This post is dedicated to the victims of the election massacre that took place in Maguindanao.
I was supposed to read another book to wrap up my World War II Challenge, but that will probably have to wait until next month, as I found another couple of books for this Challenge, lent to me by my book club friend Mike (thank you, Mike!).
I’ve only really started venturing into graphic novels recently but the critically-acclaimed Maus by Art Spiegelman is something I’ve always been interested in, although I haven’t seen it in the local book stores. While I’ve been acquainted with Art Spiegelman’s work in the Little Lit series, I’ve always wanted to read his masterpiece.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is an autobiographical 2-part graphic novel about a comic artist (Art Spiegelman) trying to piece together his father Vladek’s account of the Holocaust, a bit of metafiction, as the artist is trying to create the actual novel in the hands of the reader. It shifts between the father and son’s contemporary life in New York (with Mala, Vladek’s second wife and Art’s wife Francoise) and Vladek’s memories from World War II.
The graphic novel uses the metaphor of anthropomorphic animals (animal heads, humanoid bodies) for the different races. As the title suggests, the Jews are portrayed as mice (‘maus’ is German for mice), likening the Holocaust to an extermination of vermin. Other nationalities are portrayed as different animals — Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, French are frogs, Swedes are reindeer, etc.
Maus is divided into two books: My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began (#170-171 for 2009).
In My Father Bleeds History, Artie decides to draw a book about his dad’s life in Poland and talks to his father to gather stories for the book.
Vladek’s story begins in the mid-1930s, where he marries the well-to-do Anja and has a young son named Richieu. He has a flourishing textile factory and lives a luxurious life.
Nazi troops start to march into Poland, and Vladek is drafted in the war against Germany. He becomes a prisoner of war but manages to escape, only to find that his business has been taken over from Aryans.
Relying on his business-savvy, Vladek builds a new life for his family, collecting debts from old contacts, working in a tin shop, trading gold, jewelry, and food, and even a bit of carpentry.
But the Jews are getting rounded up — Richieu does not survive — and despite Vladek’s creative efforts in making bunkers (safehouses concealed in coal cellars and attics), they get arrested and are transferred into a ghetto. They manage to escape again, hiding in a farmhouse and then in the cellar of a black market vendor, and attempt to flee to Hungary via train, where they are apprehended and sent to Auschwitz.
Book I also contains a comic within a comic: “Prisoner from Hell,” which is about Art’s mother and how she committed suicide (hmm, sounds like Sarah‘s Key took a cue from this one).
In Book II, And Here My Troubles Began, Art has been struggling to continue his father’s story (Book I came out in 1986, Book II in 1991) as their relationship grows more strained.
Book II focuses takes place largely in Auschwitz, where Vladek and Anja join the ranks of hundreds and thousands of Jews sent off to the concentration camp. Vladek and Anja get separated in Auschwitz, as Anja is taken to Birkenau with the other women.
Vladek is disheartened until a priest takes a look at his number stamp (175113) and pronounces it a good omen, because it totals 18, or chai in Hebrew, meaning life.
Vladek’s survival instincts kick in, and he relies on his array of skills to keep himself alive, away from the dreaded ovens, in the hopes of being reunited with Anya one day.
Vladek’s English skills earn him, momentarily, the protection of a Polish warden who wanted to learn English for the impending arrival of the American troops. He also becomes a tinsmith, a shoemaker, and a quarry worker at the camp.
And then, towards the end, all the prisoners left over were marched back into Germany, as the Nazis meant to remove all traces of their atrocities. They were packed into train cars left standing for weeks in the snow, bodies piled on top of bodies, until they reached Dachau.
It’s a long road to liberation for Vladek, as he is weak and sickly at this point, but he manages to make it with other survivors in Sweden. Dodging the last of the Germans, Vladek gets picked up by some American troops and he works as a salesman in Sweden to earn passage to get back home to Poland, where he plans to return to his hometown, where he and Anja agreed to meet when they survive the war. Months later, they are finally reunited in Sosnowiec, and start a new life together.
I must say that I thought I’d already read my share of World War II literature this year, but I can safely say that Maus is an epic piece in Holocaust literature, a must-read for anyone who’s interested in reading about the Holocaust.
I thought that having read several Holocaust-themed books this year would steel me for the impact of Maus, but I highly doubt anyone can read this book without being stirred. The starkly drawn figures in thick inky strokes are arresting in their simplicity, and the candidness of the tone used throughout the books only underscore the threads of emotion palpable beneath the surface.
Seeing the story in black and white affected me like none of the other Holocaust stories I read, and certain chapters will haunt me forever, particularly the one detailing what happens in the ovens — and the gas chambers — and I quite literally felt sick to the stomach as I was reading this part:
Vladek goes on to narrate the events that happen next: people are crammed inside, the door is sealed, the lights turned off. Then a pesticide, Zyklon B, is blasted into the room, anywhere between 3 and 30 minutes, leaving everyone inside dead, and a big pile of bodies next to the door, as they tried to get out.
Vladek had been shown around by a guy who worked there, who revealed that the bodies were pulled apart with hooks and thrown into big piles, with the heaviest on top, crushing the elderly and babies below.
”Their fingers were broken from trying to climb up the walls, and sometimes their arms were as long as their bodies, pulled from their sockets,” the worker narrates.
The piles of bodies were pulled up to the ovens and burned.
And then there was a worse way to die — the cremation pits, which were used after the Jews got too many for the ovens. Vladek points out that those who went by the ovens were lucky — the dead that didn’t fit into the ovens were dumped into the pits, and live prisoners were forced to jump over the dead bodies, got doused with kerosene and burned.
”And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped up and poured again so everyone will burn better.”
I knew about these gas chambers before I read Maus; I even saw the documentary videos. But reading about them in the voice of a survivor was heartbreaking, and it’s one of the most horrifying — and powerful — passages I have ever read in Holocaust literature.
I like how the books show that the effects of the Holocaust run deep, even decades after Liberation day — Vladek becomes suspicious and distrusting (even of his second wife), and careful about not letting food go to waste, afraid to go hungry again. In turn it also affects Art, whose relationship with Vladek gets more strained, compounded by his guilt towards having an easier life than his parents and the brother he never knew.
I think the use of animals in the books was absolutely brilliant, emphasizing the ludicrity of pinning neat little labels on people rather than stereotyping them. The images, Spiegelman says, are “borrowed from the Germans… Ultimately what the book is about is the commonality of human beings. It’s crazy to divide things down along nationalistic or racial or religious lines… These metaphors, which are meant to self-destruct in my book — and I think they do self-destruct — still have a residual force and still get people worked up over them.”
Even Vladek is not beyond committing racial discrimination — when they pick up a black hitchiker from a supermarket trip, he protests wildly, thinking they would be robbed, and the incident shows how this sort of mentality can easily get the best of us.
Decades after the Holocaust, Maus packs a powerful punch, weaving together threads of history, family, memory, and even, perhaps, the role of an artist as a social agent. It is my best read for this challenge so far, and for me, it belongs up there with other pillars of Holocaust literature, such as The Diary of Anne Frank (which I read in fifth grade), and even Night by Elie Wiesel, which I also read this year.
Someone recently asked me why I keep subjecting myself to the torture, why I keep reading Holocaust literature when I know how it will all turn out and I’ll inevitably get depressed, and she points out that it gets repetitive, as the stories converge at some point.
I guess it’s because I feel that these stories can never be told enough, that the lives that were lost (and those that survived) at this period in world history deserve to have their stories told, and their memories honored. People forget, and forget very easily, and the fear that this can happen once again is not unwarranted.
This fear hit close to home this week, as an election-related act of violence took the lives of innocent citizens and journalists in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, with the death toll currently at 57. My heart bleeds for the men and women — and journalists — who were mercilessly and brutally gunned down, decapitated, and raped and thrown into ditches prepared for the grisly act.
I join the nation in condoning this atrocity, and in praying for justice for the victims.
My copy: The Complete Maus (boxed set of books 1 and 2), on loan from Mike
My rating: Book 1- 5/5 stars; Book 2- 5/5 stars
*candle photos courtesy of sxc.hu