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After a five-year wait, comics enthusiasts who don't regularly read Raw, the underground comics' best magazine, can at last read the second half of Maus, Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic book.
Those who just put down the paper in disgust after muttering something about "cheapening history" obviously did not read Maus I. That book, subtitled, "My Father Bleeds History," poignantly recounted Spiegelman's father Vladek's family life in Poland preceding his deportation to Auschwitz.
Spiegelman began Maus in 1978, in part as a way to get closer to his father, who survived the Holocaust with his wife Anja. As much as reviewers have acclaimed Maus as a telling "survivor's tale," the book centered more on the strained relationship between Spiegelman and his father.
As Spiegelman dwelt upon Vladek's foibles, however, he and his readers learned about pre-war Jewish life in Poland. By the end of Maus I, Spiegelman had described more than just the facts about Vladek's life--the reader could see his factory, expropriated by the Nazis; sense his daily life and the makeup of his surroundings; and know his habits and his manner of speech.
Comic books, perhaps more than any other medium, seem designed for the mixture of biography and autobiography displayed in Maus. The comic book structure allowed Spiegelman to segue easily from one reminiscence to another and from past to present to imagination without confusing the reader.
This same form works just as well in Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began. The book begins when Artie and his wife Francoise hasten to Vladek's rented summer cottage in the Catskills upon hearing that he has suffered a heart attack. But he hasn't--his second wife, Mala, has left him and Vladek wants to ensure that his son will visit him.
On the way to visit Vladek, Artie discusses with Francoise his doubts about writing Maus: "It's so presumptuous of me. I mean, I can't even make sense out of my relationship with my father... How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz? Of the Holocaust?"
This doubt and underlying guilt pervades Maus, especially the first few chapters. One chapter begins with Artie at his drawing board, surrounded by heaps of dead, emaciated victims of Mauschwitz. In another
chapter, as Artie and Francoise drive Vladek to the Shop Rite, the bodies of hanged mice dangle from the trees they pass.
Vladek, oblivious to his son's struggles, overflows with happiness once Artie arrives. Soon, though, father and son are arguing again. So Artie suggests that they proceed with their interviews, and Vladek takes up the narrative of his life where he left off, at the gates of Auschwitz.
Vladek tells how he adjusted to camp life and helped learn to survive by teaching English to a Polish kapo, or head prisoner--Poles are pigs, Germans cats, Americans dogs and French frogs in the cartoon world of Maus. The reader also learns of Vladek's attempts to help his wife, who was imprisoned in Birkenau, a much larger camp near Auschwitz. "There it was just a death place with Jews waiting for the gas," Vladek says.
The portion of the book which describes the forced relocation of Auschwitz inmates to Dachau in 1945 is perhaps the most numbing. Many of those who escaped death in the gas chambers died of exposure during the forced marches or of starvation in the cattle cars.
The narrative of Maus would leave the reader breathless with disgust if Spiegelman did not often interrupt it to tell the story of his relationship with his father. The survivor's tale which seems the main thread of Maus's narrative is made more palpable as the reader gets to know Vladek both in camp life and "ordinary" life.
This second narrative draws the reader in and personalizes Vladek's unreal life in the death camps. The suffering which Art Spiegelman sensed under the surface of his family life comes alive. When Francoise and Artie cannot sleep because Vladek screams in his sleep, the effects of the holocaust upon those who lived through it becomes all the more tangible. Spiegelman has said that he grew up thinking it was normal to live in a house where people woke up screaming every night.
Maus is, above all, a story of a family and how something which is now, in so many minds, an abstract historic events, can still touch everyday lives. Spiegelman realizes the historical importance of the Holocaust--how could he fail to?
In a time at which so many fail to even attempt to understand the Holocaust, Maus is a welcome and important work. Although its readers will learn about the Holocaust, they will, perhaps, learn something more important about what the lessons of the Nazi project are for humanity.
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