The works of the descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors reveal the tension between those who teach their memories and those who are taught to remember. The nature of the Holocaust as a literary rather than as a personal experience is exemplified by Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus, a Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Originally published serially in the pages of Raw magazine, Spiegelman’s work deals with his relationship with his father but centers upon the latter’s experiences as a Polish Jew, including his internment in the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland. Spiegelman, a graphic artist, relates the tale in comic-book style, with the Jews pictured as mice and the German soldiers as cats. While many readers approached the books as fictional, Spiegelman argued—successfully—that Maus is a memoir, and the Library of Congress duly classifies Maus as such.
The books use the experiences of Spiegelman’s parents, Vladek and his wife Anja, to reveal the gradual societal decay that permitted the Holocaust to occur. The first volume opens by quoting Adolf Hitler’s declaration, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” The first chapter tells of how Vladek broke off a long-standing sexual relationship to marry his wife, closing with Vladek telling Spiegelman that he should not use the story because “such private things, I don’t want you should mention.”
Spiegelman makes no attempt to sanitize his father’s character, knowing that it is through such “private things” that the horrors are revealed. Vladek tells of the increasing cruelties directed against Jews, and Spiegelman’s images—such as the German troops taking Anja’s bedridden mother’s bed in “The Noose Tightens”—emphasize the situation. The first volume, concluding with Vladek and Anja’s arrival at Auschwitz, truly “bleeds history.”
The second volume is more personal. Interspersed among tales of Vladek’s relationship with another concentration camp survivor, Mala, and Spiegelman’s own travails dealing with the success of the first volume is Vladek’s tale of how he survived in Auschwitz. His abiding love for Anja is shown to be what sustained both of them through the camp. By the end of Maus, the reader understands Vladek and his actions. The interaction across the generations makes Vladek’s Holocaust survival tale quite accessible.