Friday, December 5, 2014

Maus: One Man's Ancestry is a Society's History Lesson

Courtesy of
The Holocaust, an event that has been seared onto the memories and history books of the world, an event fanatically gruesome yet so diligently efficient it has overshadowed genocides that have wiped out several times more people than the mere 6 million victims of the Nazis.  However, as time passes, the events from the 1930's and 40's continues to grow more and more distant to us as a society.  As time moves on and survivors, along with their memories, die, the Holocaust will inevitably become just another catastrophe in the history of mankind.  It will lose the human tragedy element of it, the guilt, the shame, the fear, the overbearing shadow of an event too big for its survivors and their descendants to even start to come to terms with; it risks becoming just another chapter in a textbook.

Yet, to one man, American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the Holocaust will never be just another chapter.  It is the defining chapter... yet he didn't even live it.  His father was a Holocaust survivor; it became a permanent part of Vladek's life, one that shaped who he was, as a husband, a father, a person.  Spiegelman constantly felt hounded by the specter of the long over Holocaust that his father felt, thus it became a focal point for his career.  Speigelman began his comic career working for underground magazines and newspapers.  He had several successful strips that ran in various publications, as well as being the creator of the Garbage Pail Kids.  However, it was the frequent strips about his father's experience in the Holocaust and how that affected their relationship that kept coming back to Spiegelman.  He would base comic strips off his father's anecdotes during the Holocaust, letting his father see them and discuss them (sometimes with good results, sometimes with antagonistic guilt trips).  With more and more information from his father, Spiegelman started conducting interviews with him about his experiences, chronicling Vladek's life from the early 1930's to the end of World War 2.  These interviews culminated in Maus: A Survivor's Tale in 1991, a graphic novel.  Graphic novels are books written entirely in comic book form, with pictures, dialogue, and only scant narration to lead the story.  Highly reviewed and a critical success, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in the Special Citations and Letters Category, becoming the first graphic novel to win such a prize.  Maus has been cited as bringing graphic novels, which had been a small and mostly underground field of novels, into the forefront, later making graphic novels one of the most popular book types for both young adults and adults.

Spiegelman's idea was that using a graphic novel would better record his father's story; however, instead of using humans, he used an anthropomorphic animal element.  The idea behind the use of animals for people came from the idea of certain races of people being 'subhuman' or like animals.   He also believed that the use of animals to represent different races would expound on the absurdity that people were different due to race and that the theology of the Nazis that targeted Jews was comical.  The use of animals was also intended to help the reader better understand the politics, however preposterous, of the time period and to illustrate what exactly the Nazis thought divided them from others.  The Jewish people are depicted as mice, since they were seen as terminable vermin by the Nazis.  Cats are used in the portrayal of Nazis, a classic enemy of mice.  Polish characters are shown as pigs, since Vladek and his family were sold out by a Polish man.  There is a haunting human element that comes from the use of animals.  It incites a strong sense of vulnerability of the Jews during the Nazi regime and acutely conveys the sense of fear of the enemy, the Nazis, or in this case, the cats.  The entire novel is black and white; the is no depiction of color, no distraction from the story at hand. The cartoons are simplistic yet detailed, a beautiful example of the talent and pure artistry of Spiegelman.  Despite using animals, these cartoon panels do not have a trace of cuteness or fun in them.  It is perhaps due to the stark contrast of the events being told and the medium being used that a deep sense of tragedy and pain is conveyed.  As far as graphic novels go, the illustrations do not clash with the dialogue.  Both are succinctly clear and concise, making the novel extremely captivating and easy to read.  First time graphic novel readers will not struggle with this novel; Spiegelman does an artful job of making the story flow and not confusing the reader.
Courtesy of

Maus is separated into two sections: My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began; the first is Vladek's experiences leading up to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  This is a type of first person account of history and it does not fail to deliver.  Spiegelman represents his father's words and memories exactly from their interviews and it gives great insight to the family life of people leading up to the Nazi invasion of Europe.  Spiegelman does not sugarcoat his father's actions or words; at time, Vladek seems like a jerk.  Spiegelman does a wonderful job using the cartoons along with his father's stories to portray the growing sense of unease and unrest spreading through Europe in the late 1930's among the Jewish populations.  And Here My Troubles Began brings us to a point in adult Spiegelman's life, where he is grappling with his father's growing eccentricity and anger.  This is the part of the novel that covers Vladek's time in Auschwitz and it truly a heartbreaking, yet interesting account of how one could survive.

The interactions between father and son periodically break the story to illustrate how the past has dominated and shaped not only Vladek's life but also Spiegelman's.  Spiegelman, both as a child and as an adult, is haunted by memories that are not his but are of the past, a time when he wasn't even alive.  He is the product of two survivors and their actions and beliefs are purely guided from their past and survival.  The Holocaust stains every family interaction, every familial connection they have.  The label of survivor runs undercurrent to both Vladek's and Spiegelman's actions.  This phenomenon is common; it is a type of survivor guilt that is passed down through generations of families.  He cannot escape a past he did not experience.  This is a significant topic that is not commonly broached during discussions of the Holocaust, yet Spiegelman lays out his own personal examples to better show people how far reaching the Holocaust still is.
Spiegelman's self portrait,
courtesy of

What makes Maus a valuable read for not only graphic novel enthusiasts (a must due to the beautiful illustrations and the significance it played in reviving the medium), but to history buffs as well is the honest depiction of the Holocaust, its victims and survivors, and the ancestors left to burden the tragedy.  The underlying fear, guilt, shame, and horror of the Holocaust continue to reach into the Jewish and European populations today, with ancestors still feeling the aftershocks of surviving (and perpetrating) the Holocaust.  The Holocaust, in Spiegelman's opinion, has served as a large, common bond that ties all Jewish people together; the benefits of that, however, are possibly less than positive, according the Spiegelman.  He sees that the continuation of suffering from the Holocaust, long after it's end, is what will always paint the Jewish community. It painted every moment of his father's life; Vladek never found closure from it.  It also influenced Spiegelman's life for a long time, which is what led him to start Maus. There continue to be studies and books done about the lasting effects of World War 2 and the Holocaust on today's modern society.  However, there tends to be a lack of emotion and pure humanness in the academic works.  It is up to books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Maus that will help society never forget the horror incurred during that time period.  Perhaps, with accounts like these, we as a society will not forget.  Perhaps then, we can avoid repeating history.