“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” -Adolf Hitler.
The relationship a person has with his or her parents is unique. It is a relationship that shapes you into the person you are going to become. The concept of nature versus nurture in child development raises several questions that you can see throughout the story of Vladek Spiegelman. A question can be posed while reading this novel, can ones family trauma be passed on to a child through birth, or is it through raising them, with the trauma still haunting the child that allows for the trauma to bleed into them. In Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, written by Art Spiegelman you are taken on a journey back to Hitler’s Germany, or more specific to this tale one is taken back to 1935 Poland where whispers of a coming horror are in the air. Most people when starting this book have a basic understanding of what the Holocaust was, how many people died who the people were that died, and who had them killed. However, as we delve into the complicated tale of a survivor of these horrors one is reminded that the story of the Holocaust does not end with the survivors or the liberation of the camps, the story and the trauma is passed on through one generation to the next like a sickness to which there is no cure. This sickness is fear.
The relationship between Vladek and his son Artie from the start presents itself as strained. One comes to learn Art rarely visits his father and his mother commited suicide several years prior to the start of this novel. One also learns both Artie’s father, mother and stepmother are all survivors of the Holocaust. The stage is set in the late 70s in Rego Park New York, Vladek Spiegelman is an aging Polish Jew living with his second wife in Artie’s childhood home. When first introduced to Vladek he is complaining to his son that he never visits, soon it becomes clear that Artie’s intention for the visit is learning about his father and mother’s experience during the Holocaust. “I went out to see my Father in Rego Park. I hadn’t seen him in a long time — we weren’t that close” (Spiegelman, I, 11). The uneasy feeling is palpable, you can feel it coming out of the pages, tainting the story and setting the stage for the complicated relationship that is a Holocaust survivor and one’s child. From the story’s very first page, readers get a glimpse of how Artie has dealt with the Holocaust secondhand all his life. We see Artie start crying because his friends have run off without him. Vladek at first doesn’t notice, then once Artie admits why he is crying, Vladek replies, “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, I, 6). Vladek seems unconcerned with Artie’s suffering, and likewise seen multiple times throughout the rest of the narrative.
As Artie continues to learn more of his father’s tale of survival, he starts to come off as being selfish and unfeeling. It seems he might only be interested in Vladek’s story and nothing else. For example, after Vladek remarks on how Richieu did not survive the war, he begins to talk more about Richieu’s predicament. Artie, however, becomes cross and indignant, interrupting him with, “Wait! Please, Dad, if you don’t keep your story chronological, I’ll never get it straight . . . Tell me more about 1941 and 1942” (Spiegelman, I, 82). It starts to become clear that Artie is only interested in getting the story for the comic he intends to write rather then the well-being of his own father. The reader starts to fabricate the relationship Artie and Vladek have, and the father-son dynamic seems to be troublesome. One of the more plaintive examples of Artie’s actions is when he chastises Vladek for burning his mother’s diaries. Rather than trying to understand the trauma his father went through, he yells, “God damn you! You-you murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing!” (Spiegelman, I, 159). As one reads on, we learn Vladek burns Anja’s diaries because he wanted to get rid of the memories that brought him extreme distraught in the past. Artie’s unsympathetic nature towards his father’s experience creates tension to their relationship and makes the reader wonder if Artie will ever sympathize what his father has gone through.
Artie’s legacy is not the only trauma he has dealt with; he has also experienced the guilt over his mother’s suicide. The reader finally learns about Anja’s suicide on pages 100-103, and shown both forms of Artie’s guilt in his comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” where he depicts himself wearing what looks like a prison camp striped uniform throughout. In this comic, he is said, “I felt nauseous …. The guilt was overwhelming,” after he shows himself leaving his mother’s funeral (Spiegelman, II, 102). Although he is grappling explicitly with the guilt about his mother, the underlying internal guilt involves him not having experienced the Holocaust with his family. The guilt was shown in earlier pages in Book Two on page 41 where Artie tells us when the first version of Maus was published, and becoming a commercial success. He is then bombarded by reporters being flooded with questions about his book. Perhaps his confusion and anguish best seeps onto the page when he exclaims to reporters that, “Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. EVERYONE! FOREVER!” (Spiegelman, II, 42). Artie’s confusion over his guilt has clearly caused him much anxiety, and it constitutes his own personal trauma—his own “survivor” story. As Artie continues to learn more about his father’s experience in the Holocaust, his well-being is affected by his own uncertainty over his guilt and feelings of inadequacy having caused a gaping hole in his relationship with Vladek. In other words, by being the son of a survivor, the trauma has been passed on, and it materializes itself in the form of apparent selfishness and harshness towards Vladek. By portraying himself in this realistic—and, at times, unsympathetic—manner, Artie reveals the trauma that second generation Holocaust survivors experience.
Throughout Maus Artie Spiegelman depicts himself as unsentimental towards his own father, and their relationship has shown dysfunctional from the start. Portraying himself in a seemingly honest fashion, shows the guilt and feelings of inadequacy that have been hitchhiking with him throughout his life. These feelings are clear in Artie’s treatment of his father, and they are synonymous with the feelings all second-generation survivors must deal with on a daily basis. It’s comprehensible to the reader that Artie will never understand the trauma his parents have endured. By depicting himself in this way, Spiegelman shows the second generation’s own trauma—their own personal “survivor” story, which is told alongside Vladek’s Holocaust story in Maus.