Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman
Posted November 20, 2010on:
This is going to be a fairly unemotional article. I just typed an entire page of emotional, repressed memory stuff, and I’m sorry, but we just don’t know each other well enough for me to share that kind of stuff with you. Besides, this is supposed to be an article about a book, not about me, right?
Maus is Art Spiegelman’s biography of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor. It has a casual feel because interspersed with his father’s memories of Poland in the 1940’s is current conversations between Art and his father, and between Art and his stepmother, Mala, also a Holocaust survivor. As his father relates what happened in Poland, Art finds it difficult to reconcile the younger, risk-taking, scheming and braver Vladek with the father he knows, a stingy, cranky, racist old man who snaps at anyone who tries to help him.
As Vladek tells his son about growing up in Poland and meeting his wife Anja, Art learns things about his parents he never knew, and I learned things about the Holocaust that the bubbies and zaydies of my youth neglected to tell me.
More than once, Vladek tells Art something and says “it has nothing to do with the Holocaust, nothing do with Hitler”, and Art puts it in the book anyways. It’s those things, those conversations that are just about a man and his family, that have nothing to do with anything, that make this so approachable, so readable, that give it context, that make it about a family that survived something horrible, not about something horrible that spat out pieces of a family.
Shortly after Vladek and Anja marry in 1937, the politics of Poland and Germany take a turn for the worse. Anyone suspected of communist sympathies can be arrested on site. Things are somewhat okay for the Jews, but getting worse daily. None of this is good for Anja’s depression, and after their son is born, she suffers a breakdown. Vladek takes her to a sanitarium, and does everything in his power to help her feel happy, help her have hope and find some enjoyment in life. They return a few months later to a town run rampant with riots, with anti-Jewish sentiment. Believing things will blow over, the family stays, tries to run their businesses like nothing is going on.
Things go from bad to worse. They lose their business, they move in with Anja’s extended family, and lose that house, and are moved to a ghetto. I shouldn’t say “lose”, they don’t lose their businesses and properties, the government tells them Jews are no longer allowed to have own the business and their homes must be given over to non-Jews. Still, everyone believes the situation will blow over any day, that life will get better. Germany invades, and life for the Jews goes from difficult to unbearable. Vladek trades any valuables the family has on the black market for better and more food, he schemes, he plans, he bargains, he learns how to build secret bunkers in houses. He tries to bargain for information and protection from the Jewish guards of the ghetto (did you know there were Jewish guards during the Holocaust? I sure didn’t). The family hears about the concentration camps, about Auschwitz, but always, that is something that happens to someone else. Not to them.
And then it does happen. To them. To be continued in volume 2.
After much trepidation and avoidance of Maus am I happy I read it? Very and exceedingly so. I will probably read it again before it goes back to the library. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very emotional telling of something truly horrific in our worlds recent past, but it is presented in a rational, readable, swallowable way. I was happily surprised at how hard Maus was for me to put down.
Spiegelman’s style of artwork is an interesting one. All the Jews have identical mouse faces, the Germans have identical cat faces. Other nationalities and groups are represented with faces of other animals. According to the interwebs, Spiegelman said it was a purposeful choice to show how rediculous it is to view people of all one religion or nationality as all the same. There’s a good reason Maus has won nearly every award that can be bestowed on graphic novels.
If you’ve read this far, I suppose you deserve a little bit of personal emotional reaction out of me.
A phrase I learned early in my youth was “Never forget, lest it happen again”. As you watch the politics of this country and other countries change, realize that phrase doesn’t specify a who. Events like the Holocaust don’t happen overnight, they are started with politics based on fear and hatred.