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Monday, August 26, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began, Chapter 2 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"Time Flies" - Volume 2, Chapter 2
Art Spiegelman

In the 11 chapters that comprise Maus, today's material is the most important. You might see that as a judgment on my part, but I'll stand behind the statement. Art Spiegelman's emotions at the beginning of the chapter, languishing over the proper way to depict the events of his parents' lives while prisoners at Auschwitz, are juxtaposed with the then-present fall-out that had affected his adult relationship with his father. Several vignettes that get to the core of the hell that was the Holocaust drag the reader through a history-driven storm. As I've said in previous reviews, I have read Maus perhaps 50 times (maybe more). This chapter always requires several pauses for reflection and digestion of the material. Holocaust literature can be that way.

Because of the large volume of images included in today's review, I'm going to lead with the complete introduction to the chapter, as I feel it is imperative to one's understanding of not only Art's dilemmas, but to a greater grasping of the magnitude of the Holocaust.

100-Word Review:
Art Spiegelman struggles with the magnitude of presenting his father’s story. Wanting it to be truthful, tasteful, authentic, and accessible, Art is overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and inadequacy. Seeking input from his therapist, a survivor like Vladek, Art tries to wrap his mind around the “Auschwitz experience”. We see that series of events through the eyes of Vladek, as he narrates his own travails as well as those of Anja. Art shows the brutality of kapos and SS guards, and the mania of the last days of the Final Solution. In the end, we’re left shaken at the notion that anyone could survive that.
The Good: The scene(s) I've depicted at the top of the post really strike at the core of what this amazing book is about. From Art's grappling with Vladek's experiences to feeling incapable of depicting them with integrity, and then on to his feelings about his own life and relationship to his father and also to his father's memories... Those first six pages hold my attention every time I read this. Specifically, I think I've personally taken the most value from the therapist's demonstration atop the sixth page. If we search our own memories, we've all had those moments of abject fear, usually coupled with an intense surprise. I liken it to those days of youth when a sibling or playmate would lie in wait, often in the dark, waiting to pounce from the shadows with a hearty yell. That feeling of the hot rush through the chest, the rapid increase in breathing rate, and a belief that one could actually see one's heart about to pound through the rib cage... "It felt a little like that, but always." Man... my mind cannot grasp having that feeling of frightful distress, every moment of every day. And I thank God I can't grasp that.

A second important element of this chapter is Art's meticulous depiction of the physical layout and other aspects of both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Throughout the book, I've treasured Art's care in showing readers the hiding spaces and other important settings to the Holocaust experience. I'll break from the chronological display of art to feature samples of this narrative.

If you search "Auschwitz" using Google Maps, you can get an aerial view of the Polish city of Osweicim. You'll find Art's map to be very accurate. You'll also find that today, there is a subdivision of private homes across the street from Birkenau. When I was in Poland in October 2008, I was struck during our times in Osweicim that going past those camps was someone's daily commute. I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around that. You should know, too, that of the five gas chambers/crematoriums at Auschwitz, only the one at Auschwitz I still stands; the four at Birkenau were destroyed near the end of the war. One was blown up in a sabotage by the prisoners who worked in Crematorium IV; the other three were destroyed by the Nazis as the Soviets advanced on the camp.

An almost throwaway question and answer in this chapter really resonated with me when I was at Auschwitz I. Art asks Vladek about the orchestra that played daily as prisoners were marched in and out of the camp on their way to/from labor. Vladek remarked that he remembered no such thing - why would there have been an orchestra? Art countered that it was well-documented... And when I was there, signage exists at the very point where prisoners would have passed beneath the famous gate.

The issue of hunger was dealt with throughout the chapter. Dying slowly, sacrificing rations to save for later or to trade for other necessities - yes, a black market existed even in Auschwitz. These scenes tear at the heart; of particular note is Vladek's description of the contents of the soup and of the bread.

Vladek's care for Anja was another series of events that ran through this part of the story. Of importance was the benevolence of Mancie, a fellow prisoner but who had a bit of authority and could move about more freely. That she assisted Vladek in making contact with Anja, and then further continued to help them exchange notes - at great risk of not only their lives but certainly her own - showed that even under the worst circumstances some would strive to maintain the humanity of others. Notice in the sample below right that to be suspect of fraternization meant certain punishment - even death without question. Dead prisoners could always be rationalized by guards or kapos, especially as there would be little effect on labor requirements. After all, there was an almost-endless supply. Note, too, the final panel on that page, and scroll back to the photographs from the orchestra conversation - see how Art homaged the signage at Auschwitz I? In MetaMaus, there is a CD-ROM included and on that disc one can find the home movies Art and Francois shot while on a research trip to Auschwitz in the early 1990s. It's a great add-on to that book, and to the great Maus experience for the reader.


The Bad: In regard to the quality of the storytelling, nothing was bad. But I wanted to focus here on the randomness of the Holocaust. It's been said many times - it wasn't always "the best" who survived, nor was it "the worst" who died. It was completely random. And although Vladek was incredibly resourceful and able to make himself useful (see Art's discussion of this above, in the first series of page samples), his life still hung on the whims of the kapos and the SS. The vignette of Vladek becoming a cobbler bears this out, as he thinks he has saved his life to see another day. Yet, when the SS officer wants his boot repaired there is no margin for error. And that Vladek was rewarded, and complimented, flies in the face of everything we might have expected to happen. Now I'm back to the therapist's description of Auschwitz: "It felt a little like that, but always."

The Ugly: Lastly, I need to mention the terror of the camps. That feeling of impending death, not coming at some point, but imminently. It could be due to a mistake or to falling short of expectations, it could come at the flaring up of a kapo's anger, or a guard's sadism. But knowing - with all your mind and heart - that death was literally a second away, had to destroy one's confidence and faith. 

I don't know about you, but I'm spent after this. Chapter 2 always hits me that way, as I said near the top. Next month we'll begin to move toward the end of the war. That will bring it's own new troubles as we'll see. Indeed, the next chapter is titled, "And here my troubles began".


  1. Yes, you've done it again, Doug. With your powers of description and obvious devotion to the subject, it's easy to visualize you in your classroom setting, prodding the minds of the next generation.

    You're correct, this section of the book is loaded. It still strikes me as amazing,how Spiegelman was so concerned about his ability (or lack of) to properly tell this tale. He needn't have worried, the depth of his personal devotion to , and concern for, accuracy is apparent. As is his integrity (he shows it all, fine points and flaws). In this current world, the humility he displays in questioning his capacity to convey such a mammoth topic is starkly refreshing. Our world today seems overloaded with public figures who are totally convinced of their own infallibility, certain that only THEY can do it, only THEY have the answer. Not naming names, of course...

    But it just contrasts so shockingly with the daily heroism of simple survival that Maus describes, and with the self doubt of a talented, deeply introspective writer artist. Sorry, don't mean to totter on the edge of socio-political curmudgeonry, but this book both hurts too much and inspires too much not to reflect on how we compare today...

    1. I have nothing to add to your comments. Well said, my friend. I appreciate the time you've invested in this series of posts.



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