Hiding in Poland: Two Holocaust Texts

Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood, Nechama Tec (1982, revised 1984)

The Journey, Ida Fink, Translated by Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose (1990)

Here we have two books about Jews living in hiding during WWII. Dry Tears is a memoir; The Journey is a novel, yet one based on its author’s experiences. I read them back to back, which people who don’t feel compelled to study the Holocaust probably shouldn’t do. But both are well worth reading, especially if you believe Holocaust survivor stories must include cattle cars, barbed wire fences, and concentration camps.

Tec was born in 1931 in Lublin to Roman Bawnik and Esther (Hachamoff) Bawnik. Her father—maybe the most important person in her life—had been groomed to become a rabbi, but suddenly broke with religion around the time he turned 14, around the same time he was orphaned. A period of hard years followed; eventually he found work in a candle factory, where he began, rather audaciously, given their class and religious differences, to court the owner’s daughter. Tec’s mother was from an Orthodox family and they looked askance at Bawnik, but he had excellent business sense, and it wasn’t long before he was running a factory himself. His shrewdness, tact, and measured approach to situations helped the family many times over during the war.

Tec begins her memoir with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Rather than military defeats and political upheavals, however, she focuses on education. With the beginning of the war, school was interrupted, never to be resumed for Jewish children. The family engages a tutor for Tec and her older sister, a young woman named Hela Trachtenberg, who they nickname Czuczka (“piglet”) because they love her so. Czuczka engages Tec’s interest and sparks in her a desire to learn, if only because she dotes on her tutor. Tec, who became a sociologist and academic in America after the war, clearly spent a lifetime learning. Yet Dry Tears, like most Holocaust stories, details an unusual, perhaps more pragmatic but certainly more drastic education; once the Jews of Lublin and the surrounding areas are forced into a ghetto, the formal education stops. Tec will learn many things over the course of the book, but they will be of the order of how to lose herself in another identity, how to sell on the black market, and how to ingratiate herself with people who are taking a risk in hiding her and could turn on her at any moment.

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Lublin, 1940

Where Dry Tears is unusual in the corpus of Holocaust memoirs is in describing life before the war. We don’t see these in the canonical texts by Levi, Millu, Wiesel, etc., which either begin with deportation or imprisonment. This difference might be because Tec’s reminiscences came later than those others (it was first published in 1982 and then reissued with a new epilogue in 1984). But the more important reason is that the ruptures in Tec’s life weren’t quite as drastic as the ones experienced by those other survivors. Amazingly, everyone in her immediate family survived the war.

Don’t get me wrong, though: Tec suffers plenty of trauma. Like any book about the Holocaust, Dry Tears is full of terrible, indelible images, ones that Tec assures us she has spent a lifetime haunted by. Some of these are terribly poignant, like this early scene, when the family is hiding in their factory, and Tec finds a hole in the wall separating their hideout from the convent school next door:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became more acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever.

Here we have in miniature the tension that will structure Tec’s life for the next several years. Her ability to become engrossed in the lives of others will help her when she needs to become someone else. But such loss of awareness carries risks, not least the threat of losing one’s self. Or of becoming careless—though of course her identification with others can never be fully complete; she is never just a Pole. The bell doesn’t toll for her. She is always marked by difference, yet her life depends on not showing it.

Other images are more violent. Tec hears about the children of her father’s business partner, forced to cut their father’s body into pieces in order to smuggle it out of their hiding place, when the man takes a cyanide pill in the mistaken belief the Nazis are at the door. Even more viscerally, a family friend describes the death of Czuczka, murdered in a raid:

she was lying on the ground beside the house in which she had been hiding, her hair disarrayed, her glasses missing, and without eyes. The birds had attended to her body. The picture he drew was vivid and merciless. We were spared no details.

Don’t forget, Tec is 11 years old. How merciless that verb “attended,” which only reminds us of the attention she and millions of other victims didn’t get—the ritual observances that ought to have attended their bodies in the hours after death.

Maybe most terrible of all, for me at least, is the description of the partial liquidation of the Lublin ghetto in summer 1942. Tec’s mother rouses her in the middle of the night and as they make their way to a new hiding place, Tec sees baby carriages in the almost abandoned streets. But the carriages aren’t empty: “There was no place for them [the babies]. No one would allow them in to hiding for fear they would cry and lead to the discovery of others.” The next day, Tec looks into one of the carriages and sees “an unrecognizable bloody mass, that seemed strangely alive.”

The family realizes they cannot continue to hide in the factory. From summer 1942 they leave Lublin—the girls to a village called Otwock, and the parents to the city of Kielce. The girls can pass as Poles because of their looks and their fluency in Polish. The parents, whose Polish is heavy accented (their language is Yiddish), cannot be in the open.

Tec takes on new identity: her name is Christina, nicknamed Krysia, and like all Poles she is Catholic. She must learn to think of herself as Krysia, even with her family. The girls study up on Catholic ritual. Most importantly, they learn to behave like a Christian, which means, Tec tells us, to move with assurance. In hiding, her father explains, they no longer have the luxury of being afraid. They must be cautious, but they must be assured. No easy task for a young child, especially since her parents are unable to leave the house which puts a huge amount of responsibility on her. After several months in which the family is separated, the girls are able to join their parents in Kielce, where a family named Homar has taken them in, in exchange for which risk the Bawniks will pay the rent and all the food. Tec becomes entwined with the Homars and their extended family, as she is sent out first to work the black market and later to sell the rolls her mother makes in their hidden annex. (Her sister has a good but risky job in the canteen of a club for German officers.)

Time and again, Tec is faced with the anti-Semitism of her hosts, which is general rather than personal (“Don’t be a nosy Jew,” “Don’t be clumsy like a Jew,” they tell her, responding to her hurt looks by assuring her, “You are not really Jewish.”) Her father explains that this cognitive dissonance is useful, even essential for the family: were the Homars to realize they really were sheltering Jews they would likely be unwilling to continue taking the risk.

The Homars can live blissfully in contradiction, but Tec can’t. The most fascinating parts are the discussions of the psychological toll of living openly in hiding:

An extra layer of secretiveness, combined with a fear of discovery, became part of my being. All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information.

Everything has to be held in—when the girls are finally on the way to being reunited with their parents, her sister orders Tec: “Cry quietly!” Ideally these tears would be as invisible as the dry ones named in the book’s title. But dry tears aren’t the same as no tears. Complete repression is impossible—and undesirable.

Sometimes it almost seems to work, though:

And eventually I grew oddly accustomed to anti-Semitic remarks. A slow transformation was taking place in me. It was as if in certain circumstances I lost track of who I really was and began to see myself as a Pole. I became a double person, one private and one public. When I was away from my family I became so engrossed in my public self that I did not have to act the part; I actually felt like the person I was supposed to be. … I never talked about these changes to anyone. I was not proud of them. I felt guilty and embarrassed. I felt like a traitor. It was as if, as I gave up my old self, I was giving up my family as well.

There’s that word again, “engrossed,” the same one she used in describing the experience of watching the convent girls. But this is no war-time Stockholm syndrome. It’s more complicated. Tec needs to become a part of the Homars. And she even enjoys it. But she also doesn’t want to, and even recoils from them. That distance becomes complete when, at the end of the war, when everyone has to hide as low from the conquering Russians soldiers as they have from the Germans, the Homars ask them to leave, and moreover not to tell anyone that they hid a Jewish family for almost three years. Not out of modesty, but out of fear and shame. The Homars are worried what their neighbours and friends would say.

No wonder, then, when, in the last pages of the book, Tec returns to Lublin, pressed in the back of a military truck, she refuses to look, afraid that what she sees would confirm her sense that she no longer belongs there. The last sentence reads, “I closed my eyes instead.”

That liberation isn’t liberatory is a common conclusion in Holocaust texts. In the epilogue added two years later, Tec shows that her teenage self was right. Home wasn’t home any more. The family realized they would have to leave Poland and set off on another dangerous journey, this time into defeated Germany in order to reach the American sector. The details of that trip, and what happened after, remain untold. Even happy Holocaust stories are shattered, governed by silence, evasion, and elision.

Fragmentation is even more apparent in Ida Fink’s The Journey. I’ve written about Fink before. If you’ve never read her, start with her two volumes of short stories, especially A Scrap of Time. Fink has been called the Chekhov of the Holocaust, which sounds like a terrible, nonsensical description, but is actually quite apt. She has his mixture of poignancy and acidity, and she works so well with a short form. (She’s actually much more of a miniaturist than Chekhov, many of whose stories are really long. I doubt Fink ever wrote one more than 20 pages, and most are well under ten.) When I teach her stories, as I regularly do, I follow the scholar Sara Horowitz’s suggestion that Fink is perhaps the most brilliant writer of the Holocaust when it comes to showing what literature can do that history cannot. She plays with the order of events, mimicking how hard it is to narrate a traumatic experience, and she jumps from one perspective to another, allowing us to see what individual characters cannot, even to tell us the experiences of those who were murdered.

Because I love Fink’s stories so much, I came to The Journey with high expectations. It tells, as is to be expected, an extraordinary story. (All stories of survival are extraordinary. There were not supposed to be any such stories.) And I was fascinated by it as a guide to what Fink went through in the war. (I don’t know exactly how autobiographical it is, but it is always presented as such. Details about Fink’s life are hard to come by. That mystery, plus the fact that she was a very late starter as a writer, which I always find endearing, exert a strong pull on me. If I had any Polish, I would drop everything and write her biography.)

But I also found it a difficult book. Fink’s stories are, not warm exactly, that would be crazy, but poignant and pathos-laden, in the best possible sense. I am so moved by them. The Journey, by contrast, is distant, as if guided by the unconscious decision taken by the narrator and her sister (like Tec and her sister they are teenagers, but a few years older) not to let themselves be emotional with each other:

I said “Lie down, try to sleep. And don’t start bawling like an idiot,” I added, even though she wasn’t crying at all; she just had a pained expression on her face. And that’s how it would be between us from now on: no gestures of tenderness. The more we needed to be tender to each other, the colder and more distant we were.

Unlike Tec, the narrator uses her false papers to leave Poland, by joining a convoy of Ostarbeiter, Workers from the East, basically slave labourers used by the Germans to prop up the war effort, both in factories or on farms. What follows is a journey through Germany in wartime, not the crazed Germany of the Nuremberg rallies nor the bombed-out Germany of the end of the war, but rather a rural, almost bucolic, but poor, hardscrabble, and suspicious Germany. At every turn the girls (and the others they encounter who are like them) fear being taken for Jews. Perhaps because they experience that fear—that is, perhaps because they can’t follow the advice of Roman Bawnik—they are continually found out, sometimes by people sympathetic to them, but more often not. It is a life on the run, and it is always very, very dangerous, even though it is mostly characterized by boredom and backbreaking work.

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The narrator never really knows where she is—we have references to the Ruhr and the Rhine, but nothing concrete, nothing like the certainty Tec has about at least her geographic, if not her emotional whereabouts—and she starts losing her sense of who she is. Unlike in Tec’s book (and here we see the difference in genre playing a role), the narrator doesn’t reflect on how this loss makes her feel. Instead Fink makes us feel that confusion, by calling the character sometimes by her real name but sometimes by her (shifting) aliases. Even more complicatedly, Fink mostly narrates in first person but sometimes switches to third, so our perspective on events is also undermined. I’m pretty good at following complicated texts, but I often lost track of who was who in this novel. And it’s not like it has a thousand characters.

The Journey, in other words, is a confusing book, but, again, this confusion is performative, offering us some semblance of the characters’ experiences. The paradox here is that even though the narrator must inhabit her new identity as fully as possible, she is never in Tec’s situation. She can’t ever really pass. Despite her Aryan looks, remarked on by almost everyone she meets, people sense her Jewishness, which is ineradicable in a way Tec’s doesn’t seem to be. And even more than Tec, Fink emphasizes luck, especially in a climactic scene when she on the point of being sold out to the Gestapo when a chance, banal occurrence intervenes and saves her life. Like Tec’s memoir, Fink’s novel ends with an epilogue, in which the narrator returns to the scene of that moment, only to find it as impossible, as meaningless as the first time.

If I could put it this way, I would say that Dry Tears is realist and The Journey modernist. But a realist Holocaust text is a contradiction in terms. Still, Tec’s memoir was a lot easier to get a handle on than Fink’s novel. I suspect if I read The Journey again I’d get more out of it, but I can’t imagine teaching it. Much too hard. Dry Tears, on the other hand, would probably teach well, and I’m thinking of adding it to my class. (Though then I’ll need to figure out what to cut to make room…) Taken together, though, these texts, no matter how difficult and desperate, expanded my understanding of what happened in those terrible years, and how writers have found ways to describe them.

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.

Holocaust Lit 2016 Week 10: Art Spiegelman’s Maus

In Holocaust Lit, we’ve devoted the past week and a bit to Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. For me, Maus is one of the essential books of the 20th Century. There is no praise too high for it. Getting to meet Spiegelman a few years ago was a highlight of my life.

I’ve taught Maus so many times, in so many different contexts, that I no longer need to read it. (Even after almost 20 years of teaching, I can only say this of a handful of texts.) Yet I still look through it each day before class. Looking up a specific moment, I’ll find myself having read 20 pages without even knowing it, it’s that wonderful. But it’s quite nice to know a text that well, not least because it makes the day-to-day life of my semester a lot more manageable.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek. We learn of his experiences as a young businessman in pre-war Poland, his marriage to Spiegelman’s mother, Anja Zylberberg, and the devastation wrecked upon their lives by the war. When the Nazis invade Poland, Vladek and Anja go into hiding, after sending their young child Richieu to spend the war with a relative.

The boy doesn’t survive but, amazingly, both Vladek and Anja do, after having been betrayed in 1944 by smugglers who pretended they would get them to Hungary and then deported first to Auschwitz and then later, separately, to various other camps. Reunited in Poland after the war, the couple are able to get to Sweden and then eventually to the US, where Anja has a brother and sister-in-law who had been visiting the New York World’s Fair when the war broke out. Anja commits suicide in 1968, shortly after her brother’s death in a car accident, and after Art himself has suffered a nervous breakdown. Much of the text details Art’s efforts in the late 1970s and early 80s to learn more about his father’s wartime experiences.

The books—Maus is published in two volumes—thus range between the past (1930s & 40s) and the present (1970s & 80s). They are as much about the way Art gets his father’s story as they are about that story itself. And indeed over the course of its pages Maus becomes ever more aware of this process. The sophistication of its textual layering and its interest in the mediated quality of storytelling make this a crucial text for any class on Holocaust Literature.

The most immediately striking expression of that mediation is the book’s governing conceit: Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and other nationalities and groups as various other animals. Actually, this isn’t quite true: characters are drawn as people with animal heads, leading to much speculation about Spiegelman’s reclaiming Nazi portrayals of Jews as vermin and playing with the ban on visual representation in Jewish tradition.

Because Maus is so rich—and because students like it so much—I spend a lot of time on it. In the past I’ve devoted as many as six 50-minute classes to it. Over time I’ve settled on four as the optimal number. Here’s how I divided up the classes this year:

Day 1: Close reading of the opening two pages of volume 1, a story from Spiegelman’s childhood in which ten-year old Artie, having been left behind by his friends, seeks comfort from his father, who disproportionately and devastatingly 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!”

We spent a lot of time not only identifying and clarifying the relationships between past and present and the way that this relationship complicates our sense of what it means to survive and who even counts as having survived (we can read Artie, too, as a survivor, and we already see in this opening scene how our deeply-held but ultimately falsely pious and in fact pernicious belief that survivors must have been ennobled by their experience will be challenged). We also considered the grammar of comics, exploring the relationship of words and images that are crucial to the genre, learning about formal terms like panels and gutters (the white areas between panels that are the way comics express time).

Day 2: We continued the formalist discussion of the first class by looking at Spieglman’s careful combining of words and images. We look at an early panel in which Artie, first suggesting to his father that he tell him his story, is framed, enclosed, perhaps even imprisoned between his father’s arms, the Auschwitz tattoo clearly visible on one, as Vladek dutifully follows his doctor’s orders to get some exercise by riding an exercise bike.

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The care with which individual panels are constructed—Spigeleman once said in an interview that the main thing he learned from his father was how to pack a suitcase: his panels are similarly jammed with information—is mirrored by the attention to arranging those panels. Noting how important the page is as a way of structuring the book’s material, I had us compare two pages that are similarly composed, one showing Vladek and Anja on their way to a spa in Czechoslovakia in 1938, where they first see evidence of Nazi rule, and the other showing their arrival by van at the gates of Auschwitz.

We considered Spiegelman’s style of representing and made a continuum ranging from realism to expressionism. As an example of the latter, we looked at a panel showing Vladek and Anja on the run, having been driven from yet another hiding place, running along a pathway whose branches form a swastika. Finally, we looked at a two-page spread halfway though the first volume where an almost subliminal story is told in the images that ends up reinforcing the one discussed in the narration and dialogue (Vladek is describing how food began to grow scarce in occupied Poland and how heavily the wealthy Zylberbergs had to rely on the black market; in the images, of a large family dinner that attempts to recreate pre-war life, Richieu overturns his bowl and is first punished and then consoled by various family members).

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Day 3: Now, having read both volumes, we were ready to tackle the animal conceit, working through why Spiegelman chose to represent the different groups in the way he did. I asked the students to consider the limitations or questionable implications of the metaphor—if Germans are cats and Jews are mice does that mean it’s natural for Germans to hate Jews? But cats don’t’ hate mice: they just eat them. Is Spiegelman suggesting the Germans weren’t really responsible for their actions? Eventually I had them consider the subjective quality of the metaphor, that is, the idea that this is Vladek’s perspective, and not some objective claim about the merits or foibles of different groups of people. In the process I had us track how the metaphor changes as the book goes on. Tellingly volume 2 starts with Artie wondering how he should draw his wife, Francoise. As a frog, because she’s French? As a mouse, because she converted to Judaism? Does Speigelman’s conceit work with non-esentialist or fluid/hybrid notions of identity? After all, we do eventually see a mixed German-Jewish couple whose children are striped tabby mice.

More significantly, we see Spiegelman switch from animal heads to animal masks as he includes in his story the experience of making of the text. Earlier, he had used masks when characters tried to pass as something other than themselves (as Vladek does in the streets of occupied Poland, for example). But in a key section entitled “Time Flies” Spiegelman describes his creative block after the success of volume 1 and the death of his father. Here he and the other characters are clearly humans wearing what are clearly visible as animal masks. Referencing the work of the scholar Erin McGlothlin, I explained that our initial distinction between past and present needs to be complicated by the addition of what Spiegelman himself has called “the super-present,” a time even more recent, more present, than what has passed as the present so far in the narrative. In this way, the animal metaphor is ironized and destabilized, made to seem the relics of a past way of thinking about identity—though, tellingly, they are not abandoned altogether. After all, in Maus the past never lets go.

Day 4: I told the class I had three topics I wanted us to consider: (1) gender, especially the text’s presentation of women; (2) photographs; and (3) the last page of volume 2 and the idea of endings more generally.

I started by referring to a line quoted by the brilliant scholar Sara Horowitz in an influential essay on gender and Holocaust literature. Artie asks his father what his mother experienced when they were separated from each other upon arriving at Auschwitz. Vladek, anxious to keep Artie from finding out that he has burned Anja’s diaries after her death, tells Artie: “I can tell you… She went through the same what me: Terrible.” As Horowitz notes, Vladek here speaks for a larger tendency in Holocaust studies to efface gender or other indications of subjectivity in the victims. If the Nazis didn’t discriminate among their victims then why should we?

Yet men and women didn’t experience the Holocaust the same way, and the absence of Anja is a specter that haunts the book from its first pages. (I reminded the class that the first thing Artie says to his father when he asks him to tell his story is: “Start with Mom… tell me how you met.”) I had the class tell me what Anja was like. We soon concluded her character is quite complex. She is both mentally and physically frail, relying on Vladek to jolly, even bully her into health. Yet she is also strong: highly intelligent, beloved by her teachers, and politically active in ways that might surprise us given her family’s wealth. Vladek explains how he discovered shortly after their marriage that Anja had for some time been translating secret documents into German for a Communist group, a clandestine and illegal activity that she narrowly escaped being arrested for. Vladek was livid when he found out—“I always kept far away from Communist people”—and made his wife an ultimatum: “I told her ‘Anja, if you want me you have to go my way’… And she was a good girl, and of course she stopped all such things.”

Who knows how Anja felt about this and whether she really did give them up or whether the war intervened. The point, I suggested, is that Vladek seeks to make her life conform to his, just as he does retrospectively when he tells Artie that her experiences at Auschwitz were the same as is. Thus when Vladek later paints Anja as a saint, as the only woman of his life, we don’t quite believe him. Maybe his depiction of how much she relied on him is just another instance of his seemingly insatiable need to be in control, to be the consummate fixer, a trait that saved his life on more than one occasion in the camps.

Seeing how important it is for Vladek to control his portrayal of Anja, we might wonder if Artie does something similar. Yes, he arraigns his father as his mother’s murderer when he finds out what happened to the diaries, and he presents her as a softening influence on Vladek’s brutalizing parenting (she would let him get leave the table without finishing all of his food, as Vladek would insist). But earlier, in the wake of her suicide, he describes her as needy and smothering, in fact, as having murdered him.

Note, I added, how similar ambivalence characterizes the book’s portrayal of its other main female character, Mala, Valdek’s long-suffering second wife, herself a survivor. Mostly we see her berated and belittled by Vladek and it’s hard to know what keeps them together. Is it really, as Vladek repeats over and over, that she wants his money? Mala seems particularly hard done by in the book, and not just by Vladek. I pointed to a scene in which Artie, leaving his father winded after another long session on the exercise bike, comes across Mala in the kitchen. He mentions the round up in Sosnowiecz that Vladek has just been telling him about. Mala, who had experienced it as well, begins to tell the story of her family, including what sounds like an extraordinary feat of her own, in which she managed to smuggle her mother out of the ghetto. Artie doesn’t engage in any way with this fragment of what must be a remarkable tale. He jumps up to leave, having just remembered somewhere else where he might continue his vain search for Anja’s missing diaries.

I think this response is really surprising given how much Artie and Mala have in common. For example, both pale in Vladek’s affections in comparison to their dead precursors (Anja for Mala and Richieu for Artie), but this secondariness never amounts to any kind of solidarity or affection between them, at least not on Artie’s part. To recognize Mala might have required Artie to recognize the strange way in which he and his father attempt to control and even efface women by subordinating them to their various quests. After all, in their own ways, Artie and Vladek are equally controlling.

We could have kept talking about the text’s portrayal of gender for much longer, but I wanted to move us along and so was glad that someone mentioned the photo of Spiegelman and his mother, a holiday snap from 1958, that Spiegelman includes in volume I. I took the opportunity to segue to the topic of photographs, both actual and imagined. How many real photographs are reproduced in the book, I asked. Three. Who are they of? One’s of Artie and his mother, one’s of Vladek, and one’s of Richieu. Why are these photos included? It’s the family, someone replied. Yes, though a family photograph, that is, of all of them together, is naturally impossible. So the book performs a double movement: it reunites the family but in so doing only reminds us of the family’s fragmentation.

But why include the photos? Why reproduce them in the text? I got the predictable responses: photos are more realistic, they remind us that the events really happened, they show us what the people really looked like and remind us that they are people and not just mice. But were we ever in doubt of that? Don’t we identify with these figures so strongly, whether animals or humans or something in between? Why do we need to be reminded that these figures are really people? And why are we so convinced by the authenticity of photos? In this age of photoshop and snapchat and instagram, how can we forget how open to manipulation photos are?

Think of it this way, I said. What’s the photo with Vladek of? He’s posing in a concentration camp uniform that he found in a photo shop after the war, on his way home to Poland. Right: it’s the craziest photo—we don’t know why the photographer would have something like that and why anybody, not least someone like Vladek, would ever want to pose with it. So here the text challenges our beliefs in authenticity. The sign that Vladek was in the camps is a photo taken of him after the camps.

Besides, I added, we still haven’t figured out why Spigelman would include the photos rather than draw them. After all, he does that more than once. I quickly referenced a couple of examples from earlier in the book and then had us look at a sequence near the end of volume II in which Vladek brings out a box of old family photos for Artie to look through. The photos are mostly of Anja’s family, almost all of whom were murdered by the Nazis: “Anja’s parents, the grandparents, her big sister Tosha, little Bibi and our Richieu… All what is left, it’s the photos,” Vladek concludes, adding, when Artie asks about his own side of the family, “So only my little brother, Pinek, came out from the war alive… from the rest of the family, it’s nothing left, not even a snapshot.”

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Why, I asked the class, would Spiegelman choose to draw these images, which are presumably based on real, extant photographs, rather than using the photos themselves? This was a real question. I’ve never been able to come to an answer about this question that satisfies me.

One student ventured that these people didn’t survive the war, thus they were consigned to the past, which Spiegelman indicated by drawings rather than photos. This was a nice theory, but as others quickly pointed out, not one that held up. After all, some of these people, like Vladek’s brother Pinek, who was hidden by peasants before making his way to Palestine, did survive. And others died in ways other than at the hands of the Nazis, like Anja’s brother Herman, hit by a car in Norristown, PA, or her brother Josef, a commercial artist who killed himself after an unhappy love affair.

We had reached a dead end in our conversation and I had no idea how to move us past it to consider the end of the book. There were ten minutes left in class: we had both too much and too little time. But then a student, one whose points are usually a little too obvious, saved the day by pointing out that the image of the pile of photos, seemingly having floated down from the sofa where Vladek and Artie are studying them and arrayed in great despairing drifts, went all the way to the edge of the page. We’d looked at some similar instances earlier in the week, and I’d suggested a connection between these images and the subtitle of Volume I: My Father Bleeds History. The images that couldn’t be constrained by a border—that bled to the edge of the page—suggested themselves as especially significant inasmuch as they pointed to the uncontainable nature of history, the inability of the past to stay safely in the past.

And then something really great happened. A pretty quiet student, smart but not always able to express himself clearly, said: It doesn’t matter when these people died or even if they are still alive. They are still victims of the war, of the things that happened during that Holocaust. That’s why the picture goes to the edge of the page. The war doesn’t stop.

I thought this was brilliant and I seized on it as a life raft. Exactly! I cried, repeating the student’s point so that others would be sure to have heard it. The war doesn’t stop. That’s exactly what we see happening on the last page. At this point we only had 5 minutes left and I often spend 20 minutes talking students through that last page. So all I could do was tell them what I most wanted to say about this ending.

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As Spiegelman himself has pointed out, the end just keeps on ending. First we have Vladek’s description of his dramatic reunion with Anja, which, as we considered in our earlier discussion of his relation to women, we know to be self-serving and false: “More I don’t need to tell you. We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after.” The repetition of “happy” belies the true state of affairs, which is that much unhappiness followed them after the war: Vladek’s reluctant move to the US (he wanted to stay in Sweden), Anja’s depression and eventual suicide, the estrangement between father and son; Vladek’s increasing ill health. I noted that the circle against which the couple embrace might remind us of the circle in the movie poster in Volume I of Rudolph Valentino, who the young Vladek was said to resemble. It might also remind us of the spotlight cast on the young couple as they dance at the spa in Czechoslovakia in the last happy days before the war. It might even remind us of the wheel of the exercise bicycle from which Vladek tells much of his story. The circle is a sign of futility and circularity as much as perfection, and, in its connection to image-making and Hollywood stars, it intimates the fabricated nature of Vladek’s conclusion.

This ending is immediately followed by another: Vladek’s wish to stop speaking, to stop creating the story. His fading powers, even the death that we know is not far off, is suggested by his confusion between his sons: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…” he tells Artie. Right below this row, even forcing its way into it, is yet another ending, an image of Vladek and Anja’s gravestone. The fact that the book ends three times, as it were, suggests that it can have no definitive end, an idea further supported by the image of the eternal flame on the gravestone. And what about Spiegelman’s own signature below that? The dates that accompany it are of course the dates of the creation of the work, but it’s hard not to think of them as the dates of his own life. After all, one of these endings includes his own erasure and replacement by the sibling he never knew, the one he had a weird ghostly rivalry with, as he tells Francoise at the beginning of Volume II.

Thus we ended this class much as we began the first one more than a week earlier, with an assertion of the ongoingness of events, the persistence of the past into the present. But our understanding of that claim was a lot more complex now than it had been then. I was really pleased with the work we’d done. In fact I continue to be amazed by this class. They’re still bringing it every single day. Usually, this late in the semester the conversation is being carried by a core group of actively engaged students while the rest follow limply along. But in this group almost everyone still talks every class period.

I really think they are the best group I’ve ever taught. I’m trying to enjoy every minute.

If you want to catch up you can read earlier posts about the course here, here, and here.