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Monday, October 28, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began, Chapter 4 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"Saved" - Volume 2, Chapter 4
Art Spiegelman

Is it possible for a story featuring the Holocaust and a modern dysfunctional family to have a happy ending? We're close to finding out, as one month from now we'll witness the conclusion of Art Spiegelman's masterpiece in biography/autobiography. But until then, today we'll be party to the winding down of Vladek Spiegelman's trials in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Soviets had drawn near in the east, and the Americans and Canadians were pushing from the west. The war was nearly over... but would that stop the Jew-killing?

100-Word Review:
World War II spiraled toward its conclusion in the spring of 1944. Vladek and his fellow prisoners had been forced to go on a death march as the Soviets had approached Auschwitz. Arriving at Dachau, just outside Munich, Vladek’s odyssey was far from over. Moved to the Swiss border, then making his way across the German countryside, Vladek evaded murder at the hands of the Wehrmacht on more than one occasion. Assisted by the Red Cross, taking advantage of abandoned German provisions, and finally meeting the Americans, Vladek’s return to life could commence. But what of Anja…?

As is typical of the beginning of each chapter throughout both volumes of Maus, the story picks up with a scene between Art and Vladek. As we begin, the discussion is about money, and loneliness... so let's jump right in with

The Good: By now I've made it abundantly clear that I feel the "here and now" scenes are as important to the power of Maus as are the war-era history. Art the storyteller often uses dialogue with his father to frame what is to come. Here we see Vladek bemoaning money, his health, and the fact that Mala had left him. He's pretty down in the dumps, and perhaps that is made worse by Art's lack of patience with him. Art snaps at the suggestion that he and his wife, Francois, could move in with Vladek. He bristles again at the request to help Vladek hang his storm windows. Art insists that Vladek has enough money to pay someone to a) stay with him for healthcare, and b) do handyman jobs around the house. But Vladek is having none of it, having been conditioned during the war to conserve every resource. It's made him somewhat of a pathetic victim of his own history, but that's where I find these elements of Maus to be so powerful -- we're not only privy to the circumstances in the past, but to the bitter fruit born of those years.

Vladek answers Art's question about his mother's whereabouts when Vladek was in Dachau. Vladek makes the point that Anja and other women had been marched from Auschwitz at a different time than the men Vladek was with. Herein lies the core of the Nazi camp system - not only was it sprawling, but it was well-organized. There were female SS, and those women (perhaps along with male guards, too) would have supervised the evacuation. What's more, there would have been stops along the way for processing. It's likely that the women might have taken a path to camps where there were female SS on those premises to assist. Hence, the men would not have known exactly where the women had been taken, and also not necessarily their future destinations.

It's well worth noting on the page samples above a couple of things: First, as the prisoners figured out that the war was over, it did not equate to safety. As you see, within a short while Vladek and his mates found themselves facing the business end of a Wehrmacht patrol. But the war was over, you say - what is this? It does give one pause, and raises some questions: Were the Germans so infected with antisemitism that even at the end - no, past the end - they would still seek the conclusion of the Final Solution? And what else could possibly be a benefit for those soldiers? Germany had no assets, the government was going to capitulate, the economy was in shambles for the second time in a little over 20 years... where would be any sort of reward? Second, the villager - following no orders - attempts to turn in Vladek and his mates. What were his internal motivations, because one would have to assume that any external pressures had desisted by this juncture.

Vladek's reaction to "real food" is an important tale as well. When you consider how meager his sustenance had been over the past several months, his body was in no way conditioned to digest anything thick like milk, or with any grease such as chicken. So that they got sick is a story you can find often, the more survivor testimonies you encounter.

I enjoyed the interactions between the American GIs and the survivors. I crack up every time the soldier thanks "Willie" for the shoeshine...

The Bad: The scene above, with the photographs, gets to me every time. And the Spiegelmans had photos. So many survivors lost not only the lives of loved ones, but these keepsakes of memory as well. I feel badly each time as Vladek narrates the stories of all of Anja's relatives, but then tells that almost his entire family was lost. The page below, where Vladek's body is basically a splash page broken by the sad stories he tells Art, is powerful.

The Ugly: I'll mention here that films like Schindler's List, and other resources, often give the viewer the impression that once the war was over, it was end-of-story for the survivors of Hitler's persecution. This couldn't be further from the truth, as many survivors spent years in Displaced Persons camps, or wandering Europe searching for loved ones. The last of the DP camps did not close until 1960! And emigration...? To where? Most nations did not relax their immigration quotes. Keep in mind, too, that Israel is not sovereign until after the events of 1947-48. Perhaps this is why there's one more chapter in this book. See you in four weeks.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another well stated, well considered review, Doug. As the story nears its conclusion, we see that Vladek's challenges continued. As you noted, this book portrays effectively how the effects of the Holocaust continued on long after the war.


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