This year, due mainly to an increase in my required reading for work, I approached Banned Books Week, held September 27-October 4, a little differently. I have read many of the books on this year’s Top 10 list, and so I decided to take the opportunity to read a graphic novel I have long been interested in and that, while not cracking the top 10 for many years, provoked its own controversy in its day: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegleman.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Maus tells the story of Spiegleman’s father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust after being imprisoned in Auschwitz with his first wife and Art’s mother, Anja, in two parts: My Father Bleeds History and Here Our Troubles Began. Set in “present day” (late 1970’s to early 1990’s), the story is set up as a series of interviews and interactions between adult Art, his wife Francoise, his father Vladek, and Vladek’s second wife Mala, also a Holocaust survivor, as Art chafes against his aging father’s expectations of him and personality quirks. The story also explores the after effects of Art and Vladek’s vastly different grieving and coping processes after the suicide of Anja in the 1950’s, all while exploring the atrocities of the Holocaust in an intensely and intentionally human way.
But we say that a lot, don’t we? This Holocaust story is unique because it puts a human face on the atrocities. The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, The Book Thief, the list goes on. But Maus is, indeed, different, at least from what I have seen and read. Maus is willing to get itchy, examining not just the very real horrors of the time but also the aftereffect on survivors’ relationships. Spiegleman wrestles with the question are his father’s incredibly grating quirks such as intense frugality, narrowmindedness, and a seeming disregard for others’ time and schedules the result of his time spent in Auschwitz or were they ingrained in him even before that? As such, the character Art feels guilt about his impatience and even anger towards his father for things that Vladek might not have much control over. And yet, Spiegleman the author never forces the reader to take sides. We feel his frustration and yet we see Vladek’s points. When Art storms out upon finding out his father burned Anja’s diaries detailing her experience in the Holocaust, we both understand his despair at losing yet another piece of his unknowable mother and Vladek’s desire to protect Anja’s memory by ridding the world of her memories of a terrible time.
Outside of the family dynamics, Spiegleman portrays the inner politics of surviving the Holocaust in a much more nuaced way than many accounts as well. On the surface, Spiegleman seems to be saying something pretty black and white with his animal assignments to the various peoples involved: in as very stark black-and-white drawing style, the Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, the Americans as dogs, the French as frogs, and so forth. Well, gosh. That says a lot right there and, in fact, was the source of a lot of the controversy around the novel. But Spiegleman’s point goes further. Yes, we can identify people by their group characteristics, but it is the individual that is important. There are bad Jews and kind Poles and more lenient Germans. Though Spiegleman paints the groups in broad strokes, he imbues the individuals with their own histories, memories, personalities good or bad or somewhere in between. The point is that sometimes we as individual humans get caught up in the societal machine, but it is those relationships between real people that is important.
And so yes, as many times as we say it, I do think Maus puts a human (via their animal counterparts) face on the horrific and massive atrocities of the Holocaust. Because the Holocaust did not end with the fall of the Axis and the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies. The Holocaust continues in every person who is affected, whether directly or indirectly, by its events and the actions and words of those involved. Spiegleman was desperate to hear his father’s story, as he should have been. His mother was a victim, his father a victim, his whole family were victims, and he himself was a victim. And to allow victims, nay survivors, in all areas to tell their stories, to give voice to their experiences, leads to growth as people and as societies. There is so much more to say, both analytically and personally, about this books. But for now I will say thank you, Mr. Spiegleman, for recording your father’s story and laying bare your personal relationship with him. The world needs to remember.