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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 5 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986)
"Mouse Holes" - Volume 1, Chapter 5

Art Spiegelman

We are nearing the climax of volume one of Art Spiegelman's biographical/autobiographical classic. In today's review, we'll see events that will eventually lead to the fate of the Spiegelmans as the Holocaust deepens. But prior to that, through a lot of luck, Vladek's ingenuity, and several opportunistic allies, the Spiegelmans will stave off that which seems inevitable.

100-Word Review: 
Art and his wife, Francoise, are awakened by a call from Art's stepmother, Mala. She is alarmed that Vladek has been on the roof to make a repair. Art puts off helping his dad, but in doing so relates to Francoise some of the animosity he's felt toward his dad. Later, he finds that some of his true feelings of yore have been exposed to Vladek. But as they talk later on a walk to the bank, Vladek relates more of the events that have made him the person he is in the present: resourceful, miserly, mistrusting, and often obsessive-compulsive - consequences of survival, schemes, and deceit.
On straightaway to my thoughts on this chapter...

The Good: This block of 30+ pages seems to me to explore relationships -- Art to Mala, Art to Vladek, Vladek to Mala, Art to Anja, Vladek to Anja, Art to Anja's memory (and Mala and Vladek in this regard, too), Vladek to his family during the war, and so on. From the opening page, we find Art agitated with Vladek seemingly disrespecting Art's and Francoise's schedule/sleeping habits. At the same time, Vladek could be said to disrespect his own shortcomings and also Mala's feelings for his well-being. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, there is always tension when Vladek is "on screen", and this chapter is certainly no exception. I felt that the power in this section was Art's decision to reprint in full a 4-page "underground" comic he'd created in 1972. "The Prisoner on Hell Planet" was autobiographical, detailing Art's memories and reactions to his mother's suicide in 1968 when he was 20-years old. Vladek later found a copy of the story and read it. This created emotional stress between and among Art, Vladek, and Mala, and was a pretty uncomfortable scene.


Another source of weight that appears here are two diagrams that show hiding places that people used to preserve their lives another day. We'd seen this used in the previous chapter, when the Zylberberg grandparents were hidden in an outside bunker. Here Vladek tells about two bunkers - one in a cellar beneath a coal bin and another in a ceiling - with access through a chandelier. From the time I first read this, hot off the bookshelves at the student center on the campus of Illinois State University, I've felt his was incredibly important information. Steven Spielberg also showed viewers of Schindler's List several innovative ways people went into hiding. There can be no value placed on skill and knowledge, opportunity and execution. Some might argue that hiding generally only delayed what many consider certainty. To my understanding, any form of resistance is worthwhile.

Although I'd largely consider it a negative element of this section of the book, the depiction of self-preservation in terms of family bribing family, friends taking payment and then not following through and so on. I think we as readers, living under whatever passes for "normal" in our own day-to-day lives, leap to judgement on the choices and deeds of people in Vladek's sphere of influence. The reality is that we (thankfully) cannot begin to grasp the enormity of the pressures faced by victims of the Holocaust. Our values could not possibly be their values. Might they have been in the years before the German invasion? Highly likely. But by 1943 there was no rule in society that could be counted upon to play out as expected.

It's almost a throwaway vignette, but there is a scene in which Vladek mentions the ghetto residents eating the bad cake - I felt it was important. Treats like desserts are something so many of us take for granted. But Vladek tells that it had been a long time since anyone had had such a thing, so consequently the seller was able to charge a handsome price for each slice. And people paid it. Think about that...

The Bad: As has been my position in prior reviews, I have absolutely no quibble with anything Art Spiegelman has presented. I do, however, find myself impacted by elements of the story. As mentioned above, the various dynamics within Art's family in the "present" are difficult to watch. This is dysfunction night and day. But we can see the whys and wherefores of it all - we are witness to Vladek's life unfolding and the things that were done to him and around him. We watch as decisions he makes, or choices that are forced upon him, groom the man he will go on to be. And Art? Seeing the path upon which Vladek and Anja were forced to walk, it's no wonder that Art felt so much pressure as a child. He wasn't their first, but he had become their only. Art will make a comment to Francoise near the beginning of volume two that gets to me every time I read it. I'll highlight that when we get to it later.

The Ugly: As a parent, it's difficult to watch the scene where the German soldiers murder children, and also the fate of Richieu. From near the beginning of Maus, we know where it's headed. There's a reprieve, if only temporary, earlier in the story when Anja refuses a deal to hide their baby boy. But as the Germans close in and the war goes on, the Spiegelmans decide their only recourse is to give Richieu away. It's heartbreaking as Vladek tells Art his impressions of finding out about his firstborn's demise.

Come back at the end of June for the closing chapter of volume 1 of Maus. If you've not read it, I can attest to the presence of not one, but two climactic scenes. Both are quite powerful.


  1. Good review as usual, Doug, and very on-point comments. Even though it's been a while since I last read it, you reminded me just how harrowing this part of the story is. Yes, the way Spiegelman depicted the various familial relationships here can make for uncomfortable reading.

  2. Yes Doug, another very well done review. I'm really enjoying your discussions of the book, and find your observations well-considered and insightful. As you, and Edo note, many scenes in this book are difficult to read. Yet that very discomfort shows just how effective Spiegelman's efforts are.

    Incidentally, since your last "Maus" review, I've started another rereading of it. Every time, it seems to dwarf anything else I'm reading at the time...


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