Art Spiegelman's Maus One man's account of surviving a state-run Hell

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Art Spiegelman's
Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus is a true account
of his father Vladek as a Polish Jew in Nazi Europe during WWII.
Simultaneously, it reveals the strained relationship of the author
with his difficult father as he prods him to relate his experiences
during the war. Spiegelman employs a visual metaphor by illustrating
his characters with animal faces. Jews are portrayed as mice, the
Germans cats, and other races given similar treatment. Rather than
a distraction, this approach helps the reader deal with the harsh
reality endured by Vladek and his fellow Jews against increasing
persecution and eventual imprisonment in concentration camps — in
Vladek's case, Auschwitz. Make no mistake; this is no mere comic
book glossing over the Holocaust in Cliff-Notes fashion. It's an
unblinking view of one man's journey through state-sponsored genocide,
and how he survived using his wits. The book is an intense, heart-rending,
and unsentimental memoir, equal on it's own merits compared to other
classic literature.

Reflecting
on the powerful drama of Vladek’s struggle, I gleaned from his account
many practical principles and techniques employed in his fight for
survival. These are not of the “living off the land" survivalist
genre, but proven to work in a methodical state-planned "death
by design" environment. I think they are relevant today as
valuable strategies to deal with the ongoing "progressive"
uncertain world we live in.

Tangible
goods.
Vladek had married into a rich family. Since the currency
of his country was debased after occupation, he made good use of
his family's valuables to sell, barter, and bribe during the early
hard times. Even Nazi guards were not above taking a bribe to look
the other way, though this was fraught with peril, as they would
sometimes reneged, and merely shoot the other party. He took special
care to cache some of the valuables, which he would later reclaim
after the war to help rebuild his life.

Skills and
networking.
The confiscation of Jewish businesses and
factories prior to the camps left Vladek without a job. He learned
how to make and repair shoes in a Jewish Ghetto workshop to provide
for his family. In the book, there is a page with detailed illustrated
instructions related by Vladek to his son on how he repaired a ripped
shoe separated from the sole. He also gleaned just enough knowledge
of tinsmithing to bluff his way into a workshop later at Auschwitz
— which saved him from an early death being chosen for hard physical
labor.

Vladek was
also fluent in German, and knew some English. These talents opened
doors to communicate to people of many backgrounds, giving him an
edge in setting up a network system for survival and bartering.
One time in a holding cell, Vladek met an illiterate man who asked
if he could write letters for him in German so he could request
food packages from his family. Vladek wrote the letters and the
man shared the food he received with him out of gratitude. Later
in Auschwitz, Vladek's life hung in the balance when a SS officer
demanded a badly ripped boot be repaired like new in the morning
— or else. No having sufficient skill to fix it, Vladek contacted
a highly skilled shoe repairman elsewhere in the camp. Spending
a day's ration of bread, he got the shoe repaired like new to the
SS officer's satisfaction, and received an unexpected sausage in
return in payment. More importantly, Vladek paid careful attention
to the expert shoe repairman as he fixed the boot, so he could learn
to perform the procedure himself. Doing so made him valuable to
the Nazi wardens as a skilled craftsman, saving him from wasting
his strength from heavy labor assignments.

Gamesmanship.
I once saw a documentary of a woman concentration camp survivor
who observed that those children found useful for labor and not
gassed survived better in the camps than adults. She stated that
a child's innate sense of play and imagination proved to be a crucial
survival trait, whereas their socially conditioned elders tend to
habitually follow the rules, even when they consciously know it
will lead to their eventual death. This woman related how as a child
in a concentration camp, she would make a game out of hiding from
work details, sneaking into other food lines in the camp, and so
on to survive — tactics outside the mindset of conventional adults
who are bound by the rules of propriety. As Vladek’s former profession
was that of a textile salesman, he was experienced in sizing up
situations and selecting the best angle to close a sale. This talent
made him more mentally flexible to think outside the box than most
of his rule-bound comrades. He avoided confrontation, and struck
the right note of deferment and self-confidence to pull little mercies
and favors even from his Nazi captors.

As time progressed,
the hazard of contracting typhus required inmates to show their
shirts for inspection prior to being served their daily soup ration.
Those inmates who shirts where infested by lice were denied. As
it was impossible to keep the only shirt one owned clean, death
by starvation would become imminent. By good fortune, Vladek became
friends with a French non-Jewish inmate who received Red Cross packages.
He was given a chocolate bar, and instead of eating it, he traded
it plus a day's worth of bread for a shirt from another inmate.
He laboriously cleaned and dried the extra shirt, and wrapped it
carefully in scrap paper. By presenting this clean, lice-free shirt
at the soup line, his investment guaranteed a constant meal every
day that enabled him to stay strong to survive.

Prior to being
interned in Auschwitz, Spiegelman's father explained how he and
his wife attempted to make it to a safe house by walking through
the town of Sosnowiec at night. To prevent being recognized as Jews,
Vladek took pains to wear a coat and high calf boots like those
worn by off-duty Gestapo officers. He also kept up a conversation
in German to his wife Anja to flesh out the deception. It worked,
and they found safety for a time. Sometimes the best camouflage
is mimicking your enemy.

Faith, Hope,
and Charity
. One would think these attributes would be the anti-thesis
of personal survival in a concentration camp. Mastering the powerful
instinct of self-preservation, Vladek endured the wrath of his temperamental
barracks Kapo to successfully plead for a pair of wooden shoes,
a belt, and spoon — valuable items worth their weight in precious
food in the camp — for a friend who was without. Vladek risked losing
favor that could literally mean the difference of life or death
for him. Yet by helping a friend, he also saved something very valuable
within his soul.

In a more practical
way, Vladek's generosity with others helped open doors for better
jobs and bartering contacts. Sharing his carefully hoarded food
with his hardened workshop bosses gained him favors that saved him
time and time again from transfers to brutal work details. His survival
strategy can be summed up in this simple declaration to his son;
"If you want to live, it's good to be friendly."

In the end,
Vladek’s ultimate survival still depended as much on faith in providence
and the kindness of strangers. The nature of the holocaust and the
war itself made individual survival a cruel game of chance, with
no seemly consistent moral logic why one survived and another did
not. This fatalism resulted in many an inmate choosing to give up
and deliberately walk past the verboten fence line to be
shot. After being processed at Auschwitz, Vladek suffered an overwhelming
sense of despair and hopelessness. A priest who was an inmate noticed
him, and familiar with Hebrew numerology, divined from the etched
serial numbers on Vladek's wrist that he was blessed with much life
and good omens to survive his ordeal. At that moment Vladek said
he begin to believe he could survive, and that the compassionate
priest's words put "another life into him." This renewed
will to live would see Vladek through all his ensuing trials to
VE Day.

If you have
not yet read Maus, I strongly recommend doing so. On a personal
level, it serves as a stiff tonic when one is suffering from a bout
of self-pity. In a historical perspective, it testifies the terrible
results of denying the warning signs of an oppressive government
until it is too late. Should we fail to heed its message, we may
not end up as fortunate as Vladek to live to tell the tale to our
children.

August
25, 2008

Ron
Shirtz [send him mail] is
a transplanted Californian in Northern (Not “Upstate”) New York.
His hobbies include arranging deck chairs on sinking ships, tilting
at windmills, and being fashionably late.

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