[I decided to read this complex graphic memoir in four sections, writing about each section as I read. I didn’t know what kind of resolution might be achieved until I reached the end.]
15 August 2018
Chapters 1-3 of Part 1, My Father Bleeds History
Even only a quarter of the way into it, you can see why this book was in contention for the Pulitzer Prize—which it won in 1992, after the publication of Part 2. People (like me) who know about it but haven’t read it would assume it won because of the subject matter, the wholesale murder of Polish Jews by the Nazis. The thought didn’t just cross my mind, it was the simple assumption I made. I was wrong, I think. What’s impressed me about it so far is how Spiegelman has found a new way of doing personal history that is complex and constantly surprising. Alongside the ever more shocking atrocities of the Holocaust narrative runs another, to do with the complete lack of understanding of the son born years afterwards. This is the character called Art Spiegelman, and it’s only as his father’s story unfolds that we begin to understand why the two-page prelude about him is there. In it, the young Artie cries when his friends run off playing without him, and his father seems not to care. ‘Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together with no food for a week…. then you could see what it is, friends!…’
It reads completely like what it is, non-fiction. I don’t only mean the sections that make up most of it, Spiegelman’s father’s memories of his life. That alone would be a poignant memoir, and I guess I thought that’s all this book was going to be. Vladek Spiegelman speaks in his own voice—‘Anja was involved in conspirations!’—which, among a lot of other things, confers the added poignancy of a man whose own language is useless to him in his old age. Spiegelman, illustrating the memoir as his father tells it to him visit by visit, dramatizes each new situation over as many panels and pages as it takes. Speech-bubble dialogue, rendered in colloquial English to stand in for Polish, makes it all seem simple. Meanwhile the framing narrative, based on these visits to his father, also feels like non-fiction. The father-son relationship, made difficult not only by those little irritations that so often plague family life—Spiegelman tells his father’s second wife about how he had to eat everything on the plate, on pain of having to face it again until he did—but, we can be sure, by other habits of his father’s that owe an awful lot to the trauma of his life.
This is a key aspect of Spiegelman’s art. While the simplicity of his visual style allows him to present increasingly appalling situations almost as normal, there’s this other story going on, hints of the terrible legacy of it all on his father’s psyche. By not having the artwork draw attention to itself, Spiegelman turns the focus on to a subtly nuanced narrative. Only a few chapters in, little hints and habits begin to make us aware of the terrible effects of this man’s trauma.
What do I need to tell you? First, Spiegelman has Jews as mice, Gentile Poles as pigs, and Nazis (perhaps all Germans, how would I know?) as cats. I might change my mind later, but for me this seems problematic. Under Nazi rule, human beings were made to feels like a different species—and OK, this is one survivor’s story, and this is his take on the atrocity…. But visually, and from the very beginning, it seems to confirm the falsehood that cultural differences make us different kinds of creature. It was the very lie that the Nazis perpetuated. Spiegelman picked up his pen 40 years ago, and beliefs change—so that in the 21st Century ideas of race and ethnicity are very different from then. Whatever. In this universe, to pass for a Polish Gentile, Jews have to put on a pig mask, a convention that could only work in a comic-book. Maybe Spiegelman is reminding us that this isn’t reality, only a version of it.
Before the War, Vladek is doing well. He knows how to look after himself, having no trouble making enough money to live on from deals in whatever will turn a small profit. He’s popular with women—there’s a hint of callousness about the way he lives with one only to marry a different one—and his new father-in-law sets him up in business. His wife gives birth to a son and, when she suffers from dreadful post-natal depression, he is able to accompany her to a top-level sanatorium in Czechoslovakia. It’s all good—except that on the journey they get a first glimpse of how the Nazis treat Jews in countries they occupy. Things start to move fast—it’s 1938, then ’39—and Vladek is called up shortly before the declaration of war. He has been a reservist since the early 1920s, so he must be into his 30s by now….
He’s captured after the first battle he fights in and, having been forced to help retrieve the German dead, he finds the man he shot. The German soldier’s ID tells him he has a name… but, perhaps contrary to we might expect, he shows no regret: ‘Well, at least I did something.’ This man, all these years later, still clearly hates them all. There is discrimination against Jews right from the start—a cold tent and less food than non-Jewish prisoners, for instance—but, at first, he encounters nothing like the horrors we know will come later. The work is harsh, but not absolutely intolerable—and then, against all expectations, the prisoners are told to prepare to be taken back to Poland and freedom. Vladek had had a dream predicting this to the very day and, as he reminds his son, the date has remained special to the family ever since. I guess this must be just the sort of family story that Spiegelman would want to commemorate. Survivors keep hold of what they can—it’s little enough.
Through luck, stratagems—like wearing one of those pig-masks to deceive a Polish railway guard into treating him like a compatriot—and bribery, he gets home despite Poland having been divided. A tearful welcome from his wife, we know, is not the signal of any lasting happiness—we know that the Nazis are sending whole Jewish communities to Warsaw and other cities. And before the chapter ends, we’re back in the present day to see some of those little scars that seem to run through the old man. He hates to see his son in a shabby-looking coat, so he throws it away. And his problematic relationship with Mala, his second wife—we often see them bickering—is made worse for him by what he sees as her spendthrift habits. Vladek’s money is for his son, as though he can somehow erase the last 40-odd years and get back to pre-war prosperity. Artie is exasperated, and really doesn’t want to hear his father’s criticism of Mala, but what can he do? At the very beginning, when he first goes to see his father, it’s after a long time. We can see why: he doesn’t really like this man.
Chapters 4-6, the second half of Part 1
Something like 70% of these pages (I’m guessing) is taken up with the story, over nearly three years, of how the Nazis went from treating Jews as second-class citizens to exterminating them as vermin. I’ll come back to that, but I want to look at the other 30% to start with, in New York in the late 1970s. The presence of the damaged old man telling the story, the people in his life now, and the intertwined narratives these bring about are, for me, the most interesting thing in the book. While we see the father processing the terrible events he remembers, the other characters in this time-line become more and more important. Art Spiegelman himself is more damaged than he realises for a long time and Mala, Vladek’s second wife (a Holocaust survivor, like him) has been driven almost to distraction. Spiegelman is really getting into his stride with the metanarrative he’s set up, and it allows him to open a lot of different lines of enquiry, in what seems like real time. A scene of Vladek arguing with Artie and Mala moves seamlessly back to his story—so that sometimes he appears, as it were, presenting a panel illustrating some atrocity, or we’ll get two tiny silhouettes of him gesturing to Artie for emphasis….
These are well-used comic book conventions to denote a story within a story—after all, Spiegelman wants both a faithful rendering of the events of his father’s life and a narrative that works in its own (comic-book) terms. But he doesn’t leave it at that. We witness the debates he has with himself, or with Mala, or with his own wife (another mouse, we notice), for example about how his attempts to offer a truthful depiction of his father might end up confirming the stereotype of the mean old Jew. He’s like that because of his wartime experiences, he tries to tell Mala—but she reminds him that not every survivor keeps every last screw and nail (and the rest) for some imagined future use. This is what I mean about Spiegelman working in real time. He presents the decisions he has to make as an artist and writer as though he’s making them up as he goes along. Perhaps he is, perhaps this is the most faithful account he can offer of the difficulties he has.
And he makes a whole lot more of the metanarrative possibilities, especially with regard to himself as an active character. I’ve already mentioned that two-page prelude and how, to the child, his father’s reaction seems merely callous. There have also been those grumbling little remarks to Maya about his father’s tyrannical attitude to wasted food when he was growing up…. And in these chapters we get an insight into how far the adult Artie has yet to go before he can see beyond his own selfish concerns. Spiegelman, the artist creating this narrative, decides to have his father discover a short, self-pitying cartoon strip he’d had published in 1972. In it, he is the prisoner, locked up in the jail of his own guilt following his mother’s suicide. This is his story, and he has nothing to offer her memory but recriminations: ‘You put me here… shorted all my circuits… cut my nerve endings… and crossed my wires! …. You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!’ It’s a brave decision on Spiegelman’s part to present this younger version of himself in all his egocentricity. Maybe he had a breakdown then, but now it’s presented as an unattractive stage on the difficult path towards some kind of understanding.
He certainly hasn’t gained it by the end of Part 1. Spiegelman has been building up the significance of the notebooks of memoirs his mother wrote after the war, having his cartoon persona make constant references to how much he’s looking forward to reading them. OK. Finally—and it comes as no surprise at all—his father admits to have destroyed them. We can understand why, of course: ‘These papers had too many memories. So I burned them.’ But Artie’s reaction is selfish rage. In a speech-bubble as jagged as a cartoon explosion, it all comes out. ‘God damn you! You—you murderer!’ He has no idea. During the story of the terrible events of 1941-44, we have seen how Vladek has had to see people die because he had no power to save them. And now he gets this? Even the cartoon Artie relents a little, seeing how cowed his father is by his reaction. But he still goes off, only pretending he’ll be back soon, muttering: ‘Murderer.’
We’re not on his side, of course. His father, who must already have been approaching 40 at the end of the war, is presented as the old man he has become. What Artie sees is the petty tyrant of his childhood. What we see is a man desperately trying to keep hold of what he has left. He has lost his beloved first wife—he still has photographs of her on show—and his effort to replace her has been a failure. He does his best to keep fit, so that we often see him relating the latest brutal episode in his story from the seat of his exercise cycle. He’s doing what he can to control the heart condition that has killed someone he knows. And we know all about his reluctance to spend money or waste anything. This seems exasperatingly pointless to both Artie and Maya—there’s an episode to do with a leaking roof that they want him to get fixed by a professional—but, we can see, it’s because he wants to preserve some kind of inheritance for his only son. He had been successful by the age of 30—which, inevitably, becomes another bone of contention between him and Artie—and we can see how he’s only trying to make up some of the ground he lost in the war. What Artie and Maya see is meanness. All we can see is desperation.
- Meanwhile, in the story that all this is framing, the brief respite hardly lasts any time at all for the Polish Jews. Vladek has found his way home, and everything seems as it was before… but it’s a knowing kind of denial by almost everybody. There’s still the parents-in-law’s big house, the fine meals using ingredients they manage to get hold of by pulling all the strings they can, and Vladek is lulled into a false sense of security. He wonders (perhaps implausibly—he’s an astute man) how his factory is getting along, and his father-in-law tells him that all Jewish-owned businesses are now in the hands of German managers. In fact, the wholesale theft of Jewish property is now a simple fact, and there is no money at all coming in. Bit by bit, what remains of their wealth is whittled down. His father-in-law smuggles out the top-of-the range bedroom suite they bought just before the war, leaving only his wife’s bed as she lies in it, deeply ill. They are able to get a German buyer for it—but only if the sick-bed is included in the deal. Of course, they never get the money.
From now on, it isn’t only wealth that’s whittled away. Vladek, admired by his father for his ability to make money through black market deals, finds himself as ground down as everybody else by the bureaucratised persecution. Chapter 4’s title is ‘The Noose Tightens’, and if we think that it’s a metaphor we’re wrong. Almost half a page is given over to the all-too-recognisable image of four hanging corpses, fellow-Jews that Vladek had worked with. We can see the dead mouse faces of two of them, but all we see of the other two are their dangling, human legs. Of course, they have been found guilty of crimes—at first, there are never punishments without well-documented evidence of criminal behaviour—but a year or so of what had seemed like a pinched normality is suddenly something else altogether.
By the end of 1942 and into 1943 the Nazis, step by brutal step, curb every single aspect of Jewish life. They have to move into smaller houses in what become de facto ghettoes. Jobs become more and more like slave labour, policed by Jews who carry big sticks. Maybe, says somebody, they want to make sure that the treatment is less brutal than by Nazi guards, but there’s little enough evidence of this. The only thing that seems to bring better treatment is money, or somebody’s cousin in some lowly position in the bureaucracy. It’s the latter that saves most of the family when there’s the first of the big culls, the division of 30,000 people into those who are useful and those who seem not to be. 10,000 will never be seen again, including one friend or relation whose wife and four children are rejected. He climbs the fence to join them.
It’s the anecdotal rendition of scenes like this that makes the horror real. And it’s still only Chapter 4—which doesn’t end with that desperate climb over to death. It ends with a two-page scene in Vladek’s New York home, in which Mala, his second wife, describes the horrors faced by the rejects. Her own mother survived it—through a brother who worked on the right committee, inevitably—but witnessed the forcing of ‘thousands’ into four apartment blocks to await transportation. The daughter, Mala herself, was part of the vile clean-up operation and helped to smuggle her mother out. After this, the conversation reverts to that other thread—Art’s hope of finding what his mother had written about the war. He remembers seeing it, and it isn’t the last time Spiegelman will remind us.
During Chapter 5, things rapidly deteriorate in Poland. What vestiges of any rights remain are further curtailed, culls become more arbitrary and, long before the end of the chapter, even bribery and nepotism are no good. A cousin smuggles Vladek and Anja out, after he’s been paid, but not her father and mother. The last we see of them is their mouse faces in agony behind a window, Vladek’s figure presented in front, glumly telling us this. ‘He was a millionaire’—he had paid for their safe passage too—‘but even this didn’t save him his life.’
Worse things have happened before this. The size of the Jewish population has shrunk to a few thousand, now forced to live in a village while the peasants move into Jewish properties in the town. The culls never stop. Even people like members of the Jewish Council, supposedly a safe committee, are executed, and Vladek tells a story—he tells his son he didn’t see it with his own eyes, but that doesn’t stop Spiegelman drawing it—of how the Nazis dealt with screaming children: They ‘swinged them by the legs against a wall… and they never anymore screamed.’ By this time Vladek, finally, has persuaded Anja to let their son be taken to a safer town. But, of course, it isn’t safe. We’ve always known he wouldn’t survive—but not that the mother of his friend would poison herself and the children sooner than get into the wagons to be taken to Auschwitz. ‘No! I won’t go to their gas chambers!’
As it becomes clear that the Nazis fully intend to exterminate all Jews, we are shown the ever more desperate measures taken by the fewer and fewer survivors. Hidden ‘bunkers’ behind lean-to sheds or in attics, escape routes through piles of German boots awaiting repair to a safe room with days of supplies kept ready. Soon, even these are discovered or reported by treacherous Jews—one of them, Vladek reports neutrally, ends up dead through the influence of a cousin who might be a crook, but doesn’t like this sort of thing. It’s Vladek himself who is in charge of burying the body of the man who betrayed a whole family.
After that desperate escape, when Anja’s parents don’t make it out, it starts to become a fugitive life. One of Vladek’s nephews—‘I’m sick of hiding!’—thinks his skills will be valuable enough to save him. A single panel sums up his fate. Anja, her face a distraught cipher of pain, wails ‘You’re going straight to the ovens!’ and a text box confirms her fears: ‘He did get put into one of the next transports to Auschwitz.’ So it goes. After more hiding, an attempt by one group to mix with Poles leaving in a work party—it ends with the sound of machine-gun fire—and the departure of the Nazis from a ghetto they think is now empty, Vladek and Anja leave the village. Their path takes them into the centre of a swastika ominously filling the landscape.
Like every chapter, this one is interspersed with different threads in the New York time-line, but Part 1 isn’t over yet: the Spiegelmans are desperate, but they haven’t been caught. So far. Chapter 6 follows their last months on the run, always aided by a mixture of good luck, chance meetings with old acquaintances and Vladek’s canny ability to make small-scale deals. And they benefit from his previous far-sighted squirrelling away of enough trinkets to buy the help he needs. (When Art asks him why people always had to be paid, he is annoyed by his own son’s naivety. By this time, it was everyone for himself.)
Their story is quickly told In Chapter 6. They have to stay in a barn, then find a safe house. The owner’s husband is only home for ten days every three months, but then they have to move temporarily to the rat-infested cellar. When they decide that they will take up what seems like a copper-bottomed guarantee of safe passage to Hungary—they’ve received a letter from a friend who goes before—Vladek offers their place in the house to another couple, now living in a tiny section of a refuse-pit into which a friendly Polish woman sends down food: ‘the decomposing garbage gives some heat.’ But the people-smugglers are in the pay of the Nazis, the Spiegelmans are arrested on the train, and this thread of Part 1 ends with them seeing that notorious entrance gate: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’
Chapters 1 and 2 of Part 2, And Then My Troubles Began
The first chapter is Mauschwitz—Spiegelman’s allowed to make jokes like that, it’s a comic book. And as we turn over from the grim-looking title page, we’re reminded that it’s also a meta-comic book. Cartoony sketches of women with different animal heads are shown to illustrate the creative process. We’ve already seen Art’s wife, Françoise, and she’s a mouse like him. But the chronology has looped back on itself—he’s showing us a time before he’d actually written and drawn Chapter 5 of Part 1, which is when we first saw her. She’s French—so is she a frog? A poodle? Or some random creature like a rabbit or moose? He shows her, and she’s definite: ‘A mouse, of course!’ She converted when she married, for Vladek’s sake, and Art pretends he’ll draw the magical moment when, after ‘a few magic words’ from a mouse rabbi—‘Zap!… By the end of the page, the frog has turned into a beautiful mouse.’
This is nothing compared to the metanarrative games he plays at the beginning of Chapter 2—I’ll come back to them—but the games in this chapter aren’t over yet. Art and Françoise have to interrupt a holiday in Vermont following an urgent call from Vladek. He’d left a message pretending he’d had a heart attack so Art would call back—but, in fact, Mala has left him, has taken the car and other property of his, and has emptied the bank account. On the freeway to Vladek’s holiday bungalow in the Catskills, Art talks about—guess. ‘Sigh. I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams. And trying to do it in a comic strip! Maybe I ought to forget the whole thing.’ He carries on for a while, until she tells him, ‘Just keep it honest, honey.’ And he has time for another joke. ‘See what I mean… in real life you’d never have let me talk this long without interrupting.’ Thanks, Art, we get it.
The heart attack story is only the first of a series of manipulative little games Vladek plays. They think they’ve only interrupted their holiday for a few days, but they are soon under a lot of pressure not only to help him sort out his affairs but to stay for the whole summer…. The episode takes up fourteen pages, more than half of Chapter 1, and it opens out more than ever before the present-day time-line. All the old tensions are there—there’s a big row over wasted matches, and another when Art can’t face going over the numbers for the third time—but it’s clear the old man can’t really cope alone. His neighbours in the next holiday bungalow are OK to call in on him now and again, but no more.
Art and Françoise talk about him, and what makes him such difficult company. ‘It’s so claustrophobic being around Vladek,’ she says. ‘He’s so anxious. … Maybe Auschwitz made him like that.’ Meanwhile, we see Vladek playing the jaunty Dad—‘So! You’ve been enjoying yourself, kids?’—but this comes just before he makes them spend hours on the numbers. Françoise lets Art take his father out for one of their walks and, eventually, he persuades the old man to talk about Auschwitz. I’ll come back to that story, but it’s the metanarrative I’m interested in just now. Vladek talks until they get to where he wants to show Art how clever he is at playing the system. He can easily pass for a resident of the nearby hotel, can play their bingo games, for free…. He doesn’t notice how self-defeating his little scam is, even when he tells Art that he couldn’t take the prize when he won once, because he had no room number. He let the woman next to him have it, for no other reason than that he couldn’t.
Then we’re in Chapter 2, and the present-day timeline has leapt forward from the virtual present of the Catskills story—which, we now realise for sure, came some years before Spiegelman actually came to finish and publish the original Maus—to the hiatus between it and the writing of Part 2. And something’s wrong. Spiegelman, struggling at his desk with writer’s block, is still a cartoon self-portrait, but now he’s his real self—as if such a thing exists—wearing a mouse mask. And it’s the start of what’s almost a breakdown. Perhaps it is a breakdown, like the one he implies in Part 1 in his self-portrait as a prisoner of guilt. The pressure of the unexpected fame Maus brought him—the expectation both that he would happily give endless interviews and repeat the success with the conclusion of his father’s story—finally becomes too much. As journalists crowd round him, asking unanswerable questions—‘Could you tell us if drawing Maus was cathartic? Do you feel better now?’—he becomes a child again, a toddler in a mouse mask screaming ‘Wah!’ on the chair he’s been forced to sit on.
And he remains a small child until his analyst, a real-life survivor of Auschwitz like his father, talks him through the practicalities of how he might draw what his father describes. After an unknown number of sessions, we see him walking along the street, a few inches taller in each panel. He’s ready to start on the book we’re reading now… but not before a self-deprecating joke about his own bad-tempered reaction to his father’s reluctance to talk. After hints—‘Please, Pop, the tape’s on’—he finally erupts: ‘Enough! Tell me about Auschwitz!’ Which his father does, nearly seven pages into the chapter. There are still a lot of present-day pages and linking panels, but more of Chapter 2 is set in Auschwitz in 1944 than in either the Catskills when Vladek was an old man or in the late 1980s, after the publication of Maus, when he was dead. The rest of the framing story, with Françoise’s presence helping to confirm what an impossible man Vladek has become, can wait for now….
…because in And Then My Troubles Began, we begin to see the full extent and nature of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. Spiegelman is right when he has his character, in the analyst’s chair, fretting about the impossibility of the task he’s set himself. ‘My book? Hah! What book?? Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz. I can’t visualise it clearly, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like.’ He’s right, but the analyst’s idea works for him. He gets Spiegelman to concentrate on the details. In the metalworking shop Vladek worked in ‘there would be a cutter… like a giant paper cutter—and maybe an electric drill-press or two….’ It’s another metanarrative device, preparing the reader for the inevitable: there’s no way a comic-book is going to convey the full horror. On the way to the Catskills near the start of Part 2, he’s already laid it on the line: ‘I feel so inadequate, trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams. And trying to do it as a comic strip! I guess I bit off more than I can chew.’ But the analyst is right.
…and what Spiegelman goes for is a step-by-step approach. Starting as soon as he manages to get his father to describe it—he doesn’t make the point that Vladek is probably as reluctant to put it into words as he himself is to draw it—the details of the day-to-day, month-to-month bureaucratic administration of murder are hideous enough for anybody. I mentioned the grim title page for Chapter 1, Mauschwitz. The title page for Chapter 2 is far worse, showing the burning alive of screaming victims—an image presented even more graphically, and with Vladek’s commentary, at the end of his narrative in this chapter. ‘And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better.’ OK, so it’s mice we’re looking at, but mice transformed into howling ciphers of pain. It’s as though Spiegelman is letting us know he can’t show us horrors he’s already admitted are unimaginable. It might only be a comic book panel rather than a masterpiece of 20th Century art but, as a stylised depiction of the consequences of an atrocity, it’s as harrowing as Picasso’s Guernica.
But a lot has happened before this, because Spiegelman has Vladek start at the beginning. This is Chapter 1, before we’ve been shown how he needed that advice from his shrink about how to approach it. We get the routine humiliations of the first appalling hours in the camp—the separation of the sexes, the random-sized clothes thrown at them as they run naked across a freezing yard, the dormitories where nothing has been left undone to make any dignity or comfort totally impossible. We get the slave labour that is designed to grind the prisoners down as much as to produce anything useful—although it must be useful enough for the Nazis to keep them alive. Some of them. For now. And, even though Vladek is luckier than most—of course he is, only a tiny handful were to survive—he is often terribly cold and usually starving. And, one by one, he witnesses the people around him being taken off to the gas chambers, or simply dying wherever they happen to be
Spiegelman keeps it bearable, just, by focusing on the details. He even has Vladek drawing a diagram of a shoe-repair technique he had picked up in one of the ghettoes, and a map showing why it would be useful to find a way to get Anja a place working in a sector nearer to his. (The scrimping and saving of rations in order to buy favours from the most useful guard is heroic.) The system might be machine-like, and so might some of the guards—there’s a particular woman who turns the hunt for supposed wrongdoer into a personal quest—but there are also human beings in there. It’s one of these that helps Anji—and she’s the prisoner the nasty guard is chasing, so it’s good that the quest comes to nothing. If the infuriated pig-face of the woman is a consolation, it’s one that is bitterly hard-won.
Vladek and Anja are fortunate. They make their own luck, to some extent—they are both good workers, and Vladek tries to stay ahead using every scrap of skill he’s ever managed to pick up—but nobody survives Auschwitz unscathed. We see the clumsy, likeable acquaintance that Vladek starts off with in the camp, ground down and eventually taken away to be killed. We witness the conversations between Jews who, despite everything, can’t be persuaded that there is going to be no chance of leaving the place alive. We hear the howls—or, rather, see the cartoon lettering of his ‘Aawoowwah!’ snaking across first one panel, then another—of a prisoner marked down for future extermination in one of the frequent ‘Selektions’. Vladek, trying to comfort him, is at a loss: ‘What could I do? I couldn’t tell to the Germans they won’t take him…. And the next day, they took.’
After pages of these horrors, stretching across the months from March 1944 to the end of the year—Vladek draws a chart to show what jobs he was working in during the time—the doomed prisoner’s howl comes again. It snakes across a panel of the final page of the chapter—‘Aawoowwah!’—and Françoise, an ingenue in the strange world of Holocaust survival, is dismayed. ‘Wh-what’s that noise?’ Artie isn’t fazed at all. It’s ‘nothing—just Vladek…. He’s moaning in his sleep again. When I was a kid I thought that was the noise all grown-ups made while they slept.’
These final two pages of the chapter bring it home to us just how damaged Vladek is, and it’s largely through the effect he has on Françoise. After several thoughtlessly critical remarks from him, of her sandwiches—‘Ach! If you made with white bread, I’m not allowed to eat,’ unlike Anja, ‘such a good girl… with my special bread she knew how to make’—and Artie’s offer to wash the dishes—‘You only would break me the rest of my plates,’ and this after he himself has just broken one—she can’t help remarking on it. ‘It’s amazing how hard it is to spend a whole day with him. He just radiates so much tension.’
She wonders if it’s Mala’s departure that’s brought it on, but Artie dismisses this. ‘Nah, it’s always that way….’ And we might think back to the book’s two-page prologue, when Vladek offered no comfort at all for his childish troubles. Then, I had wondered why he’s like this—or, to put it a different way, why Spiegelman focuses on this incident to start with. Now, we’re beginning to understand. Vladek might have survived Auschwitz, but that awful howl shows us how he’s re-lived it every day and night of his life.
And finally, while I’m on the vexed issue of Artie’s childhood…. After a page announcing this as Maus II, and a quotation from a Nazi-sympathising newspaper about the ‘Jewish brutalization of the people’ by Mickey Mouse, ‘filth-covered vermin’—a lightbulb moment for the reader—there’s a childhood photograph of the brother Spiegelman never knew. ‘For Richieu,’ reads the dedication, and for the two young friends who died with him. Spiegelman has placed this neat-looking Polish boy here for quite complicated reasons that only slowly emerge. Richieu was ever-present during his childhood, the photograph in pride of place in his parents’ room. Françoise, who has become an ever more useful sounding-board for Artie’s thoughts in these chapters, is puzzled. She always thought the photo was of Artie himself, but no. ‘They didn’t need pictures of me in their room… I was alive! The photo neve threw tantrums…. It was an ideal kid, and I was a pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete.’
Ah. This leads to a long conversation—it’s the one in the car on the way to the Catskills—in which Spiegelman puts into Artie’s mouth some truths, among other things, about his own sense of guilt. Without meaning to, his parents had made him feel excluded. ‘I know this is insane, but sometimes I wish I could have been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through.’ What Spiegelman seems to be doing is unpacking the impossible task ahead of him. He isn’t only talking about how he will never portray the truth of Auschwitz. He’s talking about his relationship with the impossible old man his father has become. His own easy New York life, the one his father objects to in that prologue and forever after, is something he can’t change. And ‘That photo… was a kind of reproach. He’d have become a doctor, and married a wealthy Jewish girl… the creep.’ He fears he’s stuck in a broken relationship with his father that he can never put right.
Chapters 3-5—to the end
Perhaps it isn’t Spiegelman’s fault, but this feels like something of a scramble. He has a lot of finishing-off to do in both timelines—what feel like a further dozen unspeakable outrages in the Holocaust timeline, as Vladek and hundreds of others are evacuated to Germany, and more details than seem strictly necessary of the last months of the old man’s life in 1982. The final image of the book is the gravestone bearing his name and, of course, Anja’s.
I’ll start with the present-day timeline because that’s what Spiegelman does. Art and Françoise are determined not to have to spend the whole summer with Vladek, and we can see why. He rises early, routinely calls them lazy for sleeping late, and his compulsion to save every last scrap of everything is at its worst. He re-seals half-used boxes of Mala’s cereal and other items before, as the others witness from the car, appalled, he remonstrates with the store manager to refund some of what he paid for them. When he proudly returns with five dollars, his story of what a gentleman the manager is doesn’t hide the truth: he yelled and guilt-tripped him into the deal with his survivor’s tales of Auschwitz.
In fact, this final day of their stay (if it really is their final day) takes up eight pages of Chapter 3, interspersed with Vladek’s story. But are they really going to leave him? As he points out, the rent is paid for the whole summer, and it would be a shame to waste…. But he’ll go back to Rego Park if they insist on leaving. Whatever. The drive to the grocery store is long enough for Vladek to catch up with the first part of the evacuation from Auschwitz and, for the first time, the boundaries between the time-lines begin to blur. Four women, Auschwitz prisoners who committed arson and died for the crime, hang in the forest they are driving through. Near the store, a jagged shriek from Vladek, cross-hatching turning the scene to one of horror, is his way of letting her know she’s missed the turning. What had she been saying about him radiating tension?
After they have seen Vladek’s row with the store manager, Spiegelman has Françoise voice a truth that we’ve been piecing together for ourselves for a long time now. Art tries to explain his father’s behaviour. ‘Everything Vladek went through. It’s a miracle he survived.’ Françoise is thoughtful. ‘Uh-huh. But in some ways, he didn’t survive.’ The OCD, the near-contempt for those who have had it easy, the obsession with every scrap and penny… This capable, enterprising man, who was already running such a successful business in Sweden after the war that he only came to America for Anja’s sake, is a shell. (The brother in America, the one who survived because he was there when the Nazis arrived in Poland and Anja’s reason for emigrating, dies in a car crash not many years later. Ah.)
On the way back from the store, there’s something else to add to the list of things that make him impossible to live with. When she stops to pick up a Black hitch-hiker it’s as though she’s driven into a volcano. In the loudest, blackest lettering we’ve seen, it’s ‘Oy—it’s a colored guy, shvartser. PUSH QUICK ON THE GAS!’ He doesn’t believe the groceries they’ve bought are untouched until he takes them out of the paper sacks at the bungalow. OK.
I’ve nearly had enough of this time-line. We get it now, but Spiegelman has to tie up the last threads. Vladek moves to Florida, to try to make a deal with Mala, and ends up living with her. But he’s becoming ill, Art and Françoise go to visit, the plane has to be grounded for hours when they bring him back to New York for the best treatment… to discover that he isn’t as ill as they thought. He’s about to move in with Mala in Florida permanently, despite the early signs of dementia and his short-term memory failing. But ‘the war, yah, that I remember,’ he says, and he’s ready to tell Art the final episodes of his story. But I need to go back to the start of Chapter 3, because a lot happens in Poland, Germany and beyond before Vladek and Anja are safe.
It starts with the evacuation or, rather, an escape plan devised by Vladek and some other enterprising prisoners before it happens. They don’t want to go to Germany to be finished off ahead of the Allied armies in 1945, they’d rather stay behind and make their own luck. But a rumour spreads that the Nazis intend to blow everything up, so there will be no hiding place. They join the rest leaving the camp, and the place is not destroyed. But what can you do? You can march, or drop down dead by the wayside, or be shot like a dog—literally, Vladek thinks the writhing figure on the road ahead really is a dog, ‘Somebody is jumping, turning, rolling 25 or 35 times around… and stops.’ There’s a new atrocity on every page. Guards accept a bribe to let eight or nine escape, then shoot them all in the back when they run. When they arrive at a holding-camp in Germany, exhausted prisoners are beaten for stumbling, and men like skeletons just carry on dying.
And then they are on the move again, crushed into cattle-trucks: ‘They pushed until it was no room left.’ The ever-resourceful Vladek gets himself a place to hang a thin blanket for support by the open window, so he can breathe and won’t collapse to be crushed underfoot like a lot of others. When the thirst comes, he can reach up for snow from the roof. The truck is so crowded, he is able to trade snow for tiny bits of food from people who can’t reach. Eventually they stop, and they are simply left in the snow-covered trucks for days, then weeks. Soldiers call to them every few days to throw out their dead. Horrifyingly, those left are glad of the floor-space this creates, the extra clothes and shoes they can salvage. Vladek doesn’t make any comment, and neither does Art. What’s to say?
One brief moment of respite is when they are turned off the train to receive some bread from the Red Cross, but it’s almost pointless. They are herded back on to the train and off they go, this time all the way to Dachau. The rules here are jaw-droppingly vicious. A shirt infested with lice disqualifies the wearer from receiving his food ration—so, of course, Vladek finds a way of getting a shirt to keep clean, because the lice are everywhere. A spilled drop of soup, he says, was bad news. ‘Like wild animals they would fight until there was blood. You can’t know what it is, to be hungry.’ We remember that prologue again, and finally get it. What had he said? ‘Friends? If you lock them together with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends.’
There are details of specific things that happened to Vladek. There’s a French non-Jew—a frog, ho-ho—who joins him so he can learn English in return for food which, as a non-Jew, he can receive from home. He gets an infection, and it leads to typhus—but it doesn’t kill him. He is weak, and has to climb over dead bodies to get to the toilet: ‘You had to go on their heads, and this was terrible, because it was so slippery, the skin.’ But, perhaps surprisingly, he’s in the infirmary and would be better off than the others if he wasn’t too ill to eat. Then…
…almost miraculously, as the war approaches its end, he is sent with a group of other sick prisoners—they are no use if they can’t work—to be exchanged for Germans in Switzerland. They see normal life carrying on, and can hardly believe it, and their hopes are raised…. But the end of the war doesn’t save Vladek, because even now the prisoners are loaded into trucks to be shot in the forest. What saves them is the disappearance into the woods of the machine-gunners who were going to gun them down in one final defiant war-crime. Soon, even the most gung-ho Nazis begin to fear that now they’ve lost the war, they might actually be punished, and are no longer so interested in rounding up and shooting Jews. A particularly unpleasant incident comes when a brutish German cat-citizen tells Vladek and his friend that he isn’t going to help them. They can jump in a pit around the back if they like—and when they do, he tells some soldiers. The soldiers, luckily, are long past caring and hurry off to save their own skins.
And soon, as promised in the chapter-title, Vladek and his friend are Saved. American soldiers arrive at the farm where they are hiding, let them have clothes that have been left there and, at last, the long journey home can begin. But… there aren’t going to be any easy happy endings. First there’s a scene, as Vladek finds his box of old photographs, in which the comic-strip panels become overlaid with pictures of dead relatives. At the end of the second page of this, the whole structure collapses in a random pile of family photographs. This is the heart-breaking truth of survival. One by one, Vladek explains how each one died, until he says the terrible words: ‘All what is left, it’s the photos.’ This is the present-day timeline, but even in post-war Poland there’s more unpleasantness—‘We thought Hitler finished you off!’ bellows a swinish Pole when a friend of Vladek’s family tries to reclaim his own family home—but, finally, Vladek finds Anja and is reunited with her. The final panel shows the moment: ‘We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after.’
Well, yes and no. The next pair of panels have Vladek, lying on the bed from which he’s told the end of the story. ‘Let’s stop, please, your tape-recorder… I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now.’ Wherever he is, the old man isn’t in America in the early 1980s. He’s finished the bedtime story, and now it’s time to rest. And Spiegelman has drawn it so that the top of the simple tombstone below these frames on the page fits precisely along the edges of the bed. Not long now.