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Monday, March 25, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 3 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986) "Prisoner of War" - Volume 1, Chapter 3 Art Spiegelman

Regarding the Permanent Exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I have heard several people describe it as a downward spiral into oblivion. If you've never been there, the exhibit begins with an elevator ride to the Museum's 4th floor. The visitor then follows a narrative of the events of the Holocaust across the breadth of that level, and then descends to the 3rd floor and finally finishes at the end of the 2nd floor. Today's discussion of chapter 3 of Art Spielgelman's Maus will give us that same sense... From here on, we'll see the wartime Spieglemans begin to face escalating dangers while at the same time we see the deterioration of Art's relationship to his father.

100-Word Review
Art Spiegelman pays another visit to his father, whose OCD tendencies seem to be increasing in severity. Comments about the food, his second wife Mala, cleanliness, Art’s mother Anja, and Art’s coat frame the main story in the chapter - Vladek’s service in the Polish army as WWII broke out with Germany. Vladek was drafted, fought the Germans in Sept. 1939, was captured, and later freed. In between he spent time in a POW camp, was transferred to a labor camp, and evaded death through the help of Jewish authorities. The chapter ends on a bright note, with the Spiegelmans and Zylberbergs reunited.

The Good: In this chapter we begin to see the prejudicial persecutions heaped upon the Jews by the Germans. I say "Germans" rather than "Nazis", which opens up an issue Holocaust educators deal with on a regular basis - precision of language. One cannot simply say "Nazis" as a synonym for "Germans". The opposite is also true. So you can see that it becomes very problematic when trying to tell this story, since not all Germans were Nazis, nor were all Nazis Germans. But I'll do the best I can, as I'm sure Art Spiegelman did when trying to navigate his father's stories.

After dinner with his father and stepmother, Art and Vladek resume Art's recording of his father's story. Vladek related how his own father had schemed to keep Vladek and his older brother out of the Polish army, practically starving each of them so that they'd be denied enlistment. But Vladek, after an initial service, did not run from the draft that sent him to the front in September 1939. If you know your history, the Germans were able to overpower the Poles in around five weeks - with the Soviet Red Army also invading from the east. Vladek was captured and sent to a POW camp, his first taste of German discrimination against Poland's Jews. This vignette is very important to the remainder of the story, as we are exposed to the hatred of and double-standards for Jews under control of the German forces. We also begin to get a feel for Vladek's resourcefulness, and his luck. If you do much reading about the war, I think you'll find in survivor testimonies (and this is often true of soldiers) that the #1 reason they survived was luck. One could do everything "right" and be shot in the head at the whim of a guard; one could seemingly do everything "wrong", yet survive. The Holocaust was truly a random experience, yet awful under any circumstances.

One of the scenes I always point out to my students is that of Vladek, under the criticism and amazement of his peers, bathing in a frigid stream. His retort was that he'd be clean, and feel warmer the rest of the day, seems logical. Many of his comrades who chose not to follow Vladek's lead ended up with infections, and found the Polish winter less tolerable. Another disagreement we're privy to comes early in Vladek's imprisonment, when the Germans advertised for workers. A fellow prisoner scoffed, and said he'd never volunteer. Vladek said he'd take his chances - he wasn't going to die in the POW camp. What he hadn't foreseen was that those who did volunteer were going to become slaves working for German companies. It is well known now that many companies paid the SS a per diem for the use of Jewish prisoners as slaves. Among well-known companies profiting from this were Daimler-Benz, Bayer, Shell, Zeppelin, and Ikon. As Vladek faced this new chapter, he had a dream one night that his grandfather had come to him, telling him he would be freed on Parshas Truma. This is a wonderful occasion for readers to become more familiar with Jewish religious practices. A religiously observant Jew, we see Art draw his great-grandfather wearing tefillin (small scriptures in tiny boxes, bound to the head and arms), and learn a bit about the Jewish lunar calendar. Vladek made the acquaintance of a rabbi who instructed him about the timing of Parshas Truma - and wouldn't you know it, Vladek was freed on that day!

But all was not what it seemed, and Vladek and the other Jews who had been told they'd be free were instead sent past their destination of Sosnowiec and arrived instead at another slave labor camp. This, too, was an important vignette as it established for Vladek (and the reader) that the Nazis could never be trusted. Stories like "you're being moved to serve as industrial labor", "pack one suitcase and leave it on the platform; it will follow you to your destination", and "you must shower to be disinfected" were common lies Jews heard. What's actually the most amazing thing about this tale, though, is toward the end of it when a couple of Jewish officials tell some of the prisoners that they've bribed the Nazis to release them, as long as they have proof that they have a place to go. This seemed to rarely work out, as said bribes often just went into the SS coffers.

As the chapter concludes, Vladek is reunited with his family - wife Anja (Art's mother), son Richieu, and the in-laws - the Zylberbergs. At least as we leave today, it's a happy ending.

The Bad: As mentioned above, the story begins a downward spiral, picking up speed in its descent. If you'll recall, chapter one was filled with Vladek's life as a young man and his courtship of Anja. The second chapter saw our main characters encounter the swastika for the first time, and we learned from their perspectives stories of increasing persecution against Jews. Now in chapter three, some of those persecutions have become a reality for Vladek and his comrades. Art Spiegelman does a wonderful job detailing some of the horrors the Jews faced, and will face moving forward in the story. Emotions begin to run high from page to page as the reader is drawn in. Antisemitic incidents, certainly on the path toward genocide, become more frequent.

The Ugly: The worst is yet to come. And when you think it has arrived, it will get worse yet.


1 comment:

  1. Once again, Doug, a wonderfully detailed survey of this phenomenal work. You are so right, the reader is truly drawn in. Each chapter you finish leaves you no choice but to begin the next, just to see what happens. And yes, just when you think you've seen the gets worse.

    The book, however, just keeps getting more engrossing. I hope your series on "Maus" will prompt a few followers out there to pick it up. It's a story EVERYONE should read...


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