Iconic Jewish Author Maurice Sendak: 1928-2012
Maurice Sendak, the famed author of Where the Wild Things Are, died early Tuesday morning in Ridgefield, New Jersey, but not before he became king of the world.
In a 2004 interview, PBS host Bill Moyers said to Sendak, “When a man tames his own demons, he becomes king of himself, if not the world.”
And although he was describing the moment when Wild Things character Max tamed the threat of the monsters in his dream, Moyer’s words accurately depict the childhood and life of Maurice Sendak.
Born in 1928 Brooklyn to Polish Jewish immigrants, Sendak was aware of his mortality from an early age. Speaking with Moyers, Sendak told of his sick and unhappy childhood, and admits he “wasn’t meant to live long.”
But Sendak did live, the scars of the Holocaust marring his early childhood.
Remembering his parents’ tears as they would receive stories of the atrocities in Europe, Sendak says, “My childhood was about thinking about the kids over [in Europe],” adding that his parents “didn’t filter the stories they told him.”
In fact, his best-selling ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1964, was inspired by the “not so pretty” stories his father told him of his own life as a boy in a small Jewish Shtetl in Poland.
The book, which follows Max, a child who is sent to bed without supper because he was misbehaving, on a frightening journey through his imagination to ‘where the wild things are’, deals with the real life issues that Sendak was forced to contend with at an early age.
Sendak, who’s sister Natalie and late brother Jack were the last of his father’s family to survive the Holocaust, therefore refused to “sugarcoat” his work to appease the innocence and fantasies of childhood, declaring, “I want kids to know what the world is like, they are going to have to live in it.”
And this mantra was also Sendak’s demon, as the Holocuast theme has influenced many of his great works. In Brundibar, for example, a distinct Star of David is on the lapel of one character’s coat, a reference to the yellow “Jude” symbol Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust, while the book’s bully wears an Adolf Hitler-style mustache.
In the PBS interview, Sendak, author of over 100 children’s titles, including “In the Night Kitchen” and “Outside Over There,” seems to have conquered his childhood demons, laughing as he openly discusses his life and career.