Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust

After seeing Maus on the syllabus I wondered why it was there.  I had read the story twice beforehand and appreciated it, but could not understand why we had been assigned a book mostly focused on European history.  The Holocaust is very important, but what does it mean for a class on American history?  Then I thought about how Art Spiegelman used Maus to explore his own identity as an American Jew and son of Holocaust survivors.  He is not religiously observant, but his parents’ suffering in the Holocaust is important for him.

Maus begins with a story from Art’s childhood.  After being left behind by his friends, Art comes crying to his father and is told, “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!…” [1]  Art struggles to know what the Holocaust meant for his parents Vladek and Anja, but can never understand because he was not there.  He grew up in the United States after war, but is still a victim of the Nazis.  In Maus II he tells his wife Francoise that growing up he had nightmares of SS soldiers dragging him out of school, imagined Zyklon B coming out of his shower in place of water, and had a sibling rivalry with a photo of his brother Richieu, who did not survive the war.  Not having these experiences makes him feel “some kind of guilt about having an easier life than they did” [2].  These feelings are similar to those felt by other children of Holocaust survivors who struggle to understand what their parents went through and are a unique kind of survivor’s guilt.

Art’s parents’ Holocaust experience gives Art a Jewish identity.  Even if he is not religiously observant, his Maus shows the importance of his Jewish heritage.  Drawing Jews as mice expresses a strong sense of vulnerability.  As mice the Jews are the most powerless characters in Maus.  Given the Nazis’ portrayal of Jews as rodents, this portrayal attracted controversy, but it’s crucial for the book.  The Jews have a single role in Maus; they are victims.  The German cats in the camp have the power of life or death.  Art’s parents attempt to hide their Jewishness by symbolically wearing pig masks so as to appear like the other Poles in the story, but cannot escape their fate end up at Auschwitz anyway [3].

Art’s portrayal of Jewish victimization reinforces Jewish stereotypes.  The Jews in Maus are the eternal victim.  Despite the Spiegelmans’ safe lives in the United States, they are never truly safe.  Anja, who had suffered from depression before, the war kills herself in 1968.  Vladek and Art are alive, but still bear scars that play into Jewish stereotypes.  Vladek represents the “miserly Jew” and Art is the “neurotic Jew,” and each corresponds in some way to the Holocaust.  Vladek is compelled to save everything because this saved his life during the Holocaust, and Art suffers depression because of his difficulty coping with his parents’ experience.  In the comic Prisoner on Hell Planet, written before Maus, Art draws himself as a human, but one wearing a striped prisoner uniform that resembles those given to prisoners at Auschwitz [4].  He felt imprisoned by his parents’ suffering.

Interviewing Vladek and creating Maus gave Art an opportunity to understand his parents.  After a long separation he returns to Rego Park to interview Vladek and start Maus [5].  He wants to understand them and only them.  Vladek’s second wife Mala was a survivor who went through Auschwitz, but this means less because she is not his mother [6].  He is by all means sympathetic, but it is not part of his story.  By contrast, once Art discovers that Vladek had destroyed Anja’s diaries, he calls him a murderer [7].  Art wants Maus to tell his family’s story.

[1] Art Spiegelman, Maus A Survivor’s Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 5-6.

[2] Spiegelman, Maus II A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (New York: Pantheon Books, 1991), 14-16.

[3] Spiegelman, Maus I, 155-157.

[4] Spiegelman, Maus I, 100-104.

[5] Spiegelman, Maus I, 11-12.

[6] Spiegelman, Maus I, 92-93.

[7] Spiegelman, Maus I, 159.

8 thoughts on “Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust

  1. I think my favorite part of Maus was when Anja is tired of running from the inevitable death that chases them. Vladek gives her hope by stating that to run is to survive and to survive is to resist. Today, running is still seen as a cowards trade, but I refuse to impose modern ways to the past. Had I been there, I would have run.

  2. As I thought about how Spiegelman used the cat-mice analogy to the plight of European Jews, I did not consider the vulnerability of the mice. Your analysis is interesting and makes me think about the book in a different way. I really enjoyed the story, and I found myself completely enthralled in it as I read. I gave less thought to Art’s character while reading, thinking him to be self-centered and focused mainly on his desire to record the story. It seems now this intense focus was a way to better understand the situation he has become the victim of.

  3. I was struck by the character of Art. He seemed so eager to hear is father’s story, but throughout the whole process it seems as if he resents his father more and more as the father shares what happened. He cannot seem to move beyond the sorted history him and his father share in their father – son relationship. I had hoped that by hearing this past would help him understand his father better and perhaps accept his actions more easily, his reaction I suppose could be seen as a very human one.

  4. You bring up an interesting point regarding stereotypes. Yes, Art’s father could be “miserly” (as far as the Art the author tells us anyway), and yes, Art the character could be called neurotic. Both of these characteristics play into Jewish stereotypes. But if those characteristics are honest to the people Art the author is trying to portray, does he have a responsibility to soften those characteristics or should he portray his characters truthfully, as he knows them? It reminds me of the Question Bridge video Georgie showed us. When one African American man mentioned eating “watermelon…in front of white people” and the following respondents laughed knowingly, it made me think about how difficult it must be to feel responsible to “correct” stereotypes when all you want to do is authentically live your life (or create art, as in Spiegelman’s case).

    1. I agree with your point! It also makes me think of Toure’s arguement about “the fear of the white gaze” and how people of color can be hypersensitive to the ways that they are perceived by their white counterparts. To what extent is Spiegelman responsible for whether his characterizations in Maus cause some readers to stereotype and generalize Jewish people? Does he have an obligation to “properly” represent Jewish people because he is writing about the Holocaust?

    2. Along the same lines, I found it interesting that Art specifically addresses the worry that his family will come across as stereotypical. That made me think of the Question Bridge, too, as well as “double consciousness,” and interviews I’ve read with Amy Tan where she responds to criticism that her Chinese characters are too stereotypical. Even in the LGBT community, you see gay men criticizing each other for being too “swishy” because it promotes stereotypes. What do you do, then, when certain stereotypes partially match your own experiences (and even your own personality)? How careful do you have to be about sharing those stories, especially in a published, widespread way?

  5. The Jews in Maus are victims and powerless in some ways, but I disagree that that is their “single role.” Most of the first book is Vladek doing all he can to get around the limitations placed on Jews. He actively seeks out places to hide and people with whom to trade on the black market. The Jews as mice are symbolically and literally the most vulnerable in Maus, but they are not defined by their victim-hood.

  6. I agree with Abbie. I think that correcting the stereotypes that Vladek fit into would have been untruthful. I think the way he portrayed Vladek was honest, but I couldn’t help but notice the constant victimization as well. I think Art’s father was undoubtedly lucky, but I also think he deserved more agency than Art gave him in the decisions he made to survive.

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