Thursday, December 01, 2011


Some Lessons of Maus

I just reread the two volumes of Maus, Art Spiegelman's graphic biography of his father, Vladek. In this post I will talk about some of the less obvious items of interest in the books, meaning things less central to the main theme.

It has long been admitted—by folks such as Benjamin Ginsberg and Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin—that Jews have historically been disproportionately involved in communism. For some Jews this is a source of pride. For others, it is cause for shame or denial. Likewise, the fact that Jews are, in general, wealthier than non-Jews. Both things can simultaneously be true but when someone so indicates that I've noticed that defenders of all things Jewish and the 'politically correct' will frequently pounce on this contrived contradiction.

It therefore caught my attention when Art Spiegelman reveals that his father's fiancée (who would become Art's mother), Anja Zylberberg, was the very embodiment of Jewish communist supporter and rich, capitalist Jew. On page 20* we are told: "The Zylberberg family was very well off - millionaires!" The setting is 1936 Poland. According to Patricia Clavin, author of The Great Depression in Europe, 1929-1939, Poland was one of the three European countries "worst affected" by the Great Depression. Most Poles were hit very hard by the crisis but not the Zylberbergs.

Later, in 1937, it turns out that "Anja was involved in conspirations [sic]!" ( p. 29). She was translating "communist messages" into German and "pass[ing] them on". Warned by a friend that the police are coming, instead of destroying the incriminating documents Anja foists them upon a seamstress, a tenant in the Zylberberg's apartment, who ends up taking the fall and spending upwards of three months in prison.

Another interesting thing are the expressions by Jewish characters of disbelief in the holocaust. Here's an example from page 90:
Art: When did you first hear about Auschwitz?
Vladek: Right away we heard ...
Vladek: Even from there - from that other world - people came back and told us. But we didn't believe.
Art doesn't seem to question the idea that people could go to and return from "that other world" and Vladek doesn't elaborate.

On page 109, the following conversation takes place inside (!) a Jewish internment camp in 1943:
Persis: ... You've all heard the stories about Auschwitz. Horrible unbelievable stories.
Matka Zylberberg (Vladek's mother-in-law): They can't be true!
The Goldhagen thesis suggests that the German people were "Hitler's willing executioners". But even Jews living in Poland, where most of the "death camps" were located, didn't believe the stories, according to Maus. This is consistent with what many Germans have said, too—they didn't know.

There's an exchange on page 171 where Art and his wife, Françoise, talk about how she should be represented. Spiegelman chose to portray Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, Gypsies as moths (and you never see any in the camps), and Swedes are antlered deer. The conversations goes like this:
Art: ... what kind of animal should I make you?
Françoise: Huh? A mouse, of course!
Art: But you're French!
Françoise: Well ... how about the bunny rabbit?
Art: Nah, too sweet and gentle.
Françoise: Hmmph.
Art: I mean the French in general. Let's not forget the centuries of anti-Semitism.
Art: I mean how about the Dreyfus Affair? The Nazi collaborators! The -
Françoise: Okay! But if you're a mouse I ought to be a mouse too. I converted didn't I?
Art: I've got it! Panel one: My father is on his exercycle ...
Art: I tell him I just married a frog ...
Art: Panel two: He falls off his cycle in shock.
Art: So you and I go to a mouse rabbi. He says a few magic words and zap! ...
Art: By the end of the page the frog has turned into a beautiful mouse!
Françoise: Hmph
Françoise: I only converted to make Vladek happy.
There's a lot in this passage. As it turns out, Spiegelman does represent French people as frogs, including the Frenchman who saved his father's life (p. 253). This passage above also tells us that Spiegelman's choice of animals is indicative, in part at least, of what he perceives as a people's national character. It is meaningful, then, that Poles are pigs, etc.

And the "magic words" from the rabbi have real power in Maus, even an insincere conversion transforms Françoise into a mouse, as she is represented throughout the book. Contrast this with the children on page 291—the offspring of a German mother and a Jewish father are hybrid cat-mouse creatures.

Finally, it's interesting how Art's broad-brush charge of French anti-Semitism goes unchallenged by Françoise. Didn't even Jews collaborate with Nazis as Maus attests? And the Dreyfus Affair split French society and resulted in a complete exoneration and reinstatement of Alfred Dreyfus into the French Army.

In closing, I'll turn to the impact on Vladek of his suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Was it a harsh lesson that instilled in him a sense of compassion and a hatred of injustice and violence against all innocent people? Well, not exactly. On page 290, we are treated to a recounting of Vladek's visit to Würzburg in the immediate aftermath of WW II.

Würzburg was subjected to Dresden-style aerial bombardment. Here's one brief description of the devastation: "About 82% of the living space, almost every public building and most of the cultural monuments and churches are destroyed. A total of about 5,000 people - about 3,000 of whom are women and 700 children and adolescents - perish in the inferno."

Here's the exchange on p. 290:
Vladek: We came to one place, Würzburg - what a mess!
Vladek or his traveling companion Shivek: Where can we find water?
German father: Hah! We haven't had any water in three days!
German mother, holding child: The Americans destroyed - sob - everything!
Vladek: Not one building was still standing.
Vladek: We came away happy.
Vladek: Let the Germans have a little what they did to the Jews.
* All page numbers refer to the 1991 Pantheon Books edition of Maus, in which both volumes are bound together.

See also: Poles as Pigs

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