Maus is extraordinary! I read this two-part graphic novel series years ago and remembered the framework, but re-reading it was eye-opening as further life experiences can make you look at it with whole new eyes.
My Father Bleeds History
The first half of the story details the beginning of WWII as seen through Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew, as told to his son Art, the author and illustrator of the book. Art began to collect his father’s remembrances in the late 1970s after an estrangement of a few years, as the two were never close, and the suicide of Art’s mother had been devastating to their already tenuous bond. Vladek shares his memories of his courtship with his wife Anja, their marriage, and the birth of their firstborn son Richieu in 1937. Tensions were building in Europe and he eventually was drafted into the Polish Army. As things begin to spiral downward Vladek is incredibly resourceful, brave, and sometimes just lucky as his extended family is moved into Jewish ghettos and some of them are shipped off to the concentration camps. Vladek and Anja sent their beloved son into hiding with another family and later discover his heartbreaking fate.
Although the tale moves forward chronologically, there are interludes in the modern-day of Art and Vladek and their life outside of NYC. Vladek has remarried unhappily and is a miser who is set in his ways. His early life has warped him, but Art also deals with the fallout, as a “survivor of survivors” who can’t live up to his idealized older brother, who died before he was born. Art also includes a dark comic he had written about his mother’s death, Prisoner on the Hell Planet, illustrated in a different style than Maus. The book ends with his parent’s capture and arrival at the infamous Auschwitz in 1944, and readers will be riveted, dreading what comes next.
I have some Eastern European ancestry thru my father’s side of the family who were immigrants from Germany and Poland and settled in Chicago around the turn of the century. While they were of the Catholic faith and were in America before WWII, I saw some parallels between what I remembered of them and some personalities found in this series. It really made me ruminate on that side of my ancestry and how their pragmatic and no-nonsense traits live on in me.
And Here My Troubles Began
The title of this second book prepares you for what is to come because although they had already endured tragedy after tragedy, more was to befall Vladek and Anja. The two are separated into different camps, and we only get Vladek’s perspective as he had burned Anja’s later journals in a fit of grief after her suicide. He survives the inhumanity of Auschwitz and a forced match to Dachau, again due to his ingenuity, and amazingly so does Anja despite her frail health. Liberated at different times, they eventually are reunited, later immigrating to America and having Art.
Again, Vladek’s stories of his past and interrupted by windows of his life now, as Art and his wife Francoise deal with Vladek’s declining health and his current troubles with his long-suffering second wife Mala, who is also a survivor of the camps. Art feels guilty and wants the best for his father, but Vladek can be impossible to deal with, and he worries about how he should portray his father in the book he is writing and illustrating, so as not to have Vladek become an unflattering Jewish caricature. He also had to juggle how to portray others, as some showed incredible kindness while others were outrageously cruel, and he didn’t want to make sweeping judgments against an entire country. Art very capably shows the realities of inter-generational trauma and dealing with the elderly Vladek. It’s a double-edged sword- his parents survived at great cost but were forever altered by what they went through.
The artwork is deceptively simple, but it actually shows the realities of the camps in an incredibly precise manner. The black and white illustrations often had six to eight panels per page, which were more orderly when Art and his father were in the modern-day, and more varied in the past to signify the chaos of Vladek’s life. I now understood better the reason why the author portrayed the characters as animals- with mice representing those of the Jewish faith, cats as Nazis, Poles as pigs, the French as frogs and Americans as dogs. This storytelling device surprisingly made them seem more human, as the reader better understands the unfairness of characterizing an entire culture or nationality as the same. It also made them trying to pass as non-Jewish with a mask on, more poignant. Plus, the picture Art drew of himself at his art table on top of mouse corpses while receiving accolades for his first book was heart-rending, for this book took a toll on his mental health too.
This was a perfect book to re-read as we head into Banned Book Week next month. We simply can not close our eyes to the horrors of the past or the realities of today, and books that address those issues should be read by everyone. This book truly was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1992!