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Thursday, February 29, 2024

In retrospect: Maus continues to be relevant

In Retrospect explores books with enduring legacy in times of ethnic cleansing and detention centres, and tells you what makes it a must-read for bibliophiles in Shillong.

By Adity Choudhury

American cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s celebrated graphic novel The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – My Father Bleeds History and Here My Troubles Began details his elderly father Vladek Spiegelman’s harrowing experience as a Polish Jew and survival during the Holocaust.

In the US, the graphic novel came out in the serialised form from 1980 to 1991 in the comics anthology, Raw, edited by Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, as part of the alternative comics movement during the 1980s.

In Retrospect explores books with enduring legacies in times of ethnic cleansing and detention centres, and tells you what makes it a must-read for bibliophiles in Shillong.

In a stroke of irony, to critique the era of Nazi Germany, Spiegelman depicts the participants in the Second World War as animals – the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Americans as dogs, among others.

The novel begins with a prelude, introducing us to ten-year-old Artie (Art) in 1950s New York in a conversation with his father, foreshadowing the later years in their relationship. One has lived through the war whilst the other is a post-war child.

Non-linear sub-plots run parallel to the main plot where the novel travels back and forth to Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the post-war understanding of the period. It is an especially sharp critique of the German propaganda machinery, as evident below:

Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed…. Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal…. Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross! (newspaper article, Pomerania, Germany, mid-1930s).

Volume one begins with Vladek’s marriage to the affluent Anja Spiegelman (née Zylberberg) in the mid-1930s at the backdrop of the Nazis coming to power in 1933. With World War II breaking out in 1939, he is drafted to the army, only to be captured as a prisoner of war near Nuremberg. Here, he learns the tricks of survival that eventually free him, and later, come to his aid inside two concentration camps.

Vladek returns home to Poland. As Nazi laws come into effect, the noose tightens on the Jews, including the Spiegelman and the Zylberberg families, culminating in the tragic loss of the Spiegelman’s first-born, Richieu Spiegelman. Many Polish Jews go into hiding; some families consume poison and welcome death instead. The ghettos are packed. The Spiegelman and Zylberberg families go into hiding until circumstances force them to go their separate ways. Vladek and Anja are eventually captured by the Gestapo in Poland, marched through Bielsko, and later shipped to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.

Vile stereotypes, fake news, tattooed arms, striped pyjamas, shaved heads, gas chambers and ultimately death – the Nazis perfected the gauntlet of humiliation to dehumanise an entire race, tactics that continue to be used in civilised, democratic Asia till today, more than 50 years after Adolf Hitler rose to power. Spiegelman shows us how most Germans and pro-Nazi sympathisers were not silent or forced participants – they accepted the propaganda that Jews were “vermin” and, therefore, to be treated with contempt.

In the second volume of the novel, we see a glimpse of life inside a concentration camp. For the first time, Vladek and Anja are physically separated, with the latter being sent to the Birkenau concentration camp.

Life is hard – the Nazis run the camps with an iron hand and minor mishaps mean death for the prisoners. Luckily for Vladek, he is skilled at languages (German, Polish and English) and shoemaking which comes in handy for the Spiegelman couple. Using his intelligence and the gift of the gab, Vladek proves to be a strategist. We see how the fortunes change for Germany with the course of the war changing. As the Allied powers close in on the Germans, the remaining Jews, including Vladek, march out of Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen, “a small camp, with no gas” for a night halt, proceeding towards Dachau, where Vladek contracts the dreaded Typhus. He survives this too.

Come 1945, Germany loses the war. With the tide turning against their favour, the Americans (dogs) close in on the Nazis (cats), who terror-struck, know the meaning of desperate survival, in an ironic cat-and-mouse game.

The novel ends with Artie coming to terms with his father’s experience, Vladek’s second marriage to a fellow Holocaust survivor and how the cycle of anti-Semitism continues in post-war Poland.

What makes Maus a must-read?

Unlike most Holocaust films, this book gives us a deeper look at the Jewish experience after the war. The fear, now internalised, remains in Vladek, turning him into an anxious control freak. Considering survival for him meant saving whatever he could find inside Auschwitz and Dachau, the survivor in him is forever alert in later years – one of the many instances where we see that, even when the war ends, the trauma remains, but the evil persists too, not fully defeated.

Spiegelman asks readers’ three questions – do we take history for granted? Do we look at our parents and imagine the stories they carry within themselves? How do we deal with collective trauma?

Through Artie, we realise that even in active listening, we become storytellers ourselves.

 

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