.... A Commentary on
Maus by Art SpiegelmanThere are two books or "graphic novels" in the series.
In them there are three story lines that are presented:
1. The story of Art Spiegelman as he is writing the story of his father
2. The story that the father Vladek is telling (his experience in WWII)
3. The story of Vladek, the father, during the time he is telling the story
The symbolism in the story is another layer of the presentation. The people are presented as animals. The Jews are mice, the Germans are predatory cats, the Poles are pigs, the Swedes are deer with horns, Americans are dogs, a Gypsy is a butterfly, a Frenchman is a frog. One could go into a long discussion of the symbolism in animal anthropomorphism in cartoons. The well known "Porky Pig" (t.m. Warner Brothers) character for example, is a somewhat bumbling but generally sympathetic character. The artist/author also changes the expression on the faces of the characters, so it is easy to interpret their feelings/motivation. As an aside it may be added that Poles do like their ham, and pork is a non-kosher food.
Vladek (Wladek) is a complicated character. As the story begins he cruelly abandons his girlfriend in order to marry Anna (Anja) who is of a wealthy family. On his father's insistence he starves himself to avoid service in the Polish army. Eventually he does serve in the army marching alongside the pig soldiers and being taken prisoner. After doing forced labor he is released and has to make do under the conditions of the occupation, which he does quite well. We see him going around wearing a pig-mask (blending into the population?), as conditions for the mice become more and more difficult.
The pigs for the most part are not presented in a sympathetic way or as cute. They are portrayed as bad tempered or frightened and unwilling to help. It is never explained why. It is suggested that Poles killed Jews. The kapos in the camp are brutal pigs. A priest (pig) prisoner consoles Vladek. The idea that there were prisoners other than Jews at Auschwtiz makes an occasional appearance but is never fully explored. Earlier in the story there is a female pig who hides Vladek's family but money seems to be the motivation. Finally, vodka drinking pigs undertake to smuggle Vladek and Anja into Hungary but only betray them to the Germans.
To be fair it should be mentioned that there is a frame which portrays mice as ghetto policemen and there is an incident where a mouse sells out a group in hiding. However, the worst portrayals are given to the pigs. Even among the cats there is a guard who is sickened by what is going on and later in the story there is a gentile (cat) woman who saves her Jewish husband.
The fact that NO Jews would have survived without help from Poles is never brought out. The reader is not made aware that, to counterbalance the bad pigs, there were people who paid with their lives for helping their neighbors or even strangers. On the other hand Vladek is presented as quite a "kombinator" who is always able to "organize" things to keep himself and his family going.
Vladek's identity as a Pole and a Jew is never explored and from hints in the story we can see that he took part in the life of a greater Polish society. He speaks Polish well. This comes out during a post-war episode when Art's wife picks up a black hitch-hiker while Vladek is in the car (he makes disparaging statements in Polish). It is there that he shows his racist tendencies -- and is criticized by his son. The son is also upset by other facets of Vladek's behavior -- his constant concern for money, bad treatment of his second wife Mala, kwetching and complaining over insignificant details. Indeed the son tells his father to stop behaving like a "stereotypical Jew."
Because this is a "personal story" and has many facets, it may be confusing to young people who are grappling with the inhumanity and the crime of genocide in WWII. Each survivor has a different set of experiences and these don't necessarily match up. In this version the pictures suggest certain negative attitudes and ideas about Poles and Poland that reinforce those expressed in the text. Thus the author is able to impress his own interpretation on the reader. The "pig people" are made to seem full of hate, while the "cat people" are mean and cruel in a matter-of-course way. (see the attached frames).
As for the physical details -- description of the Auschwitz camp for example -- this is quite correct. Quite possibly Art, the author, studied the history or had even visited the place. It is too bad that he did not take an interest in pre-WWII Polish society and Polish-Jewish relations at that time (or spoken to other survivors). It might have led to a better understanding of the Polish Jewish dilema and a more balanced book.
Is this the best kind of reading for school pupils learning about the Holocaust? I belive that, as dull as it may sound, the learner should first know the general outline and the core facts. This way he/she may fairly judge the other stories that appear in this context. Let's face it - there were good and bad people among the Germans, the Poles and the Jews. Circumstances aggravated the situation. The war-occupation-genocide was a complex horror and it cannot be treated simplisticly as: mice = good; cats = bad, pigs = worse.
Once a book is placed on a reading list by a school board, said board is not going to retreat from their position because of the political situation they face. The best course of action is to get another book -- one that promotes a positive viewpoint -- onto the list.
Poland has many very talented graphic artists, and the "graphic novel" (comic book) has gained legitimacy in recent times. I'd like to suggest that the Polish government sponsor and produce such a positive book on Poland's WWII story that could be distributed at the NCSS (National Conference for the Social Studies) to teachers, with more copies made available to them on request. Considering the amounts being spent on promoting Poland as a tourist destination, the cost would be negligible and would create a positive impression of Poland.