Images of Auschwitz

It cannot be denied that stories of the Second World War has proliferated over the past few years. Novels such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Book Thief, The Librarian of Auschwitz, and Schindler’s Ark/List. have become mainstream works that depict the war. The vivid portraits of pain and the guttural cries of the victims were deftly captured through words and the published text. Through these tales, the horrors of the war echoed in the contemporary, giving the general public deeper insights and perspectives. Amidst the pandemonium dominated by gunfire and violence beacons the stories of hope, survival, and indomitable courage. Within their premises are lessons from and voices of the past that needs to be heard or read, even as the world is headed towards a period of relative peace.

Amongst these literary masterpieces that paints vivid pictures of the Second World War is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Fittingly subtitled as A Survivor’s Tale, Maus drew inspiration from the story of Spiegelman’s parents through his father, Vladek Spiegelman. Over the years, the rift between father and son started to widen, especially after the sudden demise of Art’s mother, Anja, in 1968. Following Anja’s suicide, Vladek married Mala, causing the relationship between Artie and Vladek to turn further south. In an attempt to bridge the gap between them, Artie started asking his father about their experiences during the Holocaust. From these recollections of his father, Artie built and drew the defining work of his career.

Vladek’s story commenced in the mid-1930s, as he recounted his younger days in  the Polish city of Częstochowa. He was like the typical young man of the contemporary period. His life changed in December 1935 when his cousin approached him, wanting him to meet one of his classmates, Anja Zylberberg. Anja was born in a rich and prominent family but wasn’t endowed physically. This, however, did not stop Vladek from falling in love with Anja. In one of their conversations, Vladek told Artie that Anja wasn’t as attractive as his former girlfriend, Lucia, “but if you talked a little to her, you started loving her more and more.” When they got engaged, Vladek moved to Sosnowiec and started working as a manufacturer. In 1937, Vladek and Anja finally got married, and shortly afterward, their first son, Richieu was born.

The couple’s fate changed in 1943 with the arrival of the Nazis. The Jews in Sosnowiec ghetto were moved by the Nazis to Srodula; for work, they had to march back and forth to Sonowiec. For their son’s safety, they sent Richieu to Zawiercie to stay with his aunt. The couple, joined with their fellow Poles, built bunkers to hide from the Germans. When the ghetto was cleared of all Jews, they managed to stay incognito and escape once all remnants of Nazi presence were gone. They returned to Sosnowiec and, just like mouse hiding from cats, moved from one hiding place to another. As fate would have it, an act of betrayal would lead them to being incarcerated in the daunted chambers and halls of Auschwitz, that Nazi citadel that has become synonymous to death.

“Yes, life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed. But it wasn’t the best people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was random!”

~ Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus

In Maus, Spiegelman captured images of the Polish ghettos, and of Auschwitz through his evocative and graphic images. Originally published as a series, it is the story of a war survivor, a narrative that has been ubiquitous over the past few years. However, it is no mere portraiture of the horrors of war. Whilst majority of the narrative deals with hardships that Vladek and Anja had to go through during one of the darkest phases of modern history, the story is also about the manifestations of love. It is a universal albeit unspoken language but its impact reverberates beyond the physical and the emotional. It spurred the couple’s drive to stay together despite the horrors they had to witness in Auschwitz. Despite their segregation, they managed to reunite post-war.

Survivalism is a profound subject that was explored through the narrative. However, the scars of the war will fully heal; they never fully recover from such experiences. They may have managed to survive and recover from their physical wounds but the intangible wounds and scars never fully heal; they are mortally damaged. The ghosts of those who perished haunt them. The memories of anguish and pain will forever be embedded in the minds of those who witnessed them. There are some like Anja who were slowly consumed by their anguish. For the survivors, the guilt of being able to go through it and survive grips them. This guilt permeated all throughout the text. It wasn’t even implicit – it was overt. When Artie’s wife remarked that “it’s a miracle he (Vladek) survived”, Artie responded that “in some ways, he didn’t survive.”

Throughout the text-cum-comics, a bevy of subjects resonated, including racism and language. The consequences of war and the values of humanity were continuously reiterated. But as Artie listened to his father recounting his experiences in the ghetto and the concentrations camps, his father’s guilt slowly started to cascade into him. Whilst his father became guilty of surviving, Artie became guilty of not being part of the process that left scars on his father, and consequently, his family. The horrors of the war, and Vladek and Anja’s experiences in Auschwitz always skirt the edges, always making their presence felt even in the contemporary. In ways more than one, Artie was reliving the war through his father’s story. Artie was, in a way, mortally wounded himself by a war that he never lived through except through the lenses of his father.

Whilst the war occupied a healthy portion of the narrative, a separate thread started to unravel as the story moved forward. Vladek Spiegelman’s account of his experiences in the Polish ghetto, and eventually, Auschwitz, was punctuated by his stormy relationship with his son. As Artie himself admitted, every son needs a father. But Vladek was no simple father, something that even Artie was cognizant of. In retelling his parent’s story, Artie was slowly exorcising ghosts and demons of the past, in travelling back to the past, he was hoping to make peace with his present. It has become imperative as Artie was about to become a father himself.

One facet that elevated the graphic novel was Spiegelman’s use of animal heads as allegories for the different races and nationalities. Jews were represented by mice, a reflection of the stereotype that Jews were subhuman mice. Preyed on by the Germans, they tried to stay incognito, moving from one hiding place to another. On the other hand, the Germans Nazis, the predators, were represented by cats. Polish people were portrayed as pigs as that was how they were perceived by the Nazis. The Americans, for their role in the liberation of Europe during the war, were referred to as dogs, the natural enemies of the cats. This use of metaphor was effective in keeping the readers and their imaginations engaged.

“I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.”

~ Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus

Maus is one of many books in the Pantheons of literature that touches on the unconscionable acts of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany during the Second World War and the Holocaust. The world of literature is brimming with many accounts and stories about the war that the portraits are becoming even more vivid. With the endless supply of books that explore this grim phase of history, one can easily make out the symbols of the Holocaust – the tattooed number, the peeping holes, the gas chambers. They have become ubiquitous, at times even nauseating. However, if there is something I have learned in reading is that each book holds a different story, each one represents a different voice. The pain and the anguish is universal but behind it are real people, distinct, unique and they shouldn’t be forgotten.

The images (ironically this is a graphic novel) were vivid. Details of Auschwitz were carefully drawn by Artie. The horrors of being caught in the whirlwind of the Holocaust can be very numbing – the hardships, the aches. Life during this dark phase of history was captured in many a literary piece that it feels like we’ve already etched every detail in our collective memories – the tattooed numbers, the bread crumbs, the peeping halls, the gas chambers. But we don’t. We only see them through the lenses of literature and of published text. In years of reading, we come to a realization that each character has his/her own story, his/her own voice that must be heard through the pandemonium. That was what Maus tried to accomplish: to remind us not only of the horrors, nor of the pains but the unheard voices of history.

Nazi Germany and its atrocities, including the Second World War, are pivotal points in the history of humanity. It is no wonder that there are many books that touches on the horrors of ghetto life, of the gas chambers, and of the war in general. The Spiegelmans’ story is one that is pervaded by deaths, heartaches and also of hope and survival, set in one of the darkest moments in the history of mankind. Whilst the tension between father and son was never fully resolved, Artie did a commendable job of capturing the nostalgia and the atmosphere. A mixture of metaphor, biography, and history, Maus is a towering achievement of literature.

Ratings

91%

I admit, before I started perusing must-read lists, I have never imagined myself reading graphic novels. But after going through these must-read lists, my perspective changed and I started with Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis. It was a graphic novel I have been looking forward to for years and luckily enough, I managed to read it way back in 2018. Another graphic novel that has captured my interest was Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It was originally published in two volumes (just like The Complete Persepolis) before both volumes were published as a single set. Coming into The Complete Maus, my reading journey has been saturated with many narratives about the Second World War. It came to a point that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read another one. However, The Complete Maus reminded me the importance of stories of survival. It reminded me that each voice deserves to be heart, especially in a period when history is being dismissed or forgotten. History is slowly being revised and rewritten to tip in the favor of the antagonists.

Book Specs

Author: Art Spiegelman
Publisher: Pantheon Books New York
Publishing Date: 2003
Number of Pages: 296
Genre: Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction

Synopsis

At last! Here is the definitive edition of the book acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” (Wall Street Journal) and “the first masterpiece in comic book history” (The New Yorker). It now appears as it was originally envisioned by the author: The Complete Maus.

It is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonisht coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

About the Author

Itzhak Avraham ben Zeev Spiegelman, more popularly known as Art Spiegelman, was born on February 15, 1948 in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1951, he immigrated with his parents to the US, initially settling in Norristown, Pennsylvania, before relocating to Rego Park, New York City in 1957.

When he was a teenager, Art was inspired by the clever artwork and witty humor of Mad magazine. This made him pursue cartooning. While attending Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design, he embarked on a career as a professional artist, contributing to early fanzines such as Smudge and Skip Williamson’s Squire. He also produced the Mad-inspired fanzine Blasé. From 1965 to 1968, he attended the State University of New York at Binghamton. He worked as staff cartoonist for his college newspaper and edited a college humor magazine. When he was 18, after a summer internship, he was hired as a contributing artist and designer for Topps Chewing Gum.

Following his mother’s suicide in 1968, Spiegelman left college without obtaining a formal degree. He then spent the 1970s contributing to the flourishing comics underground. In 1972, he published two strips that would define his career. The first was the prelude to his most definitive work, Maus, and the second one was Prisoner on the Hell Planet. In 1991, the serialized Maus was officially published as a graphic novel. He has also published a score of works such as The Wild Party (1994), Jack and the Box (2008) and MetaMaus (2011). In winning 1992 Pulitzer Prize Letters Award, Maus became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman has also received a score of awards for his works and his prolific career.

Spiegelman is married to designer, editor, and publisher Françoise Mouly. The couple has two children. The couple currently lives in New York City.