“He’s More Attached to Things Than to People!”: Holocaust Survivors’ Behavior Toward Material Objects

In Maus by Art Spielgelman, and Preserving Memory by Edward T. Linenthal, there is no shying away from the psychological implications of the Holocaust on its survivors. In Maus, the main character’s behavior towards certain objects is difficult for his son to deal with, even prompting the son to call his father a murderer in a particularly tense moment. In Preserving Memory, the attachment of survivors to their objects and their involvement in how they are used or not used in the Holocaust Museum’s exhibits is evident. In both Maus and Preserving Memory, material objects are treated in very specific ways by Holocaust survivors, which may be a strong indication of psychological tendencies formed as a result of tragedy.

In Maus, the reader is exposed to the character Vladek both during the Holocaust and during the mid to late 1970s when the author, Vladek’s son Art, began interviewing him. While Art aims to learn as much about his father’s Holocaust experience as possible, and even re-kindles their strained relationship to do so, the father-son dynamic becomes just as important to the Vladek’s story as his memories. Very often, Vladek’s tendencies simply annoy Art, and sometimes provoke outright anger.

Vladek’s insistence on keeping seemingly useless items is typical of what one might think

Maus
Panel from Maus by Art Spiegelman. Illustration by Art Spiegelman. (Photo Source: Julia Fell)

of as survivalist mentality. Someone who lost everything might never see any object as something to take for granted, and place more value on it than someone who did not experience such a loss. His attachment to these things prompts his wife, Mala, to exclaim that he cares more about things than he does about people [1]. While extremely frustrating to those around him, this behavior of Vladek’s may speak to his fear of losing items that may have value to him one day, as well as his reluctance focus on relationships and people, which are much harder deal with when lost.

 

Vladek asserts control by his behavior towards objects as well. He is the only one who he trusts to count his pills [2] and he won’t give Art the key for his safe deposit box because he expects Art to lost it [3]. He refuses to give Mala the money that she wants every week, despite being able to afford it, and tries to placate her by recycling his deceased wife’s clothing [4], and he picks up bits of wire off of the sidewalk rather than buying it new [5].

Contrarily, Vladek throws away Art’s coat without permission because he thought it looked old [6]. When Art finds out that Vladek has destroyed his wife’s biographical diaries, he goes so far as to call his father a murderer [7]. Vladek himself explains that he destroyed the books because he was having a hard time coping with his wife’s suicide (which was most likely associated with the mental trauma she experiences because of the Holocaust). These behaviors speak of a man who is desperately trying to keep his life within the boundaries that he has set, as well as maintain the illusion that he is not struggling by keeping up appearances.

eisiskese24
Big Synagogue in Ejszyzski, early 19th Century (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

In Preserving Memory, Yaffa Eliach, a survivor from Ejszyszki, Lithuania, worked with the Holocaust Museum and had a lot of say in how her extensive photograph collection, documenting life in Ejszyski before the war, would be used [8]. Museums do not generally accept donations which come with extensive restraints. However Eliach took on legal advisement and made sure that she was there every step of the way. She ensured that photographs were distributed in ways that made sense to her. She demanded that group portraits and images of buildings be left in the exhibit, and that photographs of people who had quarreled were not placed next to each other. Eliach’s attachment to these objects shows a deep-rooted connection to her life before the Holocaust, and a fierce determination to preserve her memories in exactly the right way.

 

Other potential donors to the exhibit were even less willing to leave their objects up to free interpretation. “One family gave me magnificent photos, but would not allow them to be displayed outside Israel.” [9] Perhaps this family felt that the physical representation of their memories would only be truly honored and respected in a place of Jewish culture and sanctuary.

The attitudes exhibited towards material objects by Holocaust survivors is very telling of the psychological implications of going through tragedy. Survivors endured years of being stolen from, culminating in their complete and forced separation from any worldly goods. The people who were lost to them would forever affect the way they formed relationships and the value they placed on objects, both mundane and sentimental.

 

[1] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986), 93.

[2] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986), 30.

[3] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986), 126.

[4] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986), 131.

[5] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986), 116.

[6] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986), 67-69.

[7] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, (New York, NY: Raw Books and Graphics, 1986) 158-159.

[8] Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory (Penguin Books, 1997), 182.

[9] Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory (Penguin Books, 1997), 185.

15 thoughts on ““He’s More Attached to Things Than to People!”: Holocaust Survivors’ Behavior Toward Material Objects

  1. Julia, I love your focus on the emotional importance of material objects. Vladek’s destruction of his wife’s diaries was such a significant action, and I think history lovers can in some way relate to why the act could be equated to murder. It makes me wonder about the nature of what we save and what we destroy. Museums are meant to save things, but it is interesting to consider that objects may be too painful for people to hold on to.

    1. I agree with Kate. I also think your focus on material objects really speaks to the idea of Holocaust survivors existing in a world in which they are walking a tightrope between remembering the past and living in the present. Vladek’s need to control money and his tendencies to keep something that may be seen as trash contrasted with his destruction of his late wife’s diary, is a great example of the balance they are trying to maintain on a daily basis.

  2. While reading Maus, I kept a running tally of times that Vladek displayed attachment to things we would considered irrelevant and disposed of others that we would consider important. I can only imagine having everything taken from you against your will would cause someone to hold on to everything they had dearly, but then strangely, Vladek throws away his son’s jacket and burns his wife’s journals, both things that held personal and emotional sentiment to the owners. It really does come down to asking, just because something is important to me, will it still be considered important to someone else? And how so you define what is considered worth keeping?

  3. While reading Maus, I kept a running tally of times that Vladek displayed attachment to things we would considered irrelevant and disposed of others that we would consider important. I can only imagine having everything taken from you against your will would cause someone to hold on to everything they had dearly, but then strangely, Vladek throws away his son’s jacket and burns his wife’s journals, both things that held personal and emotional sentiment to the owners. It really does come down to asking, just because something is important to me, will it still be considered important to someone else? And how do you define what is considered worth keeping?

  4. Your post makes me think about the challenges the curators had when creating the USHMM. I can’t imagine being responsible for deciding which pieces “deserved” to be present in the exhibit, while others were left behind. Like Cassidy said, it comes down to the subjectivity of what we value, and sometimes there are discrepancies between people. I’d like to learn more about the piece in the Preserving Memory article when they talk about the debate about “inappropriate sentimentality” in relation to objects made in the camps.

    1. I can understand the sentimentality towards objects made in the camps, sometimes these were the only possessions people had left in the world. I can understand their attachment to the items and others’ wanting to destroy the items or make sure they were not displayed. USHMM has to walk a fine line in handling their collection and exhibits, but it is something I think they do well and with careful thought each time.

  5. Really great blog post, Julia with some very thought-provoking ideas and questions. It is crazy how an object can hold memories, making something that others consider rubbish, invaluable to an individual. It’s all about perception though, meaning there’s a very good chance that others will not put the same amount of significance on an object as you would. Museum collections house what is considered worth preserving, but by whom? Curators today have the often times very difficult job of deciding what to take into their collection or even deaccession from their current collection.

  6. Julia, I loved your examination of the different relationships to objects between survivors, family, collectors, and museum professionals. Additionally, I thought it was really important that you highlighted the intergenerational aspect when it comes to interacting with and understanding these kinds of objects. Clearly, Vladek and his son, Art perceive and interact with the same objects very differently. I think this an important thing for exhibition teams to consider, the intergenerational relationship to objects and their part within a larger narrative.

  7. I loved your post and completely with all of the comments thus far as well. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have all of your worldly possessions taken away from you, from no fault of your own as well. It does make you think how the survivors would react to the new objects they acquire and why in the story Vladek puts a lot of significance on some object but little to non on others, such as throwing away his son’s coat. This narrative is different than his second wife Mala’s relationship to objects. She rejects wearing any of Anja’s clothes (understandably) and instead wants the experience of shopping and acquiring new items as old ones need to be replaced.

  8. A fascinating and profound post Julia, examining an aspect of the Holocaust I not considered, but makes a great deal of sense after having done so. In particular, I felt your point that Vladek’s behavior with seemingly irrelevant items versus what many would consider more significant ones speaks to his fear of confronting personal relationships given the people he has lost, and the trauma that accompanied this, was especially insightful. It reflects how people’s past, and the emotional perspectives they come to develop, our manifested outside themselves in the actions of the material world. I believe museums that explore the Holocaust–in particular the USHMM–should examine items from the camps used by survivors. Understandably, there can arise concerns of how to do this, as evidenced in Linenthal’s piece. But the material culture of the camps is a fundamental extension of these people’s stories, a material and physical expression of how victims and survivors confronted such devastating loss. As many have said, the nature of such objects can yield insights into what people saw as significant or worth saving, and why.

  9. I wonder if objects, for survivors, served as a form of identity and comfort while they lived in the camps. As has been pointed out, Jews were stripped of their identity and tattooed with an identification number on their arms. Without a name, is it possible that survivors and victims of the camps used objects to assert their identity as individuals and not numbers? Additionally, could objects have been used by those living in the camp as a form of attachment? Millions were murdered in the six death camps as well as the several thousand other labor, concentration, and prison camps. Maybe those trying to survive felt the need to emotionally attach themselves to something that they felt would last through their lives at the camp with them, as they never knew who would be next to lose their lives.

  10. Great post, Julia. It’s apparent throughout the book how Vladek’s complicated relationship to the Holocaust plays out in his complicated relationship to objects. As you said, this calls attention to how museums handle objects on display, as well as the importance of proper interpretation. No matter how mundane an object may seem, it can play a role in storytelling, and can help personalize this difficult history for younger generations who may feel removed from it.

    1. I was thinking about something similar to this. Would a museum want to collect something like, for example, the wire Vladek picks up from the street, because it represents value to him? Even though it may look like nothing, perhaps it could tell the story of how Holocaust survivors relate to objects. This is where story should be considered when museums collect.

  11. Re-reading Maus, I think I better understand now why Vladek was so much more connected to material things than Mala and their other survivor friends. Vladek had come from modest means, gained wealth and success through his wife’s family, then just as he was starting to make a comfortable living, the Nazis tore it all away. He’d built a dream and seen it destroyed, it’s no wonder he clings to everything he can.

  12. Kate, i love the view point of this article. The way you unpacked the emotional connection and value of objects. It begs the question what is worth saving in a museum compared what the people who lived through the event. People always think things from a major event must be preserved for future generations to better understand the event but when do we draw the line between saving historical objects and what an object means to a person. Museum have to take in consideration how objects are displayed and how the story is told.

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