning more about Sendak, and thank him for sharing himself with us in his work. May he rest in peace!

    • avatar

      What a great conversation. I spent the morning of the day Maurice Sendak died getting to know him through radio interviews he’d done with Terri Gross on Fresh Air at various points in his life, from vigorous middle age through more melancholy elder years. I became convinced I would’ve liked him very much, for his soulfulness and honesty, plus his wicked wit. I was fascinated and saddened to learn how his childhood, which was blotted by the deaths of his parents’ relations in the Holocaust, his mother’s depression and his own illnesses, formed the stuff of his imagination and found expression in his books. These enchanting and irreverent books are his legacy. Though he rejected religious belief, he said he liked the rituals of Shabbat and Yahrzeit candles, so I lit a candle for him that day.

      Thanks, Debby, for the excellent reflection on his life. I also really enjoyed the video clip David R-O posted. I found a delightful animation of The Night Kitchen which others might enjoy.

  2. avatar

    With my husband’s first edition copy, which has been read more times than can be imagined, I read Where The Wild Things Are once again to my son, now a teenager. He helped us make sense of so many things, on so many levels. Max’s will, confidence and love of food(!)are present in all of us, at different times, under different circumstances! Thanks, Debby, for such a lovely tribute to such an important man!

  3. avatar

    It’s often disappointing when the reality behind your childhood memories ruins them forever–when kids find out that Santa isn’t real, or that Peewee Herman is not really as innocent as he appeared in his movies. But I grew up on some of Maurice Sendak’s books, and reading this post revealed to me the vulnerable and relatable face of the author behind the wild things and bratty little Max. Sendak was an insecure Jewish kid using his creativity to make sense of the world. Knowing a bit more about his history just makes me want to go back and reread all his stories again. Thank you!

  4. avatar

    Dear Ms. Goldman: Thank you for your interesting summary and comments regarding Maurice Sendak. It certainly revives childhood memories. Keep up the good work.

  5. avatar

    This article is a great description. Here is a video of an interview in which Mr. Sendak is sentimental about his own life:

    I like the part in the beginning where he says that he feels lucky to have known his family.

  6. avatar

    Maurice Sendak had it right. He knew that children understand far more than they are given credit for, and that they want to be clearly seen. I’ve been teaching young children for over 15 years and have only begun to understand the power of stopping to really listen to their perceptions and wisdom. By reflecting back to us what he knew about himself as a child, Sendak gave us truth. The children in my class just today commented that they love Maurice Sendak for his imagination and illustrations…and the monsters.

  7. avatar

    A really fascinating perspective on the influences which helped to shape the outlook and works of a pivotal figure in the development of modern literature for children.

  8. avatar

    My first favorite book, and perhaps that which whetted my voracious appetite for reading, was Where the Wild Things Are. It gives me so much joy to now read it to my children.

    Long live Maurice.

  9. avatar

    I read “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen” to my Kindergarten classes every year and then we’d dress up and act out the stories. What rich material for self expression!

  10. avatar

    The world is a better place when such authors as C.S. Lewis, R.L. Stine and certainly, Maurice Sendak, have been a part of it. I cannot imagine my childhood without reading these masters’ works and I have always recommended them to children and young people. Maurice Sendak told the truth; he never pulled his punches and did not suffer fools gladly. As long as there are libraries and wonderful digital technology, Sendak will be read all over the world. Kudos, Debby, for a vivid obit.

  11. avatar

    I remember when i was a young man reading Mr.Sendak’s books too my son and how we would so enjoy them. He was a great and talented author and he will be surely be missed.

  12. avatar

    I just watched the Colbert interview with him from a few months ago. My sister Irene went to her extensive children’s library in her upstairs, found every book by Sendak, brought them to her school and had a read-a thon with her 5th graders…at the end, they all said, Rest in Peace.

  13. avatar

    Although “Where The Wild Things Are” was the only one of Sendak’s books that I read as a child, I have vivid memories of Max’s journey through this monster-filled alternative universe. Before reading this blog, I never made the connection between Max’s adventure and Sendak’s past, yet even as a child I recognized the dark nature of Max’s created world. This was both a place of escape and a symbol of why Max, or rather Sendak, needed to escape in the first place.
    This blog has really helped me to remember a piece of my childhood, as well as to change my thinking about a story I took to be a nightmare rather than a metaphor of a deeper, more complicated past. Keep up the great work!

  14. avatar

    Your post captures the essence of Sendak’s creative impulse. He was a complex man, and his books reflect that complexity. We have had the pleasure of visiting the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, which houses over 10,000 Sendak objects, including original drawings, preliminary sketches, manuscript materials, photographs, proofs, and rare prints of Sendak books. It gives a fascinating glimpse of the creative process behind the scenes of Sendak’s wonderful books.

  15. avatar

    I was so happy to see that URJ has the RJ Blog. I searched and easily found an article about Maurice Sendak by URJ librarian, Debby Rood-Goldman. The perspective was so enjoyable to read! I’ve come to know the work of Maurice Sendak as an educator in today’s world of educators’ expertise in early development and best practice guidelines. It is wonderful to realize the universal understanding that Sendak had of childhood experiences through his own self-reflection. His expressions of children’s experiences are poetic as well, and enable their stories to be realized empathically.

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