Maus Part II: And here my troubles began
By Art Spiegelman
Last week we talked about Mr. Spiegelman, this week I would like to talk about another person who was heavily involved in the making of this graphic novel: Francoise Mouly, Mr. Spiegelman's wife, editor; and for the all but the very last chapter of Maus, his publisher. Mrs. Mouly was born in Paris, France in the year 1955. She was the daughter of a plastic surgeon who pioneered a method of breast reduction and currently lives in New York with her husband Art. When she was 13, she lived through the intense social upheaval of May 1968 in Paris and this heavily influenced her politics as she grew up. She entered the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the 1970 to study architecture but was unhappy doing so. So in 1974 she headed off to New York City. While in New York she mostly did odd jobs and worked on her English, she met Art Speigelman but neither of them were really interested in the other until she read his underground comix work “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” which moved her to call him. They proceeded to have an 8 hour phone conservation. When she went back to France to finish her degree, Art went with her. When they returned in 1977, they married to solve the Visa problems she was having. She would help her husband with a collection of his Breakdown strips when the printer botched it completely, with 30% of the run being utterly unusable. At this point she decided she would control the printing process to ensure it was done right. She founded Raw Books and Comics, where Maus would first be published, in 1978. It's goal was to provide an outlet for younger creators who didn't fit the current mold or European creators who were trying to get their work into the US. By the end of the 1980s Penguin books would take on publishing duties. But let's get to Maus II.
Francoise makes her appearance in this part of the graphic novel, as Volume II is more meta-fictional than Volume I in a lot of ways but I'll address that in a bit. Maus II starts off with Vladek and Anja being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau; a place that’s become a byword for horror and evil in a multitude of languages because of what was done there. In the interests of completion I will briefly touch on it anyways (If he didn’t I would. Still will. Weil, nie wieder.). Auschwitz-Birkenau was a complex of concentration and extermination camps. First built to hold Polish political prisoners, it opened in May of 1940 (at the site of an old Polish Army training base), by September of 1941 it was being used to murder people in large numbers (mostly through working them to death at that stage.). Upon the formal adoption of so-called Final Solution (after the conference at Wannsee), from 1942 to 1944 it was the center of a vast logistical network that transported people from across Europe to be killed, mostly by use of Zyklon B, crystallized hydrogen cyanide that sublimated into gas. (I feel like the history of this particular gas is important. Ironically enough it was invented by a Jew, Fritz Haber. Some of you might remember him for his Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the Haber-Bosch Process: the catalytic synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, for use as fertilizer. We still use that process. However, he was a hard-core German patriot during WW1. This is the sad contrast between Jews Living in Poland and German Jews at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, before the Nazis. His love for his country became an obsession and he became the father of chemical warfare, inventing the process by which chlorine gas was synthesized and developing gas masks. On it went, in an arms race with fellow Laureate the French chemist Victor Grignard, until millions were dead or disfigured by their grotesque inventions. His wife Clara, also a chemist, committed suicide in protest of his twisting chemistry to murder. His research institute invented Zyklon A which was later developed into Zyklon B as a fumigant insecticide. Fritz was thanked for his obsessive patriotism during the Nazi rise to power by being forced to flee the country for his life. He died in Switzerland on his way to Mandate Palestine in 1934.) Other methods included torture, starvation, being killed individually by guards, refusal of medical treatment, and working people to death (Don’t forget environmental exposure, dehydration, human experimentation, and being put in conditions so cramped and unsanitary that communicable diseases like Typhus, Typhoid, and Cholera were rampant). In two years, over 1.3 million people would be transported there with 1.1 million dying on the site and only 144 people successfully managing an escape from the camp while it was operational. While Jews made up the majority of people sent here, there were also Poles (about 150,000), Romani and Sinti (23,000), Soviet Prisoners of War (15,000), Jehovah Witnesses (400) and Homosexuals (number unknown). Men, Women and Children were all sent here and disappeared without mercy into the ovens used to reduce their bodies to ashes (Also mass graves. The crematoria were the product of about a year of experimentation into body disposal, using the prisoners themselves as manual labor.). The camp would continue operations until the Soviets were nearly in shelling range, it was then that the Germans marched the prisoners out of the camp and force-marched them to Germany. I'm going to point out that this was the end of 1944; it was clear that the war was lost, Western Forces were liberating France, the Soviets had passed Warsaw... And the Nazis were still determined to kill every Jew, Gay, Romani and so on that they could. If you need a minute after reading this, that's okay, I needed a minute after writing it. (And I’ve wept a couple times between this week and last. There is no shame in that. The Shoah and the larger Holocaust are just that fucking awful.)
Vladek and Anja were sent into the maw of this hell pit during it's last year of operation. Here we can see the trauma that cemented so many of the behaviors that torment his son later in life. Vladek had to work furiously just to survive, he had to bend every skill and ounce of cunning he had to just keep breathing one more day in a place designed to kill him as humiliatingly as possible. Not only that but he had to constantly work to find ways just to stay in contact with his wife Anja, as well as helping her whenever it was possible. That said Vladek doesn't do this by screwing over other people; there are times when he helps the people around him. Getting shoes that fit for a friend by charming a Polish Kapo into helping him in exchange for English lessons, for example. By staying alert and grabbing at every chance he could get Vladek managed to survive another day, which in Auschwitz was an amazing achievement. Nor were they alone; throughout Vladek's account we see many people trying to do just one decent act before they’re murdered, whether it be an unknown Polish Priest (I am reminded of Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a Polish Army sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek who was picked at random with ten others after several men escaped the camp. Maximilian Kolbe is now the patron saint of political prisoners.) who comforts and consoles Vladek before he was killed, or Mancie, a Hungarian Jewish girl who ran messages between Vladek and Anja. We also see many petty cruelties that serve no purpose but to amuse the people performing them. It's a grim story but one full of people who refused to be ground down and made into animals. I won't say they kept their dignity but I will say that they kept their humanity (I’d say they’re the same thing). It's here that we see why Vladek is the way he is, he is a miserly, neurotic, and miserable old man in a lot of ways, (who manages to be pretty racist against African Americans) a man whose actions and words often torment his son and his own wife. He survived--not thrived, because no one did in Auschwitz-- but to do so he had to develop habits and ended up with scars that would affect everyone around him until the end of their days. We see that not only in Mr. Spiegelman but in Vladek's relationship with his 2nd wife Mala, which nearly ends in this volume. We also see the end of the camps, Vladek's dealing with American troops in the opening days of the occupation and his cold satisfaction at the Germans suffering as the Western and Russian armies advance into Germany (I can't really blame him, he's way more restrained about the whole thing than I would be in his position). As well as his reunion with Anja and their decision to leave Poland, heading first to Sweden and then to the United States.
This volume is more meta-fictional than the previous one. Mr. Spiegelman's mental state becomes a part of the book as he discusses his own feelings about the story and the process of creating it. Additionally Francoise makes her appearance in the novel, as we learn about their marriage (and how she converted to please Vladek in the first place) and the her own involvement in the story process. We learn about Mr. Spiegelman's depression and his overriding desire to avoid living with his father. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. To be honest I'm not a fan of meta-fiction, where the process of writing the work itself becomes part of the narrative and having the characters acknowledge they're in a story. This is also called breaking the 4th wall. In most of the stories I've seen it used, it bogs things down as the writer then uses meta commentary to try and display how clever he is and how deep the story is. It also lends itself to pretentiousness or cheap humor that isn't actually funny. I'm not saying that there's no worthwhile meta fiction. The first Deadpool movie actually used it very well (and very sparingly). In the case of Maus, the meta-fiction does end up serving the story as a biographical and autobiographical work. It also gives us a look at how the trauma of the Holocaust didn't end with just the people who experienced it directly. It lingered and marked their children, whether it be Mr. Spiegelman always feeling inadequate to his father or measuring himself against Richleu, the child who didn't survive. That said, I can't say I was thrilled with those parts of the book where Mr. Spiegelman stepped out of the narrative and began talking about events outside of it. That's a personal opinion but be aware if you're less than thrilled at 4th wall breaking and meta-commentary, there's more of it here than in the first volume.
That said, Maus is a very good long look at the holocaust. Vladek, through Mr. Spiegelman, tells the story plainly and straightforwardly. I honestly find his matter of fact tone in the book rather amazing but it also helps ground the story and make it seem more real. Mr. Spiegelman gives us a look at the very real impact those events had on him, his father and his entire family and I would argue that this work is important and whether you like comic books or are even a history buff, you should sit down to read it. As you might have already figured out, this is a very adult story and might be disturbing for younger children. Maus Part II: And Here My Troubles Began gets an A-.
Next week Trail of Hope. Keep reading.