In drawing and writing his two-volume story of his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman tells that story in retrospective or flashback format for a very good reason. Spiegleman, like many children, felt emotionally estranged from his parents (his mother had committed suicide in 1968 and his father had remarried), although his love for them is not in doubt. They represented different generations and, most significantly, different cultures. Spiegelman’s parents were Polish Jews who were rounded up following the German invasion of Poland and, following a protracted period confined in what became known as “the Warsaw Ghetto,” were forced into railroad cargo containers and transported to concentration camps, including the Auschwitz death camp that would come to symbolize man’s greatest failure. The emotional distance between Art and his parents manifests itself in strained interactions and an occasionally condescending attitudes towards his unrefined, old-world father. As Art, insinuated into his graphic account of his parents’ lives, tells his therapist regarding the communications gap between him and his father, Vladek,
“Mainly I remember arguing with him… and being told that I couldn’t do anything as well as he could. . .No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz”
Maus was Art’s effort at bridging the gap and attaining a better understanding of his parents’ haunted past and the history that shaped their character. The optimal approach to understanding his parents, then, lied in eliciting from these survivors of the worst humanitarian crisis in human history their personal stories beginning with their arrests for the crime of being Jewish and the hell that followed.
The beginning of Vladek’s story, unsurprisingly, provides portents of doom, the reader presumably already aware of this phase in 20th Century history. Vladek has agreed to share with his son the story of the Holocaust as he experienced it. Vladek describes for Art his observations upon traveling with other Jews from Poland to Czechoslovakia so that Anja, Art’s mother, can be placed in a sanitarium to treat her depression. As Vladek’s character describes it, “every Jew from the train got very excited and frightened” when the train pulled into Prague, among Europe’s most beautiful cities:
“It was the beginning of 1938 – before the war – hanging high in the center of town, it was a Nazi flag. Here was the first time I saw with my own eyes the swastika.”
The Jews of Europe had entered a new era in their long history – severe restrictions on their freedoms and eventually transport to death camps for final resolution of their collective fate. For Vladek, those restrictions started with his capture as a prisoner-of-war serving in the Polish Army when Germany invaded. As Vladek described it, the Jewish prisoners were treated much worse than the non-Jewish ones. In Chapter Three of Maus I, Vladek, having returned to his home, describes the treatment of Jews by Germans who now occupy Poland. Vladek discovers that the Jews are now subject to rules designed to be as humiliating as possible, including the wearing of the now-infamous yellow star that Germany’s own Jews had been ordered to wear to identify themselves as Jewish. Over the next year, the Jews are subjected to ever-more restrictive rules, including being forced into the aforementioned ghetto, the imposition of a curfew, and being denied opportunities to earn wages. In Chapter Four, Vladek describes his father-in-law’s friends being caught operating a black market. Their punishment: public hanging. Soon, as noted above, they are forced into cattle cars and transported to concentration camps.
With respect to the timeline, Spiegelman’s father was an elderly man by the time Maus was being prepared. His memory, Mala, Vladek’s second wife and also a Holocaust survivor, points out, is not as clear as it once was. The years and the trauma of the concentration camps have taken their inevitable toll on his ability to recall dates with any reliable degree of precision. A timeline of major events in Vladek’s life, however, can be gleaned from Spiegelman’s text. What precisely the student posing the question constitutes a “timeline” with respect to Maus, however, is unclear. Do the dates of Vladek and Anja’s births and deaths constitute part of an important timeline? If so, Spiegelman includes in his story a drawing of his parents’ headstone showing Vladek’s life span as October 11, 1906 to August 18, 1982, and Anja’s as March 15, 1912 to May 21, 1968, the date of her suicide. They were marries on February 14, 1937. In early 1938, Anja is taken to the sanitarium in Czechoslovakia; in September 1939 Vladek serves in the Polish Army attempting to defend his homeland against the invading German Army; in 1943, the Jews from Vladek and Anja’s village are taken to Srodula where they are treated as slave laborers in factories. It is in this time frame that Vladek and Anja’s son, Richieu, is sent for his safety to live with relatives in the town of Zawiercie, but when the German’s invade that area, the boy is poisoned by his aunt to spare him the horrors of the concentration camps. Vladek and Anja are captured in interned, but are able to escape, and they manage to avoid capture and internment in the concentration camps until 1944.
This a timeline for Vladek Spiegelman gleaned from volume I of Maus. It is not a timeline of the Holocaust, although one can be found at the link provided below.