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Maus | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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How is Vladek's personality changed by his experiences in the Holocaust as depicted in Maus?

In Book 1, Chapter 6, Mala insists Vladek's personality was never affected by the war, since "all [their] friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!" She's partially right—some things, like Vladek's practicality and his penchant for clean and tidy spaces, have always been part of who he is. But there are also obvious connections between the way Vladek acts now and the things he experienced during the Holocaust. Vladek was financially prudent before the war, but he was never the "miser" Mala characterizes him as now. He became this way when he and Anja lived with her family after his release from the German work camp. The Zylberbergs were spending money faster than they earned it, and Vladek had to secretly hide money from them so they would have something to live on when things got really bad. He maintains this practice throughout the rest of his life "so [he] can have a little something for [his] old age." Even though he has saved his entire life, he still worries about not having enough, which causes problems with Mala. Vladek also picked up the habit of saving every little scrap of food and trash during the war. Instead of using his bread and cigarette rations, he saved them to trade for Anja's transfer to Auschwitz. He kept every piece of paper he could find, both to barter for other goods and to use to write to Anja. He continues to avoid waste after the war by insisting Artie finish every scrap of food on his plate and by picking up trash off the street for later use.

In what ways does Vladek defy the conventional archetype of the hero in Maus?

Literary heroes are generally the main characters in a story who bravely or courageously overcome adversity. This part of the definition definitely applies to Vladek. He overcame the adversity of racial hatred and the death camps using only his ingenuity and his desire to survive. But unlike most literary heroes, Vladek doesn't do this for the greater good—he does it for himself. He is not leading the charge against the Nazis or fighting back against his Polish kapos in Auschwitz. He doesn't even risk his life to help members of his own family, with the exception of Anja. Vladek can't be considered a true literary hero because his goal is to survive and to help his wife survive, against terrible odds.

What role does Anja's death play in Artie and Vladek's relationship in Maus?

Anja committed suicide in 1968, when Artie was 20. Vladek and Artie weren't close prior to her death, and this distance seems only to increase after. This is depicted in Spiegelman's comic Prisoner on the Hell Planet (Book 1, Chapter 5). In the comic Artie comes home to the scene of Anja's death and finds Vladek looking to him for comfort. This is not what Artie expected. He felt responsible for his mother's death, and Vladek's uncontrollable grief did nothing to assuage his guilt. Years pass between Anja's death and the beginning of Maus, and it's unknown how often Artie and Vladek visit. Yet when Artie visits Vladek in Book 1, Chapter 1, he notices Vladek has "aged a lot since [he] saw him last" and chalks it up to Anja's death and Vladek's two heart attacks. If Artie had spent more time with his father, Vladek's change in appearance wouldn't be as noticeable. Anja was the common ground between Artie and Vladek, and without her they drifted apart even more.

What is the significance of Jewish people being drawn as mice in Maus?

One of the most important symbols in Maus is the representation of different peoples as different animals. Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Swedes are reindeer, and Americans are dogs. The most important symbol, of course, is Spiegelman's representation of Jewish people of all nationalities as mice. On a very basic level, Spiegelman's choices follow the natural food chain: cats chase the mice and the dogs chase the cats, just as the Nazis persecuted the Jews and the Americans (and Allies) stopped the Nazis. Like mice, the Jews hid from their pursuers only to be chased into a giant trap. In the real world mice are small, skittish, and generally nonthreatening. But they're also extremely agile, jumping long distances and flattening their bodies to fit through tiny holes to escape danger. Spiegelman wasn't the first person to liken Jewish people to rodents. Nazi propaganda often portrayed Jews as rats or other vermin as a means of dehumanizing them, which would make their persecution more acceptable to the masses. Indeed, the same exterminating products used for vermin were used in the camps. The epigraph at the beginning of Book 2, which comes from a German newspaper article in the mid-1930s disparaging Mickey Mouse, calls mice "the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom" and likens them to Jews. Spiegelman turns this negative association on its head by positioning the mice as the victims of the cat's thirst for blood.

How does the format of a graphic novel shape the way Art Spiegelman tells his father's story in Maus?

Spiegelman had two stories he wanted to tell: the story of how his father and mother survived the Holocaust, and the story of his relationship with his father in the present. Since the book functions as a memoir, it required two first-person narrators. That can be difficult to successfully adopt in a traditional novel, as readers can easily confuse more than one narrative voice. In this instance the format of the graphic novel worked to Spiegelman's advantage. Graphic novels place equal emphasis on words and pictures. Things that would normally be described in exposition—settings, moods, and actions—are instead shown in illustrations. A change in narrator can also be shown through graphics instead of words. Spiegelman does this by positioning Vladek's recollections as a story-within-a-story. The reader sees Vladek and Artie together in contemporary dress while reading Artie's narration. When Vladek begins to talk about the war, Artie is no longer in the frame. The characters are all dressed in World War II-era clothing, and it is implicitly understood that the first-person narration is now coming from Vladek. When Artie appears in the frame again, he takes over the narration once more. The visual component of the graphic novel makes these transitions seamless.

How does Maus depict a change in morals during times of war?

Morality is a specific code of behavior based on commonly held beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Culture-wide morality generally doesn't shift during times of crisis, such as war, but individual interpretation of morals does. This is the case during the Holocaust as depicted in Maus. Germans, Jews, and Poles who may have lent a helping hand to their fellow man or woman during times of peace focus on only themselves during times of war. Janina, the Spiegelmans' Polish nanny, says in Book 1, Chapter 2 that the Spiegelmans are like her family, and she would do anything to help them. Yet in Book 1, Chapter 6, she refuses to give Anja and Vladek shelter for fear the Nazis will discover her disloyalty to the Reich. In Book 2, Chapter 4, Vladek tells Artie that Janina sold all their valuables, which the Spiegelmans had given her for safekeeping until after the war. Janina wasn't a bad person, but her sense of right and wrong was affected by the threats on her own life. Her instinct to survive the war was stronger than her desire to be a good friend and neighbor. Even Vladek's sense of right and wrong changes in the heat of battle. In Book 1, Chapter 3, Vladek is on the front lines of battle on the side of the Polish army. He doesn't want to kill anyone, but fires his weapons over and over at a German soldier disguised as a tree even after the man holds up his hand in surrender. Vladek reasons that if the tables had been turned, the German soldier would have done the same thing to him. Vladek's sense of what is right and what is wrong changed instantaneously on the battlefield. He goes into battle not wanting to kill anyone, and then realizes he must if he wants to survive.

How do Vladek's experiences during the war affect Artie in Maus?

Prior to his interviews with Artie, Vladek never talked much about his experiences during the Holocaust, and the lasting effects of war were more evident in his actions than in his words. After experiencing debilitating hunger, Vladek hates to see food being wasted. The loss of the family's wealth and valuables has made him extraordinarily cautious—some would even say tightfisted—with money after the war. These changes don't affect only Vladek—they affect Artie as well. Artie grew up with a father he viewed as domineering and stubborn. Vladek refused to let Artie leave the table if Artie hadn't eaten everything on his plate, which drove a wedge between father and son while bringing mother and son closer together as Anja sneaked him food he actually liked. Instead of warm memories about time spent together, Artie remembers his mother having to beg his father weeks in advance for money for school supplies, which again increased the distance between father and son. Without knowing the stories behind his father's penny-pinching ways, Artie is left to think his father is just a miserable person who doesn't care if the rest of the family is unhappy. There is a direct connection between Vladek's experiences during the war and the relationship Artie has with his father in the present.

What sacrifices are made for the survival of family in Maus?

Family is incredibly important to the characters in Maus, particularly to those who experienced World War II, and as such many of the characters are forced to make impossible decisions about how best to protect those they love. The Zylberbergs initially refuse to give up Anja's grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Karmio, when the Jewish police insist they must be taken to a city designated for the elderly. When Anja's father, Israel Itzak Zylberberg, learns the rest of the family will be taken away one-by-one until Mr. and Mrs. Karmio are handed over, he has to decide what is best for the longevity of the family, which results in the elderly couple's transfer to Auschwitz. Vladek has to make the same decision a few years later when his cousin Haskel helps him and Anja to safety but leaves Anja's parents behind. Vladek is loyal to Anja's parents, but he also knows their age marks them for death. He has to do what is best for his immediate family and doesn't let himself worry about the fate of her parents. Gut-wrenching decisions like this also had to be made about the young. Richieu was six when his parents sent him to live with the Steinkellers in Zawiercie. They hated the idea of parting with him, but they believed he would be safer there. Tosha, Anja's sister, has an even worse decision to make. When she learns the Nazis are liquidating Zawiercie, she decides to poison herself and her daughter Bibi, her niece Lonia, and her nephew Richieu so they will avoid the horrors of Auschwitz. It couldn't have been easy to be the cause of the children's death, but to her it was better than letting them suffer the unknowable future.

Why were some Jews voluntarily involved in the oppression of other Jews in Maus?

At many points in Book 1 of Maus, it appears not all the Jews oppose the way the Nazis treat their fellow Jews. The Jewish council works in tandem with the Gestapo to catch "traitors" and round up undesirables, such as the elderly. There were also individuals who thought helping the Nazis would ensure their own safety, such as the man in Book 1, Chapter 5 who stumbles upon the Spiegelmans' and Zylberbergs' hiding place. Vladek does not appear to hold a grudge against any of these people, which is an attitude Artie has difficulty understanding. In Book 1, Chapter 4, Vladek explains some Jews, such as those on the Jewish council, thought that "if they gave to the Germans a few Jews, they could save the rest." They believed it was necessary to sacrifice a few people to save the race as a whole. This line of thinking turned out to be incorrect. The man who reported Vladek and his family was executed, and the Nazis eventually turned on all the council members when preparing to liquidate the ghettos.

How does the structure of Maus help Artie and the reader gain a better understanding of Vladek?

Author Art Spiegelman tells two separate but related stories in Maus: that of his father's experiences as a Polish Jew during World War II, and that of the relationship between his father and himself. The narrative does not follow a chronological timeline of events, but instead weaves between the present and the past through the use of flashbacks. Spiegelman shows himself at the beginning, end, and sometimes middle of each chapter interviewing his father about life in Poland and Germany during the war. These interviews bleed into other topics—Vladek's health and marriage, Artie's disinterest in helping his father around the house—which help the reader understand the current status of their relationship. The flashbacks, narrated by Vladek, are entirely about Vladek's life before he came to the United States in 1950. Many of the experiences he shares inform Artie (and the reader) why he is the way he is. In Book 1, Chapter 5, for example, Artie gets annoyed with Vladek for picking up telephone wire off the street. In Book 2, Chapter 2, Vladek tells how he wrote letters to Anja on scraps of paper other people just threw away. By telling two stories at once, Spiegelman is able to show the causes of his father's personality quirks, which make present-day Vladek a more sympathetic and relatable character.

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