Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"...And Here My Troubes Began." - Volume 2, Chapter 3
Many folks who casually encounter the history of the Holocaust might make an assumption that as the war wound down mid-1945, the worst was over. They'd be wrong. Another assumption people make is that after May '45 there was a happy ending for all involved. Again - they'd be wrong. In today's review, we'll see what happened to Vladek Spiegelman in the winter of 1944-45, and how his son Art juxtaposes those circumstances with Vladek's behavior in the "present". To my point, you'll notice the title of this chapter, above. Maus contains 11 chapters... and Vladek says his troubles began when he was 80% of the way through the story?
Art and Francois are staying with Vladek in the Catskills after Mala had left him. Vladek was under the impression that they’d stay for the duration of the summer; Art had other ideas. In another stroke of brilliance, Art uses present-day slice-of-life situations to augment the wartime incidents that shaped Vladek’s life. In the winter of 1944-45, the Germans were retreating back to the Reich as the Soviets closed in the east. Forcing prisoners on death marches so that they might later serve as labor, Vladek was part of an odyssey from camp-to-camp, on foot and on trains. His endurance would be pushed to the limit.
The Good: As mentioned previously, I've worked with colleagues who don't find Maus to be an effective tool for teaching the Holocaust. They don't care for the vignettes that take place in the present, feeling those episodes detract from the history. I'll stand by my position that it's those "modern day" scenes that strengthen the narrative. Art Spiegelman, through showing his own reactions to his father, teaches us how he feels as the child of a Holocaust survivor. Through Vladek's eyes and actions, we get a feel for the impact those events in the Nazi era have had on him ever since. So when our story opens with - basically a trip to the grocery store - we see Vladek's need for comfort, his frugality, his impatience, his self-reliance, and the worldview that is particular to him. Art is sometimes a guest in that world, often an intruder, but frequently a victim of it in his own right. This is a complex narrative, and one I want my students to have to deal with. For me, the way in which this multi-layered story is presented may go beyond other survivor stories. That's in no way meant to denigrate others; rather, I'm stating my affinity for this book.
I think the point of Vladek's declaration that his troubles were just beginning gets at the greater issue of control. In every prior period on which Art questioned his father, Vladek was always able to relate some manner in which he was able to alter his circumstances. It might have been financial, through bribery. It might have been fortuitous, by meeting someone with whom he could get supplies, information, or a place to hide. It might have been adaptive, where Vladek was able to quickly draw on prior knowledge or even learn a new skill. But here - now things were changing rapidly, with no anchors. The surroundings were different, the guards and other prisoners were different, and there was no work to do. So that anyone could hope to create a situation where they might save themselves seemed unlikely. And then... Vladek got sick with typhus.
The Ugly: Two ideas stand out to me here. To the end, the complete mistrust, the deceit, that the Germans leveled against their prisoners. In the scenes where the Jews attempt to bargain with the guard to allow them to run off into the forest during the death march, that the Germans take the bribe and then shoot them anyway speaks to the complete breakdown of human relations, of any sense of care at all for their fellows.
Additionally, the scene at the end of the chapter when Francois picks up the Black hitchhiker somewhat forces us into a judgment of Vladek and how he could even foster any racist tendencies. While we may be quick to judge, that in itself is an ugly side of human behavior. We might think, "Wow, I could never..." or "I'm glad I'm not like Vladek here." The danger there is that we put Vladek's experiences in a box of our choosing - we decide how he should act. Additionally, and let's take this further - we give the Germans a victory in that we not only decide how Vladek should act, but we ascribe that desired behavior to a "right" response to what the Germans had put him through. But don't we then show that the Germans not only ruined the life he had, but decided how he should live his life henceforth? Racism is wrong, but so is projecting values onto another person and telling them how they should live or think. I know. It's complicated...