From the outset of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman humanizes his father, Vladek Spiegelman by emphasizing the minutiae of their everyday interactions. These interactions between father and son help to demonstrate the extent of Vladek’s trauma and the strain it has caused him and his family. They also bring Vladek to life as a full human being – he emerges as equal parts frustrating, amusing, and sympathetic. For instance, Vladek’s compulsive need to save every dollar is clearly rooted in his experience of the Holocaust; while Vladek acknowledges the source of his tightfistedness, he stubbornly refuses to change even when it threatens the stability of his marriage to Mala and his improved relationship with his son. With the use of dialogue and the comics medium, Spiegelman shifts from his parents’ trials in the Holocaust to his present-day confrontations with his father’s idiosyncrasies. These temporal shifts, which also encompass sharp changes in tone and atmosphere, make Maus a transformative text. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Spiegelman’s graphic novel is able to help “demythologize” the Holocaust. In her chapter, “Reading the Literature of Trauma” in Worlds of Hurt, Kalí Tal describes mythologization as a cultural coping strategy for trauma. It works by “reducing a traumatic event to a set of standardized narratives (twice – and thrice – told tales that come to represent ‘the story’ of the trauma), turning it from frightening and uncontrollable event into a contained and predictable narrative” (Tal 6). Far from contained and predictable, the temporal shifts of Maus make the narrative both emotionally engaging and emotionally dislocating. In each return to the present, Spiegelman shows the reverberations of trauma in everyday life. This is an approach that is remarkably different from what Kal refers to as the “archetypal Holocaust novel” (6).
Near the end of Spiegelman’s Maus II: And Here my Troubles Began, there is an interesting exchange that especially piqued my interest. Art and Françoise are driving Vladek back to his bungalow in the Catskills after a hilarious and cringe-inducing (yet unexpectedly successful) attempt by Vladek to procure a refund for Mala’s half-eaten groceries. On the way, Françoise stops the car to pick up a black hitch-hiker, who is illustrated as a dog, in keeping with the representations of Americans throughout the comic. Vladek becomes uneasy and cries, “A hitch-hiker? And – Oy – It’s a coloured guy, a shvartser! Push quick on the gas!” (emphasis in original). Francoise does not oblige Vladek and instead drives the affable stranger to his cousin’s abode. All the while Vladek mutters under his breath in Polish, in complete disbelief that a “shvartser” (Yiddish for a black male) is sitting in his car. After the hitch-hiker disembarks, Vladek comments that he had been watching the man carefully, to ensure he stole no groceries. Françoise quickly admonishes her father-in-law: “‘That’s outrageous! How can you, of all people, be such a racist! You talk about blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews!’” (259). To this Vladek replies, “‘Ach!…I thought you are more smart than this, Françoise…It’s not even to compare the shvartsers and the Jews!’” (259, emphasis in original).
I am sure that I am not the only reader to find this exchange jarring. After developing a strong familiarity, even an identification, with Vladek through Spiegelman’s attentive and consistent representation of his personality, habits, and mannerisms, this identification was dealt a serious blow by the revelation of his bigotry. Nevertheless, it is a credit to Spiegelman that he remained faithful in his attempt at an honest rendering of his father, with all of his faults and foibles. Curiously enough, Vladek’s racism becomes yet another humanizing element for his character; he is a victim and a survivor, as well as a flawed man capable of committing his own racist transgressions.
On closer attention, the passage brought to mind again Kali Tal’s introductory chapter in Worlds of Hurt. I wondered what could be lying beneath the surface of this racist episode. Of course, the pervasive racism and antipathy in American society towards black people is the simplest explanation for Vladek’s bigoted views. However, there appears to be more at work in this lack of solidarity between victims of oppression, between members of traumatized groups. Because while the hitch-hiker is not necessarily a victim of trauma, and almost certainly not in a similar way to Vladek, there is no doubt that African Americans as a group have suffered immense trauma throughout their history. Tal writes that
If survivors retain control of their trauma, they can sometimes force a shift in the social and political structure. If the dominant culture manages to appropriate the trauma and can codify it in its own terms, the status quo will remain unchanged. On a social as well as an individual psychological level, the penalty for repression is repetition. (7)
Drawing on Tal, I argue that in the United States, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have been able to retain control of their trauma, largely influencing its eventual codification by the general public so that the Holocaust has become a symbol of both human evil and human suffering at their zenith. Black Americans have not controlled the codification of the traumas stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and Jim Crow to the same extent. Because of the unceasing and systematic economic, social, and political oppression of black Americans throughout the history of the United States, their trauma has a different cultural stature than that of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Another reason for the privileging of Jewish trauma is that that the dominant culture in the United States takes substantial credit for defeating Nazi Germany and hence bringing the Holocaust to an end, but it has a much more complicated, far less admirable relationship to the suffering of black Americans. Therefore, there are complicated reasons for the lack of solidarity or identification between black Americans and Jews. When Vladek insists that there is no comparison between the two groups, he is also denying a comparable experience of trauma, a denial that is rooted in the wider American culture.
Tal, Kalí. “Reading the Literature of Trauma.” Worlds Of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 1-22. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.