The Joplin Public Library has a fairly extensive collection of graphic novels, many of which I’ve reviewed previously in these pages. Still, there exists a bias against graphic novels. Many people view them as childish, lacking in literary merit. If that’s your perspective, I ask you to consider the work of cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
In his ground-breaking works “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began,” Spiegelman explores the Holocaust through the experiences of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew. Part biography, part memoir, both works tell a compelling story.
“Maus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — the first graphic novel to do so – covers the mid-1930s through winter 1944. Vladek’s story begins in Czestochowa, a small Polish town not far from the German border. As a young man, he buys and sells textiles and describes a life of pretty girls who openly pursue him. Eventually, he meets and marries Anja, a clever but high-strung girl from a wealthy family. Anja suffers a breakdown after giving birth to their first son, Richieu, and the couple go to a sanitarium in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia so that Anja can seek rest and treatment.
After they return, political tensions rise, and there are anti-Semitic riots. Eventually, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army; he is captured by the Germans and becomes a prisoner of war. After his release, he reunites with his family. But their happiness is short-lived, as the Nazi noose tightens around Europe. The Jews in Vladek and Anja’s town are moved from ghetto to ghetto amid worsening conditions. Families are split up. More and more people are sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The couple arrange to escape to Hungary, but the smugglers betray them to the Gestapo, who arrest them and send them to Auschwitz.
“Maus II” picks up where its predecessor leaves off. Separated in Auschwitz, Vladek and Anja lead lives of starvation and abuse. But Vladek finds ways to avoid the “selections,” the process by which prisoners were chose for more labor or even execution, and hustles his way into working as a tinsmith and cobbler. He and Anja manage to exchange occasional messages, which keeps them both going. As the war progresses, Vladek and other prisoners are marched from Auschwitz in occupied Poland to Dachau in Germany. When the war finally ends, the camp survivors are freed. After a time, Vladek and Anja are reunited.
Woven throughout Vladek’s story is the tale of father and son, who share a troubled, tense relationship. “Maus” and “Maus II” are as much about being a Holocaust survivor as they are about being the child of Holocaust survivors. Art is eager to hear his father’s experiences so that he can write about them, but he has little patience for the older man’s anxious, miserly ways. Much of “Maus II” is devoted to their relationship as Vladek’s second marriage falls apart and his health deteriorates badly.
Spiegelman employs an animal motif to tell his story. In keeping with Nazi propaganda, Jews are represented as vermin, as mice. Likewise, Germans are characterized as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. This technique adds a surreal quality to horrific historical events, particularly when characters masquerade as others, such as when Vladek and others wear pig masks over their mouse faces to hide their Jewish identities.
If you have any qualms about “reading” an illustrated work, be assured that the story is text-driven. The artwork is black and white, and there is a fair amount of detail in the frames.
If you don’t mind the heavy subject matter during this holiday season, I highly recommend that you pick up “Maus” and “Maus II.” They offer a unique, accessible interpretation of a horrific time in history. You can find them in the Teen Department of the Joplin Public Library.