RATING :: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
GENRE :: BIOGRAPHY/AUTOBIOGRAPHY
SUBJECT :: WWII, HOLOCAUST, SURVIVOR’S STORY
“Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…Then you could see what it is, friends! …”
Art Speilgleman interviews his father over the tragic events he experienced during WW2 as a Polish Jew.
Art’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, shares of his encounters with the Nazis, his struggle for survival and near-death experiences, & the countless tragedies, including the loss of his and his deceased wife’s (Art’s mother) first son, Rysio, as well as other immediate family members.
This has to be one of the most powerful holocaust survivor stories I’ve ever read, mainly because of the way the story is told- through powerful, though-provoking, art work.
The first thing I noticed about this book was how the characters were represented – the Germans are drawn as predatory cats, the Jewish people/survivors are drawn as mice, and the Polish people are drawn as pigs. I wondered if Art used these animals as a way to symbolize status, class, and power, so I went to Wikipedia to find what Art had to say about his choice of animals/rodents to represent a certain people … here’s a little bit of what I found:
Spiegelman derived the mouse as symbol for the Jew from Nazi propaganda emphasized in a quote from a German newspaper in the 1930s that prefaces the second volume: “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable idea ever revealed … Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal … Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!”
The art work depicting the story of Vladek’s Holocaust experiences were both disturbing and phenomenal. I had to remind myself that this was all based on a true story. The comic strip paints Vladek as a mouse, and the reader follows him on his journey from the time he marries his wife, to his time fighting in the war, and, ultimately, his struggle for survival while also fighting to keep his wife safe.
Vladek’s story begins with the memory of a woman- Lucia Greenberg- with whom he was in a long-term relationship with. He shares how he ultimately leaves her to marry Art’s mother, who comes from a wealthy family. Before the war, life seems to be wonderful. Vladek and Anja have a son, and they remain close to their family members, receiving support from Anja’s father, who gives Vladek a textile factory to manage. Vladek eventually goes to war, is held prisoner for a brief time, and finally manages to find his way home.
Time and time again, Vladek struggles to find a source of income so he can provide and feed his family. He and his father-in-law (a wealthy manufacturer ) manage to find good people who give them what they need, and they keep people of influence close so they may have certain privileges. Along the way, they are betrayed, with Vladek’s father & mother-in-law being sent to Auschwitz, where they ultimately die, as a result of a cousin’s unwillingness to help them even after accepting payment to do so.
“He was a millionaire, but even this didn’t save him his life.”
-Vladik, explaining the death of his father-in-law.
Vladek’s story is tragic and difficult to read, but it’s the relationship between Art and his father that I found the most disturbing. It’s easy to tell from the way they interact, even through the art work, that Art’s and Vladek’s relationship is strained.
Trauma following the horrors of the holocaust, the tragic death of his first son, who was poisoned so he wouldn’t be surrendered over to the Nazis, the death of his family, and finally the suicide of his beloved wife years after the war is over… Vladek has become a miserable old man, hoarding every kind of useless thing he can find for free, berating his second wife for anything he doesn’t see fit while being difficult to please, and criticizing his son, Art, for not meeting up to his expectations. He lives in his past, obviously overwhelmed with guilt and pain from the tragedies that took everything he loved.
Vladik often compares Art to his first son, Rysio, Art’s deceased brother, saying that he was such a good little boy who was so well behaved. It’s interesting to note, however, that Art probably doesn’t believe his older brother to have been the perfect angel, as shown in his art work. In the comic strip, one can notice Rysio misbehaving as any child his age would, from making a mess at the dinner table while the adults are talking strategy for survival, to forgetting to mind his manners with his uncles. I often wondered if this was Art’s way of mocking his father’s idea of Rysio being the perfect child.
It was difficult to feel sorry for Vladik at times as I continued reading his story. While his life and experiences during the WW2 era help explain why he behaves the way he does, it gets tiring to read about the way he treats the people in his inner circle. It’s easy to assume that nothing in his present life will ever meet the standards/expectations of what he had once before. To make matters worse, Art discovers that his father burned all of his mother’s journals that she’d written in during the time of WW2. Since Art had wanted to understand what his mother was seeing and feeling throughout all the chaos, he had told his father that he wanted to find the journals to read her account of the events of the past. Unfortunately for Art (and people like me who may have appreciated her side of the story), his father decided he’d rather have her stories destroyed for reasons only he could understand. Which often makes me wonder if his side of the story was entirely accurate and matching that of his deceased wife.
Then the story takes you into another short story- Prisoner on The Hell Planet: A Case History. Unlike Maus, in which the characters are drawn as animals, Prisoner on The Hell Planet draws everyone as humans, and dives into the events following Anja Spiegleman’s (Art’s mother) suicide. It is clear in Maus that Anja is mentally ill, and is struggling with suicidal thoughts. Her family reacts to this by sending her to a sanitarium to seek immediate help; in P.O.T.H.P, however, it was difficult to figure out whether Anja was or wasn’t in treatment, although you read that she had a bottle of prescription drugs close to her the night she committed suicide. She’s portrayed as a depressed and troubled character, as she is shown asking what looks to be a young and resentful Art if he loves her. Art is seen to respond with a cold ‘yes’; later, after his mother’s death, this memory comes back and haunts him with guilt and shame. The usually strong and independent Vladik is portrayed as a child trapped in an older man’s body, as he is seen crying on the floor, acting hysterical during the funeral, and holding onto Art like a scared child. Art himself is shown to be struggling with thoughts of guilt, fear, and shame, as if he is to blame for his mother’s suicide. This is evident in the way his family members are imagined & drawn; having judgemental thoughts towards Art. On the other hand, Art seems to have battled with resentment and hatred towards his mother, blaming her for whatever problems he was involved in at the time of her death. He is on his way home from a mental hospital in the beginning of the comic strip, only to discover by a creepy-looking doctor (the stuff of nightmares) that his mother is dead; she’d slit her wrists and bled out. It isn’t clear what mental disorder(s) Anja was struggling with. While she is known to have suicidal thoughts in Maus, it isn’t known what she was battling with at the time of her death, although some reviewers have observed that the trauma from the Holocaust, as well as the death of her first child and her parents, may have had something to do with it. Since she is portrayed as needy and troubled by Art, but intelligent, fluent in many languages, and wealthy by Vladik, it becomes hard to tell what Anja was and wasn’t.
After reading Prisoner on The Hell Planet, I wondered if Vladik struggled with guilt and shame of not being able to save his wife from suicide since, as one can see from his side of the story, he often protected and took care of her when both their lives were in danger during WW2. It’s obvious that he often protected, saved, and did everything possible to find food and shelter not just for himself, but for his wife. I do wonder if this is the reason why he cannot stand his second wife, because she can do things for herself while Anja was consistently in need of help, which might have made him feel needed and in some way heroic.
I highly recommend this gem. Much like ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, this book is short but powerful. There’s so much to learn through the stories of those who’ve suffered and survived through WW2 and the Holocaust. Even when war comes to an end, the aftermath & consequences of it can live on much longer than war itself.
Can’t wait to read the second part of this book- Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began.
Thank you for reading!