As time does what it does (goes on), the survivors of the Holocaust begin to become lost to us here in the present. As a young adult in her early 20s, I can’t say that I have any idea what World War Two was like. Of course I know the logistics of the war: who was in power in what country, the economic strife of Germany, who was on what side, the invasion in Poland, what blitzkerg means, Hilter not wanting to play nice with the Jews, the horrific happenings of concentration camps, etc. Thank you high school history class. But that is where my knowledge of the war ends. Luckily, Spiegelman draws a vivid picture of the Holocaust with the help of his father Vladek Spiegelman.
The entire story is told from the perpective of Vladek Spiegelman, a young Jewish man living in Poland. It begins when he first meets his wife-to-be Anja and progresses through the strife he, his family and friends have to endure once the second World War begins – from the invasion into his home country right up until escaping Aucshwitz and the war ending. His son, Artie, who is the author of his novel, writes down and records his father telling his story with the ambitions of writing the novel we are reading. Artie is telling us the story of his book’s birth as Vladek tells his story of the Holocaust. It is important to emphasize that this is Vladek’s story, not the story. Spiegelman only recounts what Vladek remembers as he is unsure as to what happened in other parts of the war (he can only rely on what he has heard).
Memories are the only way for us in the present to hear about the past. The past cannot exist independently; it relies on the survivors (Vladek) to tell the stories to those who want to know more (Artie). The Holocaust’s existence in the present relies on the testimonies of others. The novel flashes back and forth between Vladek’s past and his present with Artie. He stills lives with the scars of the past despite having become a survivor and moving to the Land of Freedom. He retains his habits of saving every crumb/cent you can for the “just in case” moment. The Holocaust lives in Artie: it is his parents’ past and the effects it has had on them has gone down the chain and have affected him. He lives with the trauma of his mother taking her own life and this story and “pain” remains alive in a separate publication of a comic he drew depicting the events surrounding her suicide – which is shown in this series (of course, this is assuming that his mother’s suicide was a repercussion of the depression, hopelessness and trauma she endured during and after the war). The scar of Vladek’s first born son Richieu, who died in the war, is also present in himself, making Artie only a mere shadow of his deceased older brother. The Holocaust has remained alive in Vladek through his memories and through the scars he continues to live it. It has become alive for Artie as his father retells his story. Just because the physical war itself has ended and those who survived the concentration camps were free to go home does not mean the trouble has ended.
The second volume of the series is titled “And Here My Troubles Began” despite only roughly half of the book taking place in Auschwitz. Vladek remembers that many Jews on their way to their homes were still killed, either by disease or by the hands of remaining antisemitism, sometimes even right as they opened the door to their home. The third chapter of the second volume shares the same name of the volume itself; it begins with Vladek and the other prisoners being taken away from Auschwitz and being ‘set free from the chambers’, but this is where everything begins to go downhill for him. He contracts a disease called Typhus, which is can be caused by lice, and falls extremely ill to the point of being bed ridden. He becomes unsure whether or not he will make it back home. War, death, depression, antisemitism, discrimination – none of these things ended over night. You don’t get out of the woods quickly – it is a gradual transition as the trees begin to disappear as you enter the clearing. Some scars are already healed, others still haunting the minds of those who were part of it. Surviving is only half the battle – you have to prepare yourself to cope with the repercussions.
Now, you can’t talk about Maus without commenting on the most obvious and prominent theme of the novel – the depiction of different races. Mice are the Jewish, cats are the Germans, and pigs are the Polish (there are also the occasional American dog, French frog and Swiss reindeer). The choice of mice for the Jewish is inspired by the depiction of Jews as vermin in antisemitic propaganda during the war and having cats as the Nazis play with the predator/prey aspect of the Holocaust. By depicting each race as a different animal, Spiegelman enhances Hitler’s goal of “purity” by making each race clearly different. By making a clear distinction of who is who, the Nazis were able to pick out who was a Jew and who wasn’t. Who goes to the prison and who stays in their homes. When going out in public, Vladek would wear a pig mask to show he is disguising himself as a ‘normal citizen’ to prevent capture. Spiegelman also includes the Star of David armbands that the Jews had to wear in Occupied Poland and the Star of David on their prison uniforms since how that was part of the identification, almost a redundancy. There is a clear divide, creating another sense of “otherness” that surrounded the Jews.
Being born after the war, Artie was unable to experience what his parents have survived. He learns about the kind of person his father was (and still is) back in Poland. There is a dynamic that continues to change with every visit he makes to his father’s house. As an adult hitting his senior years, Vladek has not let go of some of the things that happened 40 years ago and it has damaged his relationship with his son. Artie becomes frustrated with his father and does not want to be responsible for him while his father insists on spending entire summers with him. They find trouble meeting halfway and Artie only needs to survive time with his father long enough so he can return to his life with his wife. There is a mini-war occurring between the two Spiegelmans has they tackle scars of their past together.
This is the first Holocaust novel I’ve read so I cannot say much to its merit as a telling of the Holocaust, but it was a very engaging and emotionally straining read. Of course the depiction of being a prisoner of war, of living in hiding, of life in the concentration camp is beyond traumatic and I cannot even imagine how it could have felt to be there. The story of the Holocaust is able to stay alive through stories such as this one. The memories that survivors have shared have kept the Holocaust and the events surrounding it alive with us in the present. Without Vladek’s memories and the memories of other veterans, Artie would not realize that the atrocities of the war even existed. The relationship between Artie and Vladek is also being told along with the past – this book is just as much about their relationship as it is about the Holocaust. There is a juxtaposition of the development of Vladek’s story and the father-son relationship. Their relationship is strained almost as much as Vladek’s mental state in the early 40s. This is more than a book about the past, this is also a book about the present.