Art Spiegelman’s two-volume graphic depiction of his efforts at documenting the horrors of the Holocaust through interviews of his father, a survivor, was an excruciating exercise for the novelist not only because of his difficult relationship with his father, but also because of his father’s reluctance to relive the most painful period of his life. Many veterans of war bury—or try to bury—their memories of the bloodshed and the losses of close friends and colleagues. The memories are too painful to endure. They don’t discuss their war experiences because they view themselves simply as having done the job they were sent to do and because they would rather not relive those episodes from the war. Survivors of the Holocaust similarly bury the memories—memories that include being forced to exist under the most horrific conditions imaginable while seeing loved ones and others brutalized and murdered for the sole “crime” of being Jewish.
By the time Spiegelman’s first volume of his graphic story, Maus: My Father Bleeds History, approaches its ending, he has drawn out of his father, Vladek, a great number of painful memories. By page 157, both father and son are emotionally drained by this ordeal, and the story is only now reaching its most appalling transition: Vladek and his wife Anja, Art’s mother, are being transported to Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, the name of which has become synonymous with the Holocaust. It is at this moment, as Vladek describes his and Anja’s understanding of this development, that the relationship between father and son reaches an ugly breaking point. Vladek has just noted to his son regarding his and Anja’s arrival at Auschwitz that the end is almost certainly near:
We knew the stories—that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens. This was 1944 . . . We knew everything. And here we were.
When Art pushes his father for his deceased mother’s diaries, Vladek informs him that the diaries were destroyed:
After Anja died I had to make an order with everything . . . These papers had too many memories. So I burned them.
Art’s response to his admission regarding the diaries is both understandable from the impassioned perspective of the historian but thoroughly lacking in sensitivity to his father’s emotional wounds:
God Damn you! You—You murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing?
Vladek Spiegelman was not a scholar. He was not a historian concerned about the preservation of historically-significant documentation. He was a husband whose wife had committed suicide rather than live with the emotional pain of having endured one of the worst periods in human history. Spiegelman’s illustrations depict the episode with the sadness and ugliness that it deserves. The author does not spare himself the harshness of his artistry. He depicts himself departing his father’s home with a forced display of civility immediately followed by a depiction of himself repeating the odious charge of “murderer.”
Pages 157 to 159 of Maus demonstrate the difficulties of telling a story about the Holocaust because of the limitations of the graphic illustrations employed. It also, however, demonstrates the difficulties because of the direct personal involvement of Vladek in the Holocaust and because of the relationship of the author to the subject. Anja wasn’t just Vladek’s wife; she was Art’s mother. Art isn’t a conventional biographer or historian; he is a graphic artist/novelist. These pages illustrate the scale of the task of attempting to capture the deliberate systematic mass murder of millions of innocent people through the prism of a single survivor as depicted by a son possibly too interested in telling a story and too uninterested in understanding the pain with which his father has lived.