Guilt in the Holocaust through Maus: Survivors guilt and intergenerational tendency of guilt.
Once the Third Reich had fallen and the horrors of the Holocaust came into light, it allowed people access into what the Holocaust was truly like for the Jewish population. The most haunting and interesting aspect of the Holocaust has always been the way survivors or children or relatives of the survivors have written about the Holocaust and what it means to them as survivors.
This paper will aim to understand survivors’ guilt in Holocaust literature. First, it will draw an outline of the history of anti-Semitism, what the Holocaust was and through Maus by Art Spiegelman, and understand the idea of guilt and how it figures into the books.
What does it mean to feel guilty? About writing your parent’s history, about surviving a camp, about feeling like you do not deserve to have lived when so many others died in the process?
A Brief History of Anti-Semitism
Since the term ‘anti-Semitism’ does not appear until 1879, the signs of it began with religious differences. During the Hellenistic era, the Jewry did not acknowledge the Gods being worshipped by other people and were also already facing social segregation. Judaism is also a monotheistic religion – they worship only one God. Even with Jesus of Nazareth and his followers being practicing Jews and with Christianity following the Jewish ideas of monotheism, the strain in their relationship was very palpable once Jesus was crucified in the Roman practices by Pontius Pilate. It got worse with the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 BCE and with the exile of the Jews. Christianity made it seem like the Jews were solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and thus openly and indirectly antagonized the Jews further.
This moved well into the Middle Ages, where they were being socially outcasted. “Religious attitudes were reflected in the economic, social, and political life of medieval Europe. In much of Europe during the Middle Ages, Jews were denied citizenship and its rights, barred from holding posts in government and the military, and excluded from membership in guilds and the professions.” (Anti-Semitism. Britannica.com 6/21/2019, Accessed on: 5/11/2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/anti-Semitism)
The First Crusades in 1096 also unleashed a massive campaign of anti-Semitism, with a lot of baseless claims about the Jews making human sacrifices during Passover (Britannica). This, along with another 12th century practice against Jews of identifying them with yellow stars became Nazi propaganda.
Maus and The Holocaust
All memories of such an event will be naturally muddled. As humans, we often tend to repress the worst parts of our lives. If, however, we did have to remember it, we would often remember it in fragments, with no sequence.
In Maus, Artie taking up the chance to consolidate all of his father’s memories of Auschwitz and the Holocaust would, on the surface seem like he is writing the book for the obvious reason that he wanted the world to know of the events first hand from a survivor. But beyond that, there is this understanding of Artie trying to come to terms with something that makes up a large part of his Jewish identity. He was never present during the Holocaust and to have his father recount the nightmares of being a camp inmate in Auschwitz would seem like too much of a task, since it is obviously not something one brings up casually. But, for Vladek, a lot of The Holocaust is obviously ingrained within his personality and it is only second nature for him to bring it up, even without it being explicit. He didn’t have to start his sentences with “When I was in the camps..”, he could just say, “You will never learn the value of food until it is taken away from you”, and it would still allude to his time at the camps and his hardships.
Vladek’s projection of this survivor’s guilt is unfurled through a series of constantly blaming Artie and Mala, who was his second wife (and by extension everyone around him) for not doing things right. We can understand that a lot of Vladek’s behaviour comes from his experience of surviving the Holocaust. It is understood that his survival happened out of pure luck and his drive to stay alive through connections, as well. But, ultimately, he would feel like he survived while so many lost their lives. Guilt manifests itself in many different forms throughout the books. It is the emotion that drives the book and the characters forward, often present in every panel we encounter.
But what does it mean to feel guilty? Why feel guilty in the first place? In Maus 2, Art’s “therapist”, Pavel (who was also a camp survivor), asks him to fully understand how his guilt has manifested into making these books. A lot of the pressure he felt was to keep the story as authentic as possible, to retell his father’s story as is, but a lot of pressure comes with feeling the need to be perfect – and the first emotion is guilt. First, Art had to deal with his own father dismissing the idea of writing these books in the first place. He would repeatedly say, “It would take many books, my life and no one anyway wants to hear such stories.” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. pg. 12)
He has a lot of offers and deals for the books, but it does not sit well with him because he feels like the story has been reduced to a commodity. In this page, we can see how Art draws himself as a tiny kid, the more they start to pressure him about press, media, accessories etc. and starts wailing like one when it all gets too much. So, how strong of an emotion is this guilt that it becomes the underlying (and obviously overlying) emotion of both the books?
This scenario becomes the first layer of Art’s guilt. The idea of commodifying his parent’s experiences or even anyone else who died and survived the horrors of the Holocaust. It would seem so insensitive, because it would seem like he is making money out of their grief.
The second layer comes in the form of not being present during the Holocaust to fully understand the kind of devastating effects it had on the survivors and every generation after them. This is the reason he feels guilty, more than commodifying his parent’s experiences. In book 2, Artie tells Pavel: “Somehow arguments with my father have lost a little of their urgency… and Auschwitz just seems too scary to think about… so I just lie there..” to which Pavel replies, “It sounds like you’re feeling remorse – maybe you believe you exposed your father to ridicule.” And Artie tries to rationalise it by saying, “Maybe. But I tried to be fair and still show how angry I felt.” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale 2: And Here my Troubles Began. pg. 44)
Art and Vladek clash a lot in terms of personality. Vladek has had to spend so much of his time rationing his supplies in order to live in the camps, he naturally brought that forward with him when moving to America. In the beginning of book 1, when Art comes back crying because his friends left him, Vladek’s first response was, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. pg. 5)
This projection of his hardship at the camps is what fuels most of Art’s anger and guilt towards his father. A lot of is built up over the years, as Art had to deal with it from a very young age. When Pavel mentions that every little boy looks up to their father, Art cannot think of one time where he felt that way; “That sounds true, but it’s hard for me to remember.. Mainly I remember arguing with him… and being told that I couldn’t do anything as well as he could.” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale 2: And Here my Troubles Began. pg. 44)
It even manifested into his second relationship after Anja committed suicide. His relationship with Mala was often strained, even though she survived the camps just like he did. With Mala, his antagonism stems from the smallest of the things she does and also because of the basic fact that she is not Anja and she never will be. When Art comes to visit his father after two years, he immediately scolds her: “Acch, Mala! A wire hanger you give him! I haven’t seen Artie in almost two years – we have plenty of wooden hangers.” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. pg. 11) And we can see Mala clearly unimpressed expression – alluding to the fact that this has happened for so long, but she does not say anything (for a while at least). In their equation and dynamics, Art again ends up with the short end of the stick, because both of them complain about each other’s habits to him and it drives him crazy.
But a lot changed since he lost Anja. She survived the camps with him, but she was still nervous, carrying it forward up until her suicide. She spiralled more after the death of her only remaining family member. According to Vladek, Anja could be the only one who truly understood his experiences about being in the camps. They went in together and despite being separated, he did everything he could to ensure she was alive and giving her things she wanted. He was committed to her safety above all else and when they survived the camps, they made it out together, much to Vladek’s relief. So to first lose a loved one and then have two heart attacks, will definitely strain his relationship with everybody else around him, trying to talk to him.
One of the first observations we make in this book is that unhappiness is the emotion they feel strongly because of the mental and physical torture they had to bear. No matter how much they try to assimilate themselves into post-war America, surviving the Holocaust will always be a large part of their identities.
Vladek, as a Jewish father, is demarcated in Andrew Gordon’s paper, “Philip Roth’s ‘Patrimony’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’: Jewish Sons Remembering Their Fathers”. He writes, “In talking about their relationships with their Jewish fathers, Spiegelman and Roth are writing ethnic autobiography, a genre that Barbara Frey Waxman sees as a double discourse negotiating between two cultures. Such authors must nourish ‘both the ethnic hunger of memory and the auctorial appetite for an American (literary) fixture,’ and therein lies the tension in their texts (219).
Another way to theorize this tension is as the opposition between descent and consent, which Werner Sollors calls ‘the central drama in American culture’: ‘Descent language emphasizes our position as heirs, our hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements,’ in other words, our patrimony, while ‘consent language stresses our abilities as mature free agents and architects of our fates’ to choose our spouses, our destinies, and our political systems’ (6)”. (Gordon, Andrew. “Philip Roth’s ‘Patrimony’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’”, pg. 54)
Art completely went against everything his father did. Despite that, Artie takes up the chance to collect all of his father’s memories of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. On the surface, it would seem like he is writing the book for the obvious reason that he wanted the world to know of the events first hand from a survivor. But beyond that, there is this understanding of Artie trying to come to terms with something that makes up a large part of his Jewish identity. He was never present during the Holocaust and to have his father recount the nightmares of being a camp inmate in Auschwitz would seem like too much of a task, since it is obviously not something one brings up casually. Although, in panels in pages 30, 43 and 52, you can see how Vladek briefly brings in the idea of eating what is available to you (43), doing whatever is asked of you in a correct manner, not failing to mention the repercussions of not finishing a task at camp, that led to their meals being taken away (52) and joking about Artie’s position of hand as a baby by saying, ““We joked and called you “Heil Hitler!”” (Spiegelman, Art, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, pg. 30) so seamlessly into conversation, like it is common understanding and a joke everyone would laugh along to. This could be the obvious reason why they have a very strained relationship, although, for the most part, it seems as if the antagonism is coming from Artie’s side more than Vladek’s. To often repeat what we know in situations we are in could be naturally jarring for some, but Vladek’s need to be systematic (yet failing at it, occasionally, as seen in panels on page numbers 30 and 39) particularly hints at the phrase “old habits die hard” and can also be alluded to his time at Auschwitz. But, is it right to put Vladek on the spot for his personality and general behaviour? When he has spent almost all of his life under war or escape, it is only natural for Vladek to do what he knows best — to survive, regardless of where you are. For Artie to take this forward, to understand and assimilate something that is larger than him, it would naturally be a daunting task.
Art struggles a lot through the book to find a balance between his father’s struggles and how his own life has panned out. With his mother’s suicide looming over him, which he describes in ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet’, he feels so much guilt for her. He immediately blames Hitler by writing “Hitler did it!” over multiple other causes (Maus 1, pg. 103) while also regretting how he snaps at her in the previous panels when Anja asks Art if he loves her. Like, Vladek, Art is hurt too, but he feels his father would never understand that feeling. Vladek and Anja ensured he would not live the same life they did and that Art should feel as comfortable as possible. And this is where the friction starts, because Art cannot outright tell his father his experiences are not an excuse for him to treat him like that, but at the same time, he struggles to establish a healthy boundary with him. With an obvious lack of mental health care for Vladek, all of his guilt goes unnoticed. He is unsure of where to channel it. To survive is one thing, but did he deserve to? When so many died? Pavel, in the second book, correctly explains Vladek’s survivors guilt: “Maybe your father needed to show that he was always right – that he could always survive – because he felt guilty about surviving.” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale 2: And Here my Troubles Began. pg. 44)
A lot of his personality highlights this. Looking at countless dead bodies around you and somehow feeling responsible for their demise. Ruth Jaffe in ‘The Sense of Guilt Within Holocaust Survivors’, discusses something called the “Selection Parade” within these camps. She says, “The ‘Selection Parade’ was a repeated event in most of the ghettos and con- centration camps, whereby row upon row of prisoners had to stand in place for hours; at the same time, they tried to do everything in their power to be inconspicuous. The Nazi in charge went through the rows choosing a pre-determined number of prisoners for the ‘Liquidation.’ The selected victims were led into the nearby woods and shot; the shooting was often heard by the survivors. Sometimes they were led, instead, to a pit to be shot or burned; the pits had prisoners themselves, who knew the use to which they were put.” (Jaffe, Ruth. The Sense of Guilt Within Holocaust Survivors, pg. 309) She explains an instance where one boy, running late, runs to the last row of lines. Usually, kids are positioned in the front. But since he was not there, the old man behind him was in the front and ended up getting ‘selected’ and killed. The child, after that, always felt guilty and called himself the old man’s murderer. (pg. 309)
When we pick all the quotes from the book one by one, they each define a major theme of a lot of Holocaust literature. By the time Art publishes his books, many people have written multiple books on the Holocaust, which would put forth the question of, ‘what makes this book any different from what has come? Just different strategies to live and survive or die.’ But that is what makes these books so compelling – you repeatedly inform people of something so grotesque, to inform them not to make the same mistake again (although, in this present age, there are certain countries that have built camps to detain certain people they are not happy with). As Pavel says, with a quote that now seems to hold true to the previous statement, “I’m not talking about your book now, but look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed…. Maybe they need a new, bigger Holocaust.” (Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale 2: And Here my Troubles Began. pg. 45)
Oppression is the ideology an imperial regime first focuses on and they first do it through ideas such as this: serve your country, love your country, but above all, know who your enemies are. The ‘enemies’ (who are enemies of the State) often end up being the religious minorities, frequently seen as “threats” to the sanctity or the “normality” of the country. Thus, begins the systematic oppression of the minorities: the rights are first deprived along with jobs and if this goes on for too long, mass genocide begins to take place. The idea of normal, in the case of Nazi Germany, was the idea of a pureblood Aryan race, the racially superior people. The idea of purity, which we understand as the need to establish a dominant race, is what begins as the starting point to understanding imperialistic and totalitarian regimes. To wipe out people who defer from the status quo, from the State approved idea of normal, is seen as the first way to assert power. “Only the horror of the final catastrophe, and even more the homelessness and uprootedness of the survivors, made the ‘Jewish question’ so prominent in our everyday political life.” (Arendt, Hannah, Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 3)
It is imperative to understand Vladek’s point of view. While to us, with most of us having access to therapy and other services, we can identify that his projection was problematic and toxic. But in a situation so gruesome and terrifying, how is one supposed to cope? How will one move on from surviving such a horror? Which is why these books give us a better glimpse at working towards a better future, where we will hopefully not single out a race and damage them entirely, but it seems very unlikely that people feel the same way about it now. It would mean that we need to work towards a better world, a more understanding place, where we do not allow hatred to win and history to repeat.
- Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986
- Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale : and Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
- Arendt, H. The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
- Berenbaum, Michael. Anti-Semitism. Britannica.com 6/21/2019, Accessed on: 5/11/2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/anti-Semitism
- Jaffe, Ruth. The Sense of Guilt Within Holocaust Survivors, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 1970), pp. 307-314.
- Gordon, Andrew. “Philip Roth’s ‘Patrimony’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’” Philip Roth Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2005), pp. 53-66