this week's review

FEBRUARY 8, 1999

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Survivors' Tales: Two Holocaust Chronicles

Maus: Volumes I & 2
Art Spiegelman

Thirteen years in the making, Maus is Art Spiegelman's masterpiece, a two-volume graphic novel which tells the story of his father Vladek Spiegelman's life in Poland during World War II, with Jews cast as mice and Nazis as cats. Two narrative threads are woven: Vladek's harrowing account of life in occupied Poland and Art's relationship to his father as he visits him in Queens to tape record his history. Through wit, cunning, unbelievable resourcefulness, and, above all, luck, Spiegelman's parents made it out of Auschwitz alive, but their struggle for survival didn't end there.

For his father, survival comes down to counting pills and nursing a weak heart amid the breakup of his second marriage. For Art, survival means trying to keep his head together as he struggles to come to terms with the story he is telling, his mother's 1968 suicide, and the second-hand survivor's guilt he gets from his father who throughout Art's childhood kept a picture of Richieu--the brother Art never knew who was poisoned in order to avoid the camps--as a silent reproach to all with the audacity to keep living.
  • Maus: Volume I: My Father Bleeds History
    Covers the period from mid-1930's to winter 1944. Vladek marries Anja and is set up in business by his father-in-law, but the good times come to an end when the Nazis invade Poland and the deportation of Jews begins. The large family is dispersed and Vladek and Anja fare well in hiding but are double-crossed when they try to escape to Hungary. This volume ends at the infamous entry to Auschwitz, with the optimistic lie Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work will set you free") wrought in iron above the gates.
  • Maus: Volume II: And Here My Troubles Began
    As if what was recounted in Volume I weren't troubles. Senseless violence, inhuman cruelty, bureaucratized death. Vladek and Anja survive it all, avoiding the ovens by the slenderest of margins. Instead of statistics, we are given intimate glimpses of the day-to-day hardships and dangers of life in the camp. If you fancy yourself a survivor, read this and then assess what your chances for making it through would have been. I rate my own as zero.

Art listens as Vladek relates.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Tadeusz Borowski

The politeness of the title reflects a historical fact: Nazi guards and their prisoner accomplices (who did most of the dirty work) very often maintained an air of cordialty which kept the imminent executions of new arrivals a secret from them until the moment when gas, not water, issued from the showerheads in the "bath house."

..."What's the trouble, Moise?" I said. "You seem out of sorts."
   "I've got some new pictures of my family."
   "That's good! Why should it upset you?"
   "Good? Hell! I've sent my own father to the oven!"
   "Possible, because I have. He came with a transport, and saw me in front of the gas chamber. I was lining up the people. He threw his arms around me, and began kissing me and asking, what's going to happen. He told me he was hungry because they'd been riding for two days without any food. But right away the Kommandofuhrer yells at me not to stand around, to get back to work. What was I to do? "Go on, Father," I said, "wash yourself in the bath-house and then we'll talk. Can't you see I'm busy now?" So my father went on to the gas chamber. And later I found the pictures in his coat pocket. Now tell me, what's so good about my having the pictures?"
   We laughed. "Anyway, it's lucky they don't gas Aryans any longer. Anything but that!"

--from "Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter)"

Borowski was a Polish Aryan poet who was imprisoned for attending secret meetings where he and other writers discussed books. He was carrying a copy of Brave New World when he was arrested. He arrived at Auschwitz only three weeks after they stopped gassing Aryans, but this did not mean his survival was a sure thing. To better his prospects and keep from starving, he worked the platforms where new prisoners were unloaded from boxcars. The Nazis used inmates in this capacity to lull arrivals into a false sense of security as well as to further diffuse their own sense of responsibility. Keeping victims in the dark as to their fates made the type of revolt which occured at Sobibor less likely.

The short stories in this collection (published immediately after the war) detail daily life in the camps where death is a matter of routine and all pretense of culture or civilization has been abandoned. This unflinching account suspends judgment, depicting atrocities with a journalistic detachment which neither romanticizes the victims nor demonizes the functionaries of death, who, like Borowski, were often one in the same.

Tadeusz Borowski gassed himself in a kitchen oven in 1951, just days before the birth of his first child.

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© 1999 robert zverina