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Monday, July 1, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 6 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986)
"Mouse Trap" - Volume 1, Chapter 6
Art Spiegelman

We've reached the conclusion of the first trade paperback collecting Art Spiegelman's masterpiece. The edition you see above is not the one I hold in my hands. You'll note the publication date as 1986, and if you recall, I mentioned in the first installment that I purchased Maus at the Illinois State University bookstore while visiting my then fiancee/now wife. At that point, there was no volume two, so my cover does not have the volume number or red banner at bottom. In their place, Spiegelman's name is relocated from the top, as you see here. Certainly not a big deal in the whole scheme of things, but it is a source of personal pride in the version I have. Onward...

When we left off at the end of May, we'd seen more backstory on the relationships between the various characters in our story. We also saw the noose begin to tighten as the Spiegelmans were forced to take to the road, first to the ghetto and then to places where they might hide in an effort to steal another day from the Nazis. So we pick it up here, as Art's come again to visit his father and stepmother. Of course, things are not going well and Mala relates how difficult it is to live with Vladek. Art attempts to rationalize, hypothesizing that the events of the war made Vladek what he is; Mala counters that not only did she also go through the camps, but all of their friends did as well. Vladek is unique, and in this final chapter we'll get a further look at how Vladek (and Art and Mala) got to the present.

100-Word Review:
The pressure increases on Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, as they attempt to stay a step ahead of the Gestapo in Poland. With no permanent home, they’ve come to rely on benevolent Poles who can be bribed for shelter. Vladek begins to see his trade goods dwindle as he works the black market for food and places to hide. But it’s when he hears of smugglers who can get the Spiegelmans to what seems like safety in Hungary that his spirits are raised. But always a moment away from betrayal and delivery, the Spiegelmans find themselves at the gates of Auschwitz.

The Good: If I've not said it before during my six months of writing about this book, it is my favorite graphic story. I don't use the term "graphic novel", as this is not fiction. It's certainly markedly different from other comics I read and enjoy. I've read Maus perhaps 35-40 times, and each time I dive in I am prepared to see something new, or interpret an event or piece of dialogue in a fresh manner. I am never disappointed. This story is timeless as a history, and as a reflection on multiple aspects of human relationships. It's a terrifying and distant tale, yet close enough that we feel a part of the family dynamics. We cannot relate to the Spiegelmans' wartime horror, but we can see ourselves in the various traits exhibited by the characters. In that regard, this is a story for, and about, all of us.

This chapter is truly the climax, crescendo if you will, of the first half of Vladek Spiegelman's story. Yet I thought (as I usually do) that there were some nuggets here and there that really cause me to sit back and meditate. One such anecdote occurs in the present as Vladek tells art about a Mrs. Motonowa, who hid Vladek and Anja. Art presses Vladek to say that he had to pay for Mrs. Motonowa to do the right thing. Vladek almost dismisses any notion that he wouldn't have... "What you think? Someone will risk their life for nothing?" That's important to me, and I want to stress this to readers not familiar with the Holocaust narrative. People across the breadth of involvement were forced to make choices each day. The most challenging aspect of that was often the fact that the rules and options changed constantly. The process of survival was a way of life, and those who could quickly ascertain the look of the shifting landscape and respond in the most timely and appropriate manner were the ones who stood the best to see the next day.


A few times in this chapter Vladek recounted his ability to pass as a Pole, while Anja "looked" more Jewish. While readers here in the States might not understand this, racist stereotypes were firmly entrenched in wartime Europe. Coupled with the notion that the Gestapo would reward those who turned in Jews while punishing anyone harboring them, proved a strong motivator. Vladek knew this, and thus measured every step. I appreciated, however, Vladek's boldness at times - the scene where he rode on the Germans-only streetcar was a good example. Act like you know what you're doing, toss in a "Heil Hitler!", and hope for the best.

When Vladek was meeting with the smugglers, he'd had conversation with Anja about a potential escape to Hungary. Anja voiced trepidation; she didn't want to hide, yet she felt safe in the moment. To disrupt that seemed a risk. In the present, Art asked if Hungary wasn't just as dangerous. Vladek noted that early in 1944, it was not - Jews could still live normal lives in Hungary. He did, however, emphasize that once he was in Auschwitz he saw what happened to the Hungarian Jews in the summer. Vladek correctly stated that the gas chambers and crematoria could not keep up with the pace of murder of the Hungarian Jews in the late summer/autumn of 1944. And this is a point that I'm not sure people fully grasp: The Holocaust is a watershed event, yes. But Europe's also a big place. For the survivor who used to come to my classroom, the Holocaust began for him when he was an 8-year old boy and the Germans occupied his village in 1939. For Anne Frank's family, much of the Holocaust was spent in hiding, and the Franks were betrayed in the Netherlands before the Holocaust even began for young Elie Wiesel in Hungary. At the beginning of Night, Wiesel remarks that as the spring of 1944 rolled round, they had not heard of Auschwitz. Remarkable...


The Bad: It's difficult not to pass judgment on the various players throughout this story. I think any reader has a tendency to say, "Pfah... I'd have never done that!" or "Why in the world didn't they...?" I thank God every time I read a tale such as this that I have no measuring stick with which to compare the events depicted. I am simply not qualified to condemn, and really not to applaud, either. Because to sing the praises of one seems to breed negativity to another. So I try to stay as objective as possible, and just learn.

That being said, there are some unsavory characters sprinkled throughout this chapter, as obviously the rest of the book. But there I go, you see... Nevermind.

The Ugly: Years ago I started to read Maus aloud to my students. Part of my rationale was I felt I could get them through the material a bit faster, and have some immediate feedback along the way. It's a little challenging, but I try to read with good inflection and even change my voice slightly depending on which character is speaking. But you can imagine how this plays to high school students when I am about to read the last few pages. Intense as it plays in front of them on the page, and from me - I don't censor it. Art's reaction to Vladek's revelation about Anja's diaries is raw and loud. I convey that to the students. I think they feel the magnitude of what Vladek has done. They also grasp why he did it - many hearken back to Art's autobiographical "The Prisoner on Hell Planet" as a resource to use while grappling with Vladek's choice. We generally always have a solid conversation as we close volume one of Maus.

To Art's accusation to Vladek that he is a murderer: Some may be put off by Art's treatment of his father in this scene, but I think the larger issue at hand is the destruction of memory. Here is where we could branch off to a conversation on "historical revisionism" (i.e. Holocaust denial). To alter or delete any record of the events people went through, to even diminish the experience as somehow exaggerated or politically motivated smacks as having some form of an alternative agenda - alternative to the truth. In this specific instance, Vladek couldn't face the truth. Yes, he had his own truth, but in my mind - on a bad day, as he states - he could not bear Anja's memories of her trials faced alone. To Vladek, her suffering in the war traced a direct line to her suicide in the late 1960s. Removal of the diaries, hence, removed that source of pain. That it also erased Anja's memories was a side effect he perhaps could not comprehend in his grief at that moment. Removed, to Art, this was an assault on his mother at her weakest point. The fact that she'd secretly hoped that at some point her descendants would find value in her recollected experiences only opened Art's wound more savagely. This is a powerful vignette, as important as anything Art portrayed from his parents' shared history.
Programming Note: Due to the holiday on Thursday this week, the usual artist spotlight post will run on Friday. Check back then for a look at the work of Walter Simonson.


  1. Well Doug, that's another excellent review. Very well done. You have covered the nuances and ramifications of the book so well, I can't really add anything. So a couple of thoughts about the format.

    You mention that your copy of Vol. 1 doesn't have the banner. I picked up both volumes somewhat later apparently. I found the books' presentation quite attractive. The extended cover with maps, the matte finish. And actually the physical size of the book; being somewhat smaller than most graphic novels. Very inviting to the reader. Sized, no doubt, due to the size of the original installments published in "Raw". Those were inserts, a bit larger than digest size (for those who have not seen "Raw").

    By focusing my comments on format rather than content today, I certainly don't mean to belittle the story. That would be impossible. Again, you state the material so effectively, I can only say "Yes, what he said"...

    1. You raise an excellent point, Redartz, in remarking on the size of the book. In Metamaus, Spiegelman states that the trim size of the art is the only way he ever wants it to be exhibited. He claims it was designed to be that size, and any deviation from his intent is unacceptable to him.


  2. Oh, man. That last page. It's just a few panels, but it really speaks volumes about the often complicated nature of strained familial relations. Good analysis of that entire last sequence, Doug.


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