In the previous post, I started looking at Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the ways that he focuses on individuals, not on the high ranking officials, who both perpetrated and survived the Holocaust. Along with this, Spiegelman highlights the ways that memory, especially as it relates to a traumatic event such as the Holocaust, is slippery in so many ways. I always think about George Takei’s comment that “memory is a wily keeper of the past,” but Spiegelman’s discussion of memory is different. Vladek clearly remembers what happened. He was not a child at the time, as Takei was during Japanese incarceration. This still does not mean that his memory does not slip and that things become conflated or absent from his recollections. Today, I want to look at a few of these moments in Maus, specifically continuing to explore Spiegelman’s focus on individuals and on the ways he deals with memory and its effects on individuals.
One of these moments occurs when Vladek talks about an appel in Auschwitz. During the appel, and older man approaches an officer and tells him, “I don’t belong here with all these Yids and Polacks! I’m a German like you!” Spiegelman depicts the man as a mouse, thus identifying him as Jewish. In the next panel, we see a closeup of the man, still as a mouse, as he says, “I have medals from the Kaiser. My son is a German solider.” The man pleads with the officer, holding his left hand up in front of his face appealing to the German officer in the hopes that the officer will identify with him as a fellow German.
In the next panel, the man’s appearance changes. He becomes a cat, thus identifying him as German. He stands in the same pose; however, he moves to the background and we do not see what he says. We know, though, from what we can see, that he says the same thing he did in the previous panel. In the foreground, breaking the border at the bottom of the panel, we see Art and Vladek talking, and their words cover the man’s words, obscuring the image. Here, we see, as María Jesús Martínez-Alfaro puts it, “The interconnectedness between the past and the present.” They merge in the panel, overlapping and bringing together Vladek’s memories and his conversation with Art, thus blurring the lines between the past and the present and simultaneously connecting them together, highlighting the ways that the past continues to impact the present.
Art asks his father if the man was really German, and Vladek responds, “Who knows. It was German prisoners also. But for the Germans this guy was Jewish.” Coupled with the moment of the past and the present colliding, we see the slipperiness of identity as well. Vladek does not know whether the man was Jewish or German, and we don’t know either. It doesn’t matter for the German officer either because he sees the man as Jewish, not as German. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s “We Refugees” in this moment. Arendt details the ways that individuals worked to assimilate themselves into various societies in order to survive and escape the Holocaust. This, though, came at a price. As she writes, “The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles.” We lose ourselves and our identities.
The man’s assertion that he is German may be true, but it may also be true that he isn’t German and that he only claims to be German in order to survive. No matter the case, though, it doesn’t save him. The sequence concludes with a horizontal panel showing a guard beating a man who is mostly out of the panel at the bottom. We do see that the man is depicted as a mouse. We can tell because of his nose sticking out of the bottom part of the panel. Vladek narrates, “On one appel he didn’t stand so straight and a guard dragged him away. I heard he pushed him down and jumped on his neck, or they sent him to the gas. I don’t remember, but they finished him and he never anymore complained.”
Here, we see the slipperiness of memory, as we do in many moments throughout Maus, where Vladek does not completely recall or even know what happened to the man. The guard may have killed him by jumping on his neck, or the man may have died in the gas chamber Vladek doesn’t know, and again we don’t either. Again, however, that is not the point. The point is that the man died at the hands of the Nazi regime. How he died is important, but it is not the most important aspect. Rather, the fact that the man, telling the Germans that he is German, still died. The Nazis murdered him, and all we know about him is what Vladek tells us.
The last panel drives this home with the placement of the narration. The focus of the panel is the guard standing over the man, the guard’s shadow on the wall. On the left side of the panel, a narration box covers the majority of the panel on that side. It hides the other men standing in line for the appel. All we see are their feet, nothing more. They become indistinguishable individuals. While we learn about the old man’s death, we do not learn about the fates of the others behind the narration. We don’t know if they survived or if they became one of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. We know, though, that they experienced the same things that Vladek and the old man did. Our focus is on the old man in this moment, and he comes, as so many others do in the narrative, to represent the collective, those whose stories Vladek, and thus us reading Maus, does not know. They are, as Martínez-Alfaro when disucssing Anja, “a present absence” that appears but does not appear in the narrative.
There is so much more I could write here, and perhaps I will in upcoming posts. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.