The Complete Maus shows that the Holocaust experience affects the next generation as much as it affects the people who lived through it. Do you agree?
In his comic story, Maus, Pulitzer prize winner Art Spiegelman writes about his parents’ experiences in Nazi Germany. Spiegelman uses various interview and graphic-style techniques to capture the horror of the Nazi “experiment” whereby up to 6 million Jews were killed in gas chambers in concentration camps. Whilst Vladek and Anja both survived, they were psychologically scarred. Throughout the interviews with his father, Vladek, and his father’s narrative recounts, Spiegelman reveals the extent of their trauma which inhibits family life and relationships. The emotional and psychological divide between Art and Vladek is further tarnished by the deaths of Richieu and Anja. The father’s development of a variety of obsessive neuroses also become another burden in the father-son relationship.
Throughout the graphic novel, Spiegelman depicts a variety of emotional and communication barriers, which he suggests may have originated from Vladek’s Holocaust experiences. Vladek constantly offers parental advice to Art that is often based on his experiences as a symbolic mouse in pinstriped pyjamas and yet this advice leads to, rather than, solves many of their interpersonal problems. Such emotional barriers, which appear to affect each of the men differently, are foregrounded in the ‘Prologue’. After Art was deserted and humiliated by his friends whilst rollerskating on the street, his father tells him unsympathetically and dismissively, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week … then you could see what it is, friends!” Vladek continues to saw the piece of wood, suggesting that he is always fixing something, as he did during his war-time experiences. He doesn’t appear to be paying much attention to Art which reinforces his emotional indifference. This is a typical moment when Vladek views friendship through the lens of life-and-death actions, and he dismisses Art’s eight-year-old problems. In turn, he makes Art’s problems seem insignificant compared to his own. From Vladek’s perspective, his emotional detachment from his son, which could be a coping mechanism developed from his war experiences, alienates him from his son. From Spiegelman’s perspective, he does not find the psychological solace that he is searching.
Whilst Vladek appears indifferent and detached, Art appears to suffer from Vladek’s constant comparison between his father’s monumental, and his own insignificant, life experiences. This comparison reinforces the barriers between each and exacerbates the emotional distance. It is evident that Art agonises over these moments during his childhood, because later in Spiegelman’s typical question and answer style interview, he admits to his psychologist, Pavel, who is also a Czech Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz, that “mainly I remember arguing with him and being told that I couldn’t do anything as well as he could… No matter what I accomplished it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz.” Owing to Vladek’s tendency to belittle Art’s experiences, Art constantly feels as though he will never impress his father and develops feelings of inferiority. IN his own way, Vladek appears to inflate the significance of his own experiences in a bid to overcompensate for the fact that for most of his life he was degraded by the Nazis. As Pavel says, “Maybe your father needed to show that he was always right — that he could always survive — because he felt guilty about surviving”. The symbolic depiction of the demoralised Jews as vulnerable and powerless mice that are tortured by the vicious cat captures Vladek’s sense of impotence and despair. From Vladek’s perspective, this sense of impotence is, inadvertently, displaced onto his son. From Art’s perspective, he ironically, feels belittled, much as the father was and neither can overcome their distance.
It is evident in Maus that Vladek is constantly haunted by a sense of survivor guilt. It is also apparent that the father transfers this guilt onto Art, which surfaces in both direct and indirect ways. As a consequence, this guilt exacerbates the psychological barriers between then and leads to displaced and thwarted emotions. As Pavel tells his patient, if Vladek survives, 6 million Jews were killed, and this has resulted in constant anxiety. In one comic caption, Pavel states, “Because he felt guilty about surviving … he took his guilt out on you, where it was safe…on the real survivor.” (p 204). Graphically, Art depicts Vladek’s guilt by using a palimpsest technique, which is a literal graphical bleeding from past to present, This technique reveals Vladek’s displaced anxiety. For example, in a panel, where the family is driving back from the supermarket after attempting to return the unfinished box of special K, Vladek recalls the deaths of the four girls who were scapegoated for their subversion. This frame shows the literal blend of time zones. In the frame, Art and Francoise are in the car listening to Vladek’s recount. In the same frame, there is an image of four sets of legs hanging from a tree which presumably belong to Anja’s four friends who “blew up a crematorium”. Spiegelman graphically suggests that Vladek is scarred by the horror of his past and it is this horror that leads to numerous psychological problems.
(In another depiction, four pairs of legs are also dangling from a rope. In this case, Nahum Cohn and his son, who traded goods without a coupon, hang from the scaffold. Vladek suggests that such assistance was critical to his survival and yet it led to the deaths of others. Spiegelman uses an eight-frame page consisting of a five-frame present-time overlay. In the above frame, the four mice, dressed in suits, “hanged there for one full week”. Vladek’s prominent caption refers to the tactics of intimidation used by the “cats” to scare the “mice” into submission. In the bottom frame, Spiegelman uses the image of legs hanging in mid air to give an impression that anyone who subverted the system would suffer a similar fate. In doing so, Spiegelman enhances the image of the dead Jews and the brutality of the cats that continues to haunt both father and son.)
Furthermore, Vladek’s guilt often surfaces in a variety of neurotic compulsive behaviours and these interfere with his ability to be a good father. Because of these behaviours, he cannot connect on an emotional level with his son. Vladek is neurotic about food, disease, death and profligacy. He compulsively organises his pills, seeks to save every penny, and fixes everything through his own abilities. Vladek refuses to hire anyone to fix household problems. Spiegelman suggests that his entrepreneurial skills were the reason he stayed alive in the labour camps. Vladek also believes that he survived because ‘I saved “Ever since Hitler I don’t like to throw out even a crumb”. In a humorous way, this reinforces the stereotype of the stingy Jew. Mala says,” it causes his physical pain to part with money”. In a revealing retort, Vladek adamantly states: “I cannot forget it” which sums up his attitude to most daily life occurrences. He simply cannot forget the stress of experiences such as staying in Mrs Motonowa’s cellar, sleeping with rats and living off candy for three days. They learned to be “happy even to have these conditions.” Whilst Spiegelman sets up the stereotypical miserly Jew for ridicule, there is a sense that readers can truly understand the basis of Vladek’s neuroses which are constantly displaced. Art believes that he must bear the brunt of these disorders which make it almost impossible for Art to have a normal and calm relationship with his father.
Spiegelman depicts many second generation holocaust survivors struggling with the agony of loss experienced by their traumatised parents. Many parents are paralysed by grief, and their suffering and agony interfere with their parenting abilities. In Art’s case, he is swamped by Anja’s and Vladek’s grief for their lost son, Richieu. Spiegelman depicts Art’s jealousy and insecurity that are a consequence of a perverse type of sibling rivalry with his deceased “ghost” brother. Richieu died at age “five or six” during the holocaust by swallowing a poisonous pill given to him by a desperate carer, Tosha, who feared death in the gas chambers. Spiegelman refers to a large, “blurry” photograph that hangs above Art’s parents’ bed. The caption states, “It’s spooky having sibling rivalry with a snapshot!” During a rare conversation with Francoise in the car, Art divulges his vulnerability and his position of disadvantage: “The photo never threw tantrums or got into any kind of trouble…it was an ideal kid and I was a pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete.”
Not only does Art feel inferior to his sibling; Spiegelman also suggests that Art, much like Vladek, is suffering from his own perverse form of survivor guilt. In a forlorn and an indignant tone he also anticipates his parents’ disappointment, “He’d have become a doctor, and married a wealthy Jewish girl..the creep”. Vladek inadvertently refers to Art as Richieu in the final frame of the graphic novel. “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now.” This reveals the extent of Vladek’s continued sadness. The unbordered gravestone of Anja and Vladek at the end also serves as a memorial to the Jewish victims, Art suggests that Richieu’s death also contributes to Anja’s suicide and the complicated and suffocating emotions between mother and son.
The experiences of the holocaust also traumatised Art’s mother Anja which creates emotional problems between mother and son. These emotions surface in different ways for each of them. Feeble and distraught at the loss of Richieu, Anja emotionally strangles Art as she fears losing another son. As a consequence, Art stifles his own emotional response towards his mother, which leads to guilt. The darkness and horror of “Prisoner on the hell planet” reveals that Art feels as though he should have done more to keep his mother alive.. The word ‘Hell’ in the title instils a feeling of dread. The ghost-like thriller of the large black monster and the abstract drawings of the skull and the bony hands depict Art as the hideous victim of a grisly perfect crime story. In a clever role reversal, Spiegelman depicts Vladek as a heartbroken victim, weeping on the floor, which shows his ghostly horror at the fact that he has failed to fulfil his promise to Anja that “you’ll see that together we’ll survive”. This is also despite the parallel narrative of the love story. Vladek’s eyes are black and large and there are no pupils. Art wears the pin-striped Jewish prisoner uniform which features prominently in the graphics related to the concentration camp. It also shows the beginning of Art’s and Vladek’s psychological distance towards each other, compounded by the guilt of the mother’s suicide. As an incensed Art says, “I was expected to comfort HIM” Art becomes paranoid that every guest and friend thought it was his fault. Art was always resentful of how Anja ‘tightens the umbilical cord’. It is apparent that Anja does this because she does not wish to lose another son. However, Art constantly resists her love. He says, ” Well mom, if you’re listening … congratulations! … you’ve committed the perfect crime.” Graphically, Art’s hand grasps the door of an enormous cage as he accuses the mother of placing him in an impossible emotional situation: “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!!!” Anja’s death, then, also exacerbates the emotional distance between Vladek and Art which is based on guilt.
In Maus, Spiegelman leaves readers in no doubt that the children of the holocaust survivors continue to suffer from the displaced trauma of their parents. Many children experience and encounter similar struggles. Throughout his discussions with his father, Art seeks to uncover the burden and the pain that Art continues to carry, and which is passed onto his son. This trauma affects Vladek’s ability to be a loving and supportive father and he fails to provide the emotional support for which Art yearns. Finally, The Complete Maus highlights the way second generation holocaust survivors struggle with trauma, the agony of loss and the depression and displaced anxiety which haunts their parents.
Return to Maus: Notes by Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works