Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"Mauschwitz" - Volume 2, Chapter 1
There have been some Holocaust educators with whom I've spoken through the years who dismiss Maus as a valuable teaching resource because of its non-historical elements. I've heard that the portions of the book that deal primarily with Art's relationship to his father, Vladek - or to other familial relationships - detract from the Holocaust narrative. I have to protest in those conversations, as the Holocaust must not be considered as compartmentalized within some arbitrary historical parameters falling inside the Nazi era of 1933-1945. To begin the discussion in 1933 omits centuries of European antisemitism that frames (if not in a more radical sense forecasts...) the events of the Holocaust. To finish in 1945 negates the sometimes-years of tribulations faced by survivors in Displaced Persons camps or in their attempts to emigrate from Europe. Additionally, we now live at a point in history where the children and grandchildren of survivors have become labeled as "2nd-generation" or even "3rd-generation" survivors themselves - recognized now as the caretakers of their ancestral stories.
I think you'll see what I mean as we dive right in.
Art Spiegelman and his wife, Francois, are in conversation about Art’s anxiety in continuing the writing of Maus. Art is hesitant and confused about his abilities to accurately depict his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz, and using a comic strip as his vehicle. These discussions are juxtaposed with interactions with Vladek, who has recently been left by his wife, Mala. Vladek’s personality is on full display in these scenes - his miserliness, his OCD tendencies. And as Art meets up with his now needier father, Vladek begins to detail his ordeal in Auschwitz. It’s a story of want, fear, choices, and of survival.
I have to confess: When we began using Maus with our freshmen World History students many years ago, our district would only afford to purchase the first volume. Our students would get to the end, with the Spiegelmans arrival at Auschwitz, and then it was like, "Sorry, kids!" I'm very thankful that a few years later, and since, we've been able to provide them with the full experience.
The Good: Where to begin? Continuing my comments from the introduction, I love this chapter. Perhaps 70% of it deals with familial relationships within the Spiegelman family, and Art's perception of various interactions over the years. For me, this is integral to understanding Vladek Spiegelman and truly appreciating the numerous ordeals he faced and, in most cases, conquered. I think it also speaks to understanding Art's publication of the autobiographical "The Prisoner on Hell Planet" strip. Near the beginning of this chapter, Art goes on a lengthy monologue to Francois concerning his stresses about creating Maus, his childhood dealing with the image of his deceased brother, and of the personality flaws of his aging father. It's an amazingly raw discourse, but one I think the reader is drawn to. A concept he broaches is his guilt at not having gone through the Holocaust with his parents. As some of Vladek's situation can be attributed to survivor guilt as Anja had succumbed to decades of depression - surely due to her wartime experiences - we see Art facing some of the same feelings as a disjointed observer/participant to his parents' hell. It adds another layer to "survivor's guilt" and is worth consideration.
This chapter is where we are reminded just how resourceful Vladek Spiegelman was, or could be. Just in the few pages here that deal with his time in Auschwitz, we see Vladek's use of his knowledge of English and Polish, his fearlessness at using rudimentary skills he'd learned in the ghetto, and of his penchant for diplomacy. To step back and examine how events unfolded before him and to see his responses is amazing. Yet, it's also important that Art included Vladek's musings about how Mandelbaum might have met his end - for a guard to just decide to take a prisoner's cap and toss it aside, forcing the prisoner out of line and to a place where he might be shot - this showed the randomness of life (and death) during the Holocaust. I always emphasize to my students that a person could do everything right and be shot on a guard's whim; another could make mistake after mistake, however, and survive. There were no rules.
The Bad: Reading Maus often raises my blood pressure. There is so much stress throughout the story, whether in the wartime vignettes or even in the present scenes. Francois remarked to Art that Vladek was so anxious, always moving, always straightening. She wondered if Auschwitz made him like that, but Art contests that other folks they know - also survivors - aren't like that. But this doesn't dismiss the fact that when Vladek is on the page I am on edge. Don't misinterpret my comments - this is one of the powerful elements of the Maus experience, and it's again why I feel it's such a compelling tool to use in teaching a Holocaust narrative.
Spiegelman does an excellent job of discussing the hierarchy among prisoners, from kapos at the top down through the various ethnic groups imprisoned and on to new inmates (regardless of identity). And speaking of identity, the line where Vladek remarks that his kapo referred to him by his name rather than his prisoner number is worth emphasizing. Prisoners of the Nazi KL (concentration camp) system lost all remnants of their lives before imprisonment. So that anyone of any leadership capacity referred to a prisoner as anything other than the assigned number is noteworthy.
The Ugly: I don't have anything for this section today.