Search This Blog

Monday, July 29, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began, Chapter 1 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"Mauschwitz" - Volume 2, Chapter 1
Art Spiegelman

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.

100-Word Review:
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.

It's a powerful vignette, and due to its nature I might have placed it in my sections below - which in this exploration of Maus are often reserved for the most unsavory elements of the narrative. Yet I find the story of Vladek's friend Mandelbaum so pathetic and useful in showing students the depths that human beings were pushed to. My heart breaks each time I read about Mandelbaum's pants, shoes, bowl, and spoon - and the panel where he prays "My god. Please God... Help me find a piece of string and a shoe that fits!" is such a hammer dropped. I've not had many students over the course of my career who want for life's basics as Mandelbaum was facing. Vladek tells Art that Mandelbaum had been quite well off before the war, yet we see him reduced to tears for pants that stay up. I meditate on that scene each time I am confronted with it. And each time, I am overcome with the magnitude of survival - mentally, physically, spiritually. And just a few pages later, after Vladek has given his friend succor, we find that Mandelbaum met his death. I always feel empty as I turn that page.

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.


  1. Kudos for yet another fine analysis, Doug! I'm really enjoying your coverage of this monumental tale. Well, enjoying is perhaps the wrong term for such sombre material. Let's say your discussion is quite intellectually satisfying.

    I just read Maus Vol. 2 a couple days ago. Had some health issues and read the entire book while in the hospital waiting room. No worries; am doing better now. But one thing that Maus does- it really puts things in perspective. While reading about Vladek in Aushwitz, one's own situation pales.

    Agree with your comments about Mandelbaum. The whole sequence with Vladek, the Kapo and spoon is one of the most memorable of the entire tale. Not as graphic or violent as other scenes, but the sheer apparent ordinariness of Mandelbaum's troubles is staggering. Man, what we take for granted each day...

    Again, well done, Doug.

    1. Thank you, sir - and my goodness, I hope everything is OK!

      As you and I note, there are so many important and memorable scenes throughout the entire story. Perhaps the one that sticks with me most comes along in our next installment.


  2. Hi Doug,

    Very nice review.

    Just curious... When you teach the Holocaust, is it strictly the WW2 Jewish one? OR do you venture into other genocides?

    CHeers, Joe

    1. Let's try this again - failed 3x time to comment from my phone.

      Joe, thanks for the compliment. Regarding my course, we spend three weeks in an introduction to social injustice. During that stretch, we will explore issues and events in 1994's Rwandan genocide as well as the genocide in Darfur in the 2000s. After that, students move into a 15-week survey of the Holocaust (respectfully, the only genocide called that). The discussion begins with an in-depth look at historical antisemitism, and then covers the Nazi era of 1933-45. It's a heavy course, as you might imagine.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...