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Maus | Themes

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Impact of War

The effects of war last long after the peace treaties are signed and the prisoners are released. For the survivors of World War II and the Holocaust, some of these effects lasted a lifetime and even bled into the next generation. This is true of the Spiegelman family, in which both parents (and a stepparent) survived Nazi extermination camps. Vladek Spiegelman, for example, has trouble shaking the frugal habits he picked up during the war years, including saving money and hoarding scraps of useful trash, like paper. He continues both of these practices 30 years later, becoming so stingy with money he alienates his second wife, Mala. Vladek saves everything just in case tragedy strikes again. This translates to an automatic suspicion of anyone who doesn't share his saving habits, including his son and his wife.

Anja Spiegelman, Vladek's late wife and Artie's mother, was already predisposed to anxiety and depression when the war began, but the events that followed magnified her unhappiness even more. The death of her son, Richieu Spiegelman, and nearly all of her relatives left her with feelings of loss and despair so strong that she took her own life in 1968. Even though Vladek soon remarries, he too feels lonely when he thinks about all the people the war took from him, including his beloved bride.

Even though their son, Artie Spiegelman, wasn't alive during World War II, he is still affected by it. The memory of his dead brother, Richieu, looms over everything he does, making Artie feel inadequate compared to the "perfect" son who never grew up to become an adult. Aware that nothing he will ever do will be as impressive as surviving the Holocaust, Artie feels both guilty for missing it and a little envious of his parents' experiences. He has never suffered like his parents, which is a good thing, but it also makes it harder for him to connect with them, particularly his father. It isn't until they talk about Vladek's experiences during the war that Artie can begin to bridge the gulf that had separated them for so long.

Family

Family comes first in Maus. This is true during World War II, when Vladek, Anja, and their extended family have to make heartbreaking decisions about parting ways to ensure the safety of their loved ones:

  • Richieu, the Spiegelman's young son, is sent to live with relatives in the hopes it will be safer in another ghetto but ends up dying before Vladek and Anja are sent to Auschwitz.
  • The Zylberbergs try to protect Anja's grandparents from being sent to a so-called retirement community (actually to their deaths), but the Jewish police threaten to take away family members one-by-one until the grandparents are turned over to the authorities. Anja's father makes the difficult decision to turn in his in-laws to save the rest of the family.
  • Vladek's father is one of the few allowed to stay in Sosnowiec after the mass deportation at the stadium, but sneaks into the line destined for Auschwitz after his daughter, Fela Spiegelman, and her children are cast out. He knowingly gives his own life to help his daughter protect her children in the extermination camps.

In each case the goal is to keep the family together as long as possible. Anja had vetoed Richieu's departure the previous year, but she knew Sosnowiec was becoming more unsafe by the day. She couldn't have known that the group he would have gone with the year before would survive while the group taken in the second year would not. Like all the other parents, she had to do what felt right in the moment to protect her family.

Even Artie can't escape the duty he feels toward his family, particularly Vladek. Father and son have never gotten along well, and Artie would rather do anything than help his father around the house (and on the roof). Yet after his mother's death, Artie still feels compelled to maintain a presence in his father's life. His sacrifices are smaller than those made by his parents and grandparents, but they are still sacrifices in his own life: he cuts his vacation short to be with Vladek after Mala leaves, and he goes to Florida to help Vladek and Mala pack. Most notably, he pushes aside his anger with his father to try to understand him as a person, not just a parent. Though their personalities stand in the way, Artie and Vladek both want a closer relationship with each other, and Artie is the one who makes the move to achieve it.

Morality

There's a big difference between what's accepted during times of peace versus what's accepted during times of war. People can afford to be altruistic and generous during peacetime and don't think twice about helping their neighbor. That's not the case during war, and it's not the case in Vladek's experiences in Maus. Everyone, even gentiles, lived in fear during the German occupation of Poland, and helping even a family member could result in death. Those who were willing to risk themselves would do so only for money, like Mrs. Kawka and Mrs. Motonowa, whom Vladek and Anja paid to keep them safe from the Gestapo. Vladek even had to pay his cousin, Haskel Spiegelman, to help him and Anja escape the Srodula detention center. "At that time it wasn't anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself," Vladek tells Artie, who has trouble comprehending how someone could be so greedy. But this wasn't greed, it was self-preservation. Haskel wasn't going to risk himself without a return on his investment.

Looking out for oneself often had devastating effects on others. The Zylberbergs bribe Haskel to sneak them to safety with the Spiegelmans, but Haskel just leaves them there after taking their valuables. He rationalizes he would have been killed had he been caught helping two elderly people escape the detention center. Abraham Mandelbaum says pretty much the same thing when explaining to Vladek and Mr. Mandelbaum why he wrote the letter encouraging them to go to Hungary even though he was caught and on his way to Auschwitz. "What could I do? They would have shot me then and there," he explains. Abraham and Haskel were focused on saving their own lives. If that meant risking the lives of others, then so be it for them.

Father-Son Relationships

Artie and Vladek have a rocky relationship at the best of times. Artie has always felt inadequate compared to his father, a Holocaust survivor and talented craftsman who seems to know everything about everything. Vladek can't relate to Artie, who was born in the United States and makes his living writing and drawing comics, also a handcraft but a very different one. Under Vladek's boastful facade, however, is a genuine love for his son and a sense of regret that they never had a strong connection.

Their already tense relationship is put under even more strain as Vladek's health begins to fail. He can no longer climb on the roof to make repairs or install storm windows himself, and he turns to Artie for help. Artie is torn—he doesn't like his father to do dangerous things on his own, but he also doesn't want to actually help. Irritation at being asked to do chores around the house turns to jealousy when a neighbor offers to take his place. The more Vladek needs help and advice, the more uncomfortable Artie becomes. He is not ready for this role reversal in their relationship wherein he acts as the parent and Vladek is the child in need of care.

Despite their differences, Artie wants to understand his father better, which is why he begins interviewing Vladek about his experiences during World War II. Strangely enough, it is stories about the worst times in Vladek's life that bring him and his son closer together. As Artie bears witness to Vladek's testimony, he begins to understand why his father is the way he is and gains a deeper respect for the family lost before he was even born. The interviews by no means repair their fractured relationship, but they do give father and son neutral ground on which they can stand together.

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