Reprise Books

‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman

How do we categorise Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, the true story of his father Vladek, a Jewish Pole who survived the Holocaust? What do you call a book which is art, biography, history, geography, comic book?

While bookshops may have wondered which shelf it should be assigned to, the Pulitzer committee avoided classifying it, giving the prize under ‘special award’ in 1992. Translated into over 30 languages, the genre-defying Maus’s staying power is primarily because of the story, of surviving Auschwitz and then the act of living with a certain sense of guilt when so many others had died.

Art has a difficult relationship with his ageing father. He goes out to see him at Rego Park, New York — “I hadn’t seen him in a long time — we weren’t that close.” His mother’s suicide and two heart attacks had taken a toll and his father looked old. He tells his father he wants to “draw that book about you… your life in Poland, and the war.” His father initially tells him to make drawings that will fetch money, but later agrees to talk about his Poland experience, before and after the Nazis.

Cats and mice

The Jews are presented as mice (‘maus’ is German for mouse) and the Germans as cats. As Vladek gives interviews to his son, we learn that he lived in the small town of Częstochowa near the border with Germany and made a living buying and selling textiles. After Vladek met Anja Zylberberg and married her, he moved to Sosnowiec. In 1938, as the couple was going to a sanatorium — his mother was depressed — in Czechoslovakia, they were “excited and frightened” to see the Nazi flag with the swastika hanging in the centre of town. They began hearing tales of terrible hardships that Jews were facing in Germany, and soon bad news came their way with the war and the anti-Jew sentiment being stirred up in Poland too.

Stories of the past are interspersed with life in New York, and we have a glimpse of Art and Vladek’s ties, their easy and difficult moments. Vladek soon begins telling him how the noose began to tighten for Jews in Poland and the inevitable journey to a concentration camp. Vladek ends up in Auschwitz, and shows his son the number that was etched on his hand, 175113. Art brings humour to this retelling of the horrors of the Holocaust. Once when he wonders aloud whether the war made his father irrational, his second wife intervenes, “All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him.”

The writer looks back at one classic each week.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 9:19:00 AM |

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