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Monday, January 28, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 1 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986)
"The Shiek" - Volume 1, Chapter 1
Art Spiegelman

Were you a buyer of so-called "underground" comics... or comix, if you will? Not me. If you've been with me since Thanksgiving, you're probably thinking "what on earth did you read when you were a kid?" Four-color superhero comics, friends - and that is all. That's the main reason I opened this space: to share what I am experiencing for the first time as a middle-aged adult. But this book today... with it, I have a bit of a history.

I vividly recall walking through the Follett's bookstore in the Bone Student Center on the campus of Illinois State University back in 1986. My fiancee had recently transferred to ISU, and I was attending nearby Eureka College. We were together on a Saturday, strolling around Normal, IL. I'd recently resumed my collecting of comics when I spied a copy of Maus at the bookstore. As a history major, that cover's combination of anthropomorphic animals and a large swastika was a magnet. I picked up the book, thumbed through it quickly, and plunked down the $8.95 (can you imagine that today - less than $10 for a 160-page tpb??). Once back at Eureka, I cracked it open and began to read. And read. And read. The whole book, straight through. It was spellbinding. I'm about to say something that probably doesn't reflect well on the high school I went to, or on Eureka: Maus was my introduction to the Holocaust. And upon the completion of my degree in 1988, Maus was far and away the most pivotal piece of history to which I'd by that time been exposed. Fast forward to the early 1990s, after the second Maus compilation had been published. I'd purchased a copy asap, and had it with me on a weekend with a few of my athletes at the state track meet. The coaches stay in the dorms at Eastern Illinois University, and I was in for the evening. As I had several years earlier, I devoured Maus II in one sitting.

Upon landing my first full-time teaching position in 1990, I was mandated by Illinois state law to teach the Holocaust. I did so dutifully through our various world- and US history textbooks. But a few years into my tenure I persuaded a couple of colleagues to join me in using Maus to expand our Holocaust unit. And expand it we did, eventually adding Spiegelman's second volume to create a 4-week unit of study for our freshmen world history students. The kids really took to this resource, and would often head to the local Barnes & Noble to read ahead in the evenings. To this day, with literally thousands of my students exposed to this book, I've yet to have a teen tell me they didn't love reading this book. It is part biography, part autobiography, psychology, sociology, history - a tour of the social sciences. But most of all it is human. And can't we all relate to that?

In 2001, I began a relationship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that continues to the present. I'd like to think Maus was responsible for my interest in the Holocaust, and even the impetus that encouraged me to go deeper in my study of the subject, eventually honored by being asked to facilitate teacher trainings around the country. Today I'd like to begin a series of short reviews (one for each chapter), exploring this important story.

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the date (1-27-1945) the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz.

100-Word Review:

We open with a slice-of-life scene from 1958, three boys roller skating. When one falls and hurts his ankle, his friends laugh and speed away. Finding his father at home, the little boy remarks what his friends had done – “Friends?” exclaims his father. And we are introduced to Art and Vladek Spiegelman, the cartoonist son who will interview his Holocaust-surviving father for use in a biography of his life and wartime experiences. We will see Vladek’s pre-War days, and his engagement to Art’s mother, Anja. Through these years, we’ll also get a sense of Vladek’s resourcefulness, and his tenacious personality.

The Good: I love Maus. I really do. I think what I like best about it is that Art Spiegelman crafts this comprehensive and horrific tale of his parents' downward spiral into the whims of Nazism, with anthropomorphic animals no less, and it comes across as poetically beautiful. The metaphors make sense, and are never presented as flip or inappropriate. Honestly, I think by the time my students have hit the 4th or 5th page, they've forgotten that the characters are not depicted as people.

When I facilitate teacher trainings through the USHMM, we at some point stress to the teachers that it's not healthy for students, nor is it appropriate toward memory, if Jews are only shown as victims in the Holocaust narrative. As the child of survivors, Art Spiegelman was wholly aware of that. I can recall as a first-time reader enjoying the backstory of the Spiegelmans and Zylberbergs and their friends and extended families. I also recall finding it unexpected. Again, with little Holocaust background in 1986, I assumed I'd see concentration camps from the beginning. But Spiegelman shows what a vibrant life existed for Polish Jews ahead of the September 1939 German invasion. This serves, as the tale progresses, to heighten the loss as these "characters" to whom we've been introduced begin to be affected by the changes to their lives.

In spite of Vladek's plea to keep the romance portions of his verbal memoir out of the book, I'm glad Art included it. Does it truly serve any purpose once the events of the pre-War years begin to escalate? Perhaps, perhaps not. I enjoyed those vignettes because they give us a look into what makes Vladek tick - his OCD, his meddling, his concern about his financial situation. We also to some extent see his conceit, and I really think that it's his heightened self-worth that will benefit him later. There was no quit in Vladek Spiegelman, in large part because he saw himself as a winner. 

Although taking place 50 years before I'd have experienced such things, the chronicling of Vladek's love life also brought an "everyman" feel to the reader. While I don't know that I've ever been likened to Rudolf Valentino (or any other movie star, for that matter), situationally Vladek found himself in tough spots as well as heartwarming places. Art Spiegelman humanizes his father through the presentation of all the little vignettes of his young adulthood.

Before I leave this section for other thoughts, I want to heap one more praise on Spiegelman's organization of the story. That he leads the book with a throwaway incident from his own childhood is perfect. In a single scuffed ankle, Art allows us to look deep inside Vladek's personality and also peel back the curtain on the history that will be revealed later. What a table setting.

The Bad: Every time I read Maus, which is often since we use it with high school students each year, I find myself getting a little stressed whenever the "present" of Vladek's and Mala's home is the setting. There is so much tension in those scenes - arguing, mistrust, accusations, discontent. Really - it raises my stress level! It's sad, pathetic, and like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It's no wonder Art suffered emotional duress. All that being said, those portions of the story are again necessary in the formation of the gestalt that is Vladek Spiegelman. I really think it helps to provide surprises as further personality traits of Vladek are revealed as his life's events and circumstances unfold. But I always find myself longing for a return to Vladek's historical narrative - certainly the telling of stressful events in themselves!

The Ugly: Near the beginning of the second volume of Maus, Art remarks to his wife, Francoise Mouly, that in many regards Vladek is the stereotype of the "miserly old Jew". The reader might get this sense early, as Vladek often refers to money both in the present as well as in his relating of his biographical events. In one particular instance, he remarks that he would not have married Lucia Greenberg, as her father did not have enough for a respectable dowry. We'll see this sort of thing as we march along. 

And no explanation is given toward any background of that stereotype of the Jew and money. It actually stems from the Middle Ages, when Jews were forbidden to be employed in any work other than moneylending or money changing; or tax collecting. As both Christianity and Islam had prohibitions against believers lending money to other believers at interest, it didn't take long to come to the conclusion that a 3rd party could be used to circumvent religious law. Hence, the Jew - unable to provide for himself or his family through medicine, law, academics, etc. - became forever tied to money. It's an ugly stereotype that persists to the present, throughout the world.

I'd love to revisit Maus once a month for the duration of writing these reviews. With 11 chapters to deal with, this should take us right up to just about the one year anniversary of this blog. That certainly won't be a bad way to spend part of our time. And please leave a comment on today's post, or if you've read the book and want to even tell of something you're looking forward to discussing, by all means...


  1. Doug, thank you for diving into the deep,deep well that is Maus. Excellent review; I look forward to your continuing installments. Also, thanks for the background information you presented in the "Bad" section above. I'd not heard that bit of history, it is most enlightening. You began your column discussing your Holocaust education; like you most of mine came from Maus. And, no disparagement to my own schooling, obviously my historical education in that area was insufficient.

    As for the book, Maus was a lifechanger for me. I'd read many comics, popular, underground, all kinds; and novels such as Eisner's "Contract with God". I'd read many powerful stories, both in comic form and in books. But one day I finally picked up the first volume of Maus, based on the reviews I'd seen of it. And like you, Doug, I read it straight through. No book I've ever read hit me like that one did. The combination of Speigelman's beautifully effective, deceptively simple drawings and the voluminous narrative of the book, leaves the reader truly staggered by what he/she has just read. There are so many sequences, so many incredible scenes and interactions in the book it's impossible to know where to begin. Glad your'e doing it over some time. I too have read the books repeatedly over the years, and am deeply affected every time. Think it's time to give them another look.

    1. Redartz -

      Many thanks for the depth of your comment. As I type this, I'm also just finishing up my review of chapter 2 - you'll see that here on the BWBC in a month. I feel very strongly about Maus, and I hope I'm doing it justice with my thoughts. I'll look forward to hearing more from you as we step through the book.

      Stay warm!


  2. I keep meaning to read this, but never seem to get around to it. I really should check it out one of these days. Great review, Doug; I'm looking forward to more.

    1. Thanks very much, Mike. Do find time to read this at some point in your life. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


  3. Good idea for a series of reviews. I'm assuming at some point in the year you'll get me to *heavy sigh* re-read this (the heavy sigh is not because I see that as a chore - it just means pushing back the tons of other stuff I have to read).
    Anyway, I agree that Maus is a very moving and effective way to learn something, or teach for that matter, about the Holocaust.
    On the topic of Vladek and the stereotype of a miserly Jew, I found that part of Spiegelman's story had particular resonance for me: my parents were immigrants from southeastern Europe, both from not very well-to-do rural/peasant families, and thus they had similar, frugal, attitudes about money. But they were Catholic, not Jewish, so they didn't have to deal with that stereotype, even as they believed it about Jews (my father in particular often made comments about 'Jewish bankers' or whatnot). The weird, or perhaps ironic, thing is that many aspects of Vladek's personality as portrayed in Maus rather uncomfortably reminded me of my father.

    Anyway, looking forward to future installments.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Edo. I can also somewhat relate to that "miserly" aspect of the older generations. Mine and my wife's grandparents grew up in the Depression, and those years certainly impacted them for the rest of their lives. My wife's paternal grandmother was notorious for coming home from the supermarket and reconciling her sales receipt with each good she'd purchased as she shelved it. She didn't want "the man" taking advantage of her!


  4. Hi All,

    Really great review Doug! Superlative!

    Maus is the only 'underground' comic I ever read. I have kept I and II on my shelf for 25 years now. I have reread them twice and checked Meta-Maus out of the library 2x. I do recommend Meta-Maus. It is indeed extra special because it deals with before, during, and after the Holocaust.

    Regarding the "good" I too never appreciated the greater horror of the Holocaust until I lived in Germany and realized many "good people" basically had no problem physically murdering, beating, robbing, dispossessing their Jewish friends and neighbors in little Schwabisch Hall, Germany.

    Regarding the "Bad," I came to appreciate that from my French wife where they knew first hand of the incomprehensible pain Holocaust survivors lived with. I am glad Maus touches on that as well.

    The "Ugly" it's a pity we don't need an explanation for the stereotype as I suspect we are all familiar with it. That being said, I echo Edo's observations... it would take an extraordinary person to not be influenced by this and other stereotypes, even to this day.

    I introduced my two young-adult kids to Maus I, II, and Meta-Maus this winter break from University. They both truly appreciated them.

    FWIW my ongoing read into the Holocaust is "They Thought They were Free" written in the early 1950s. I find the unnerving remarks of the University Professor rather relevant to today. Paraphrasing him... "You know, we did not realize anything was changing: the buildings were the same, the opera was the same, the clothes and food were the same. Truly our lives did not change. Slowly the anger and violence increased towards the Jews. But everything else stayed the same for us. We did not appreciate these changes until it was too late."

    Again, Doug, this was really a superlative blog you provided us. Much thanks. Joe


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