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Maus: The Agonies of Vladek Speigelman

Updated on September 16, 2012

If you've never heard of "Maus," you've almost certainly been living under a rock. Even people who don't read comics have read, or at least are familiar with, Art Spiegelman's two part biography of his father Vladek's survival of the Holocaust. If you haven't read it yet, you should--it is one of the definitive accounts of one of the most terrible examples of institutionalized murder and genocide of the twentieth century.

However, what I wanted to discuss in this review is not so much "Maus"'s merits (it has been hailed by almost everyone as a masterpiece) but to instead reflect more deeply on one of its elements that is perhaps overlooked: that being, the way the Holocaust changed who Vladek was.

It is often forgotten that roughly half of "Maus" depicts Art's attempts to get his father to tell his story. Vladek is not reluctant to tell his story (as many survivors were), but instead is constantly distracted by repairs he insists on doing himself (with Art's expected assistance, much to Art's annoyance), his general health, and most especially fights with his wife and Art's stepmother Mala, a fellow survivor whom he feels to be spending too much money (and is also after his money after he dies).

It is Vladek's stinginess that drives both Art and Mala crazy. Art is troubled by how much his father resembles the anti-Semetic stereotype of a greedy old Jew. He is ashamed when Valdek glues an open cereal box closed, then attempts to return it to the store for credit (sucessfully, when he shows the store manager his Auschwitz number tattoo). Mala denies the theory that Vladek was made stingy by the Holocaust, as the same thing didn't happen to her or any other survivors that she knew, but I'm not so sure.

Vladek was able to save both himself and his first wife, Anja (Art's mother) from the Holocaust largely through both luck and a judicious use of resources (not only money-- he was protected by his first barracks supervisor because he spoke English and the man wanted to learn). Vladek therefore learned first hand the true value of things in desperate situations. This might possibly explain his tendency to never throw things out, to collect telephone wires he finds on the ground, and to view people who spend money recklessly (Mala) as fools and parasites. This also makes him an often unpleasant person to be around, and makes Art reluctant to interact with him out of a sense of embarrassment. Even thought it's clear he loves his son, and Art loves his dad, it's clear their relationship is not the best.

Again, the comic doesn't say that Vladek became the stingy, short-tempered and suspicious person that Art dislikes because of the Holocaust, but it's not an unreasonable conclusion to draw that times when saving the last stale slice of bread may be the only thing to keep you from dying may change your priorities in life, and not always in good ways.


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