Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol.1
Prisoner of War
Vladek was drafted into the Polish army to fight the Germans in 1939. He was captured and lived for a while as a prisoner of war. Being Jewish made this more difficult. Finally he returned home to his family.
[Begins in the present] Art says he sees his father Vladek more frequently to interview him about his past during the Holocaust. They are eating dinner with Vladek’s second wife, Mala, and Vladek insists that Art finish everything on his plate. Art tells of the extremes Vladek would go to when Art was a child to force him never to waste food. After dinner, Vladek begins telling Art about 1939 when he was drafted in the Polish army [cuts to past]. They faced off against the Germans [cuts to present].
Vladek explains how his father went to great extents to make himself and his children seem unhealthy so they would not be admissible to the army [cuts to past]. For three months before the army examination, Valdek was only allowed three hours of sleep and very little food. Then no food or sleep a couple days before the test, and he had to drink a gallon of coffee. The doctor noticed he was not well, and told him to get better and return in a year [cuts to present]. This older story is set in 1922. Vladek begged his father not to torture him again like that, and he went to the army. Vladek returns now to 1939 when he was facing the Germans [cuts to past]. The officers tell him to shoot, even though he cannot see any targets.
[[Note: Even though Vladek is Polish, he is also Jewish, and Spiegelman portrays Jews as mice regardless of their nationality. The contrast is especially interesting in the fame above, because as a member of an army, one would think that national identity would trump religious identity. As we will see, the Germans will care mostly about this religious identity, and thus the different portrayal is justified.]] Vladek begins shooting aimlessly, but he stops, wondering, why should he kill people? Then he saw an enemy disguised as a tree and moving about. After shooting him to the ground, he keeps shooting despite the enemy’s pleas to surrender.
Finally the Germans capture him, and ironically this time he is blamed for having a hot gun.
He and other captured Polish soldiers are marched to the German side.
The captured men are supposed to help find fallen Germans, and Vladek finds the man he killed. The captured soldiers were then taken somewhere near Nuremberg and forced to give up their valuables. Most soldiers had only 5 or 6 Zlotys, but Vladek had 300. The German officer noticed his soft hands and said Vladek never worked a day in his life [cut to the present then immediately back to the past]. The Germans gave Vladek and three other soldiers the impossible task of cleaning a stable in one hour. They only succeeded in finishing in one and a half hours, and so they got no soup that day [cut to present]. Art is so interested in the story that he has been dropping cigarette ashes on the carpet, which Vladek scolds him for [cut to past]. Vladek and other prisoners of war had to suffer in camps out in the cold.
One day the Germans advertised for workers to come to the front. They would receive better food and housing. Vladek’s friends declined, but he decided to do it.
His friends finally went along, and they were sent to a large German factory. They lived more comfortably with better lodging. For the first time many of them must work with their hands, and they were tasked with leveling out hilly areas.
They even supported the older people who struggled to keep up. [[note: here is an instance of working around the constraints of the system.]]
[Quick cut to present then right back to past.] One night Vladek had a dream that his grandfather told him he would be free on the day of Parshas Truma (each week on Saturday they read a section from the Torah, and for one week a year is Parshas Truma).
[Cut to present then right back to past.] When Parshas Truma came three months later, the Gestapo signed their release documents and Vladek was made free [cut to present then back to past]. Germany divided Poland between Protectorate and Reich. Sosnowiec is in the Reich, but the train went past that region and took them much further away, near Lublin.
The prisoners were then kept in tents. Some Jewish authorities visited and said yesterday 600 other Jewish Polish war prisoners were executed.
[Cut to present]. Vladek explains that international laws offered some protection to them as soldiers, but because they were Jews, they could be killed at any time [cut to past]. As a solution, the Jewish authorities bribed the Germans to allow some prisoners to go to the homes of local Jews and be claimed as their family members. A family friend, Orbach, came that night and took Vladek to his home [cut to present then back to past]. To get back home, Vladek would need to take a train, but he would also need legal papers, which he lacked. He got on a train anyway. Trying not to reveal that he was Jewish, he convinced a Polish conductor to let him hide in the train and sneak to Sosnowiec.
[[Note this beautiful and powerful depiction of Vladek concealing his Jewish identity, here by wearing a pig mask, since the Poles are drawn as pigs. We can sense the humiliation he must have felt, especially in the last panel above when Vladek peers down at the mask that saved him. These panels are also interesting for our examination of how Jews worked around the oppressive system that constantly threatened their existence. And moreover, it is an instance of where Spiegelman’s choice to use animal forms has extra effect, since changing from one form to another is such a drastic alteration as to be a betrayal of one’s own basic sense of identity. This is reminiscent of Deleuze’s notion of the self as a self-forger. Survival for the Jews in this situation sometimes required making forgeries of themselves.]] Vladek finally arrives home, and learns his mother is sick with cancer [cut to present then right back to past]. His father once had a beard that made him look like a Rabbi, but Germans cut it off. They also took his Seltzer factory. Vladek then travels to reunite with his wife Anja and his young son Richieu.
[Cut to present]. Vladek explains that he would be much happier today if his first wife Anja would still be alive, instead of him living with his second wife Mala. Art objects that he must hear this same thing too often from Vladek. When Art goes to leave, he discovers that Vladek threw out his jacket and gave him instead an oversized coat. [Below I show his coat from the first panel of the chapter then the new jacket at the end of the chapter.]
Spielgelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.