30 Jun 2015

Spiegelman. ch5. of Maus I, “Mouse Holes,” summary

by Corry Shores
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Art Spiegelman

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol.1

Ch. 5
Mouse Holes



Brief summary:

Vladek and Art discuss the comic that Art made some time ago, which depicts his mother’s suicide and Vladek’s and Art’s incredible grief over it. Vladek then describes a period during the war when they hid in “bunkers” (secret places hidden away in houses of the ghettos, where people survived by living a rodent-like existence). This is a very difficult time for them, when they had to be very careful and resourceful. In the present, Vladek entrusts Art with the key to a security box at the bank, which contains some saved items from this period, along with other valuables that Vladek wants to hide from taxation and from Mala, when he dies.




[As always, we begin in the present.] [Recall previously that Vladek wanted to fix the roof himself in order to save money, despite his son Art explaining that this is a bad idea for someone of his age and failing health.] Mala awakes Art in bed with a call, announcing that Vladek went ahead and climbed the roof to make repairs. He apparently got dizzy, came down, but now wants to climb again. Mala cannot dissuade him, which is why she now calls Art. Vladek takes the phone and asks Art to come help him. Art says he will call back after having some coffee (it is 7:30 AM), and he wonders if maybe he dreamt the whole conversation (p.96). As he gets out of bed, Art complains to his wife that in the past, Vladek used to prove how handy he was, which made Art neurotic about fixing things. He says, “One reason I became an artist was that he thought it was impractical – just a waste of time … it was an area where I wouldn’t have to compete with him” (97). Art then calls to say he will not help, but in the meantime, Vladek already found someone else to do it, and in the process makes Art feel guilty. When Art does arrive, he finds Vladek in the shed sorting long from short nails. Vladek seems preoccupied, and Art asks if everything is okay. He replies that not everything can be ok, and he sends Art away while he finishes his work (98). Art goes inside to talk to Mala. She says Vladek should sell the house and buy a condo in Miami, since he is getting too old to take care of this one. Art observes that Vladek seems depressed, and Mala suggests that it could be about the comic strip Art once wrote a while ago about his mother (Vladek’s first wife Anja). Mala’s friend’s son obtains a copy and gave it to Mala, who hid it from Vladek. However, he eventually found it (99). [The following pages reproduce the comic, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” at an angle and with Art’s finger showing, to indicate he is reading it while we are.] Art [seemingly] rereads it, and the reader sees it too. It opens by recalling Anja’s suicide, which Vladek discovers coming home from work.


In this comic, Art continues to explain that he was previously released from a state mental hospital, and under the conditions of his release, he had to live with his parents. He come home to a crowd of people gathered outside the home. A cousin pulls him aside, saying his mother is sick, then takes him to a doctor who explains her suicide.


Art begins to cry.

Despite being so broken apart himself, when he returned home, Vladek expected Art to provide comfort and assurance to him. In accordance with Jewish custom, Vladek and Art sleep together on the floor. “He held me and moaned to himself all night. I was uncomfortable… we were scared!” The next day at the funeral, Vladek apparently breaks down.

Later a family friend makes Art guilty for waiting to cry until after the funeral. In the following days, his father’s friends seemed to mix blame with their condolences, and when alone, Art was haunted by his own memories and conscience.


He especially remembers the last time when he saw her. She came into his room late one night, asking hesitantly if he still loved her. Although he says yes, while doing so, he “turned away, resentful of the way she tightened the umbilical cord” (103). As she walks out and closes the door, Art displays this transition as being like shutting prison doors [from the beginning his is drawn with a prison suit].


[The next page continues with the kitchen scene of Art and Mala.] Art is surprised Vladek took interest in this comic, since he never takes interest in any of Art’s comics work. Mala says this one was personal, and she herself was shocked by it. She also notes, however, that it was very accurate and objective, since she helped out after the funeral and saw how things were. Vladek enters. Art asks about the comic. Vladek says it made him cry to see the picture of dead Anja, and it brought back many memories of her. Yet he also notes “… of course I’m thinking always about her anyway” (104). Mala notes that in fact Vladek keeps many photos of her on his desk “like a shrine” (104). Vladek tries to defend himself, but not to Mala’s satisfaction, and she leaves. Art asks again about Anja’s diaries, but Vladek says he still cannot find them. Together they now go to the bank. Art is carrying a notepad and begins asking questions, beginning with, “what happened to you and Anja after the big selection at the stadium?” (105). Vladek says that things were quiet for a while, but then in 1943, all Jews in Sosnowiec were ordered to move to a nearby village called Srodula. As part of this move, the Jews had to pay the poles of this village to move to Sosnowiec. Although they would get a small place, at least they would not live on the street like many others had to.


[[Note in the panel above how the present and past are mixed in a single flashback transition.]] [The next three panels are exclusively in the present.] Vladek explains that he and the family members all had to work in German shops [cuts to past]. Jews with big sticks, working for the Nazis, marched the other Jews for an hour and a half each day to work. At night, they marched everyone back, counting all the people and locking them in the ghetto. In this scene, Anja tells Vladek to hurry home, because “Wolfe’s uncle Persis is at our house!” He is from Zawiercie, and as Anja explains, “He’s a big shot there … The head of their Jewish council. He wants Wolfe, Tosha and Bibi to go live with him in Zawiercie” (106) [I quoted because I do not remember these names or places]. When they enter the home, it seems that Persis is telling a group of people [Art’s family perhaps] that since Auschwitz is so much worse than the ghetto, it would be very bad to be deported. He explains to the people gathered around him that they do not have much influence, but he himself has much influence in Zawiercie. He can bribe the Nazis, and he has even succeeded in keeping his 90 year-old father with him. [Single panel cut to present]. Vladek explains that Persis was a good man, unlike the head of their own ghetto, since he actually tried to help the Jews of his town. Persis then offers to take with him Wolfe, Tosha, Bibi, Lonia, and Richieu. Then Anja’s mother resists, saying they should stick together. After that, someone [Vladek perhaps] tells her to be realistic, and finally she is persuaded (107). [Single-panel cut to present]. Later Persis comes back to take the people named before.


[Two-panel cut to present]. Things get worse in their own ghetto. One day that spring, Germans took over a thousand people from the village. They mostly took children, and if they would not stop screaming, they would smash the children to death against the walls.


[[Again note the present-past overlap in the final panel above.]] [Single panel cut to present]. Art then asks what happened to Richieu. Shortly after the Nazis decided to clear out Zawiercie. They shoot Persis and the rest of the Jewish council there, and they round up everyone else to send to Auschwitz. Tosha, the woman taking care of Richieu and other children, decides to kill herself and the three other children, including Richieu. [Cut to present]. Vladek says it was a great tragedy. They learned of this only later. Vladek then describes the “bunkers” they built to hide in, since Germans started taking everyone, even if they had papers. Vladek arranged a hiding place in their cellar where coal was stored. He then draws the structure on Art’s notepad. There was a coal bin in the kitchen with a false bottom. Under the false bottom was an entrance below into a bunker.


1.110.just diagram remove.rotate.b

[[Note the rodent-like strategies they took to survive the threat of the Nazis.]] Even though the Nazis and their dogs know Jews were hiding somewhere, they could not discover them. The conditions were bad in the bunker, with worms crawling over them. They had enough food to stay for days.


Then later in June all the highest people of the Jewish council, the Judenrat, were arrested, including someone named Moniek Merin. They were placed into another house, and there they made a bunker in the attic. [Single panel cut to present].


1.112.2.attic hole fixed 4

[[We see again rodent-like “burrowing” but this time in the attic rather than in the ground.]] By the end of the next month, the Nazis came to take all 10,000 Jews in the ghetto. “Except to sneak for food, we stayed mostly in the bunker” (112).


[[Again we note the rodent-like strategies. We see one person squeezing through a hole, bringing a store of food.]] One night when sneaking out for food, they discover someone in their house. He insists he was just looking for food for his family. They suspect he is an informer, but they take pity on him, letting him live and also sending him off with food the next morning. That afternoon, the Gestapo came and took them to a building in town separated by wires, where they had to sit and wait (113). They waited with 200 other people, and every Wednesday vans came to take people to Auschwitz. The were caught on a Thursday [so they still had some time]. Vladek sees out the window his cousin Jakov, carrying a box. Vladek calls out to him for help, and Jaokov says there is nothing he can do. But then Vladek made signs that he could pay [a panel shows Vladek displaying a pocket watch]. Jakov then assures Vladek not to worry, because another cousin Haskel would come to help them. [Doubled panel cut to present]. Art is then confused, asking that, if they were family, why did they not help anyway? Vladek replies that at this time, there were no more family ties, since everyone had to take care of themselves first.


[[Note the restructuring of relations, like how Canetti describes the way that the relations among members in “packs” are always in flux. “In the changing constellation of the pack, in its dances and expeditions, he will again and again find himself at its edge. He may be in the centre, and then, immediately afterwards, at the edge again; at the edge and then back in the centre” (Canetti, 93).]] The next day comes Haskel, who is a chief of the Jewish police. He says that he can get out Vladek and Anja along with their nephew, but not the in-laws, who are too old to get past the guards. Anja’s parents plead with Vladek to convince Haskel to get them out, even offering a gold watch and a diamond. Haskel takes the jewels, but he does not take the parents. Vladek and Anja escape, yet they must do so while seeing Anja’s father in agony and despair. [Exactly what takes place is a bit confusing, so please consult the page displayed below. It seems that the operation went like this. Haskel brings two work girls with a large pail of steaming food. He sends the girls to the kitchen, then has Lolek (the nephew) carry the pail out with him, enabling his escape. Then the next day, presumably the same thing happens (there is no mention of what happens to the first two girls and if they come back the next day or if another pair come or whatever else). This time, both Anja and Vladek together carry a pail, while Haskal carries something else along with them, maybe another pail.]


[[We begin by noting the economic relation, in the first panel. There is an opportunistic exchange of goods and services that creates a stronger bond, and a larger composite grouping or whole, which is temporary and responsive to the immediate needs of the given circumstance, rather than being based on the family relations which already existed between the people. We next observe the power of falsity, as the escapees survive in this situation by modifying their identities into kitchen helpers. We also note the use of window pane lattice, which serves visually like the bars of a jail cell. In the final panel we observe a number of things. The first is the conjunction of present and past, with the current Vladek and his memory superposed on one another. And there is a contrast between Vladek’s bowed head and his father-in-law’s upturned wailing head. We also notice here the expressionist contortion of the lines of the window and the dark and light shading contrasts. The narrowing of the vertical bars gives the impression of falling down a hole or trap. And so the father-in-law is not only locked away behind bars, but he is also in world of inner torment and despair, visually appearing like a rat in a cage or trap. And lastly, we see how prior social privileges that could be bought in the past with wealth no longer apply under these new fluid conditions where such privileges are less established and more generated spontaneously and temporarily using guile and resourcefulness.]]

[Continues in present for 7 panels.] Right afterward Anja’s parents died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Vladek calls Haskel a Kombinator or Kombinacya, “a schemer – a crook” (116). While they are walking, Vladek picks wire up off the ground, since it is useful. When Art questions the need for this, Vladek replies, “Why always you want to buy when you can find!?”


[[This is the combination of past and present, but not in memorial form. Rather, they are combined in automatic habitual behaviors which condense all his past experience of dealing with shortages into one present action of conservation.]]

Haskel was a big person in the ghetto. He was respected by the Gestapo, and he even played cards with them. “He lost to them big amounts of money, so they would like him” (116). Haskel sets them up at the Braun shoe shop. Haskel had a Kombinator brother Pesach, but also a good brother Miloch, who helps Vladek at the shop [at this point we do not know what Anja is doing]. He shows Vladek what to do, but says he only really needs to look busy when the German commission comes to inspect. [Three panel cut to the present.] Vladek then recalls the informer who discovered their attic bunker. Haskel arranged for him to be shot, and Vladek happened to be on the work detail that buried him. His corpse’s eyes were still open, since he was struggling to survive when he was killed (117). [Eight panel cut to the present.] Vladek continues the story, but is suddenly hit with what seems to be a small heart attack or seizure or something like that, and he asks Art for his nitrostat pills. They take a seat to rest a while. Vladek mentions that Haskel survived the war, and he even sent him gifts. Art mentions that he was a rotten guy, and Vladek replies “Yes. I don’t know why. I know only that I sent” (118). Vladek then says one night a Nazi stopped him, held a gun to his head, asked for his papers, and said he will “blow your brains out.” But then he sees that he is “a member of the illustrious Spiegelman family,” and the soldier continues, “Go on your way then, and give Haskel my regards.” Vladek says, “…such friends Haskel had” (118). Vladek tells Haskel and Miloch about this later, and they tell Vladek he is lucky, since the soldier is called “the shooter” and he kills one Jew every day just for fun. Someone comes and asks the group if they will go to Pesach’s to buy cake. “For years we didn’t see any cake. Hardly even bread we saw,” Vladek explains. But indeed Pesach was selling cake to whomever could afford it. Pesach, a Kombinator, says he has confiscated the ingredients from captured Jews. Vladek pays the high price and buys him and Anja some cake. [Single panel cut to the present.] But actually instead of flour they accidentally used laundry soap, making many customers that night “sick like dogs” (119).

[Page 120 is all set in the present.] Vladek then describes one of Pesach’s tricks that he played before the war. He had a resort hotel. Apparently many guests did not want to pay high Polish taxes, so they instead paid Pesach extra not to register them. [This of course was an illegal arrangement, and it meant also that they should not be found there by the authorities, since they are evading taxes.] So when an inspector came, these unofficial guests needed to run off and hide somewhere. One day Pesach and his wife failed to make enough deserts for everyone. So, they lied and yelled, “inspectors are coming!” About 40 percent of the guests fled, and “Pesach had enough desserts left over even for the next day!” (120). Art and Vladek then rise up from the steps where they sat, and Vladek notes that without the medicine, something very bad could have happened. He continues that Miloch survived the war along with his wife. He recently had a seizure on the street, but he forgot his pills. His wife ran to the drug store to get some, but when she returned, Miloch was dead. “Nu? So life goes,” Vladek observes (120). Vladek now wants to finish what he has to say about Srodula, since they are nearing the bank [and will be interrupted by their visit to it] (120). The vans kept coming each week to take the people to Auschwitz, and Vladek and Miloch wonder when their turn will come. The two go into the shoe shop, where no one is present yet, and Miloch confides in Vladek that Haskel has made plans to escape, as have Pesach and himself. There is a pile of shoes, and Miloch moves some of the shoes to reveal a hidden tunnel, leading to a secret bunker that could hold up to 16 people.


[[We yet again notice the rodent strategies of burrowing.]] Their nephew Lolek refused to join them in the hole, since he is sick of hiding. “Always Lolek was a little Meshuga,” Vladek explains. Lolek thought that since he was an electrician, they would value his skills and preserve him. In truth, he was taken to die in Auschwitz on one of the next transports. Anja falls into despair, since she has seen all her family taken off to death, and they recently learned about the deaths of Tosha and Richieu. Anja even cries out that she wants to be left to die. Vladek convinces her she must struggle to survive. [Page 122 ends with a single panel cut to the present.]


[[Here past and present, in the transition to the final panel, is successive. However, the similarities in the composition make the images overlap, bringing them into a parallel formation.]] As the Nazis clear the ghetto out, twelve people hide in the bunker. There is a crying child who needs to be quieted, and one person suggests they keep him under blankets. Vladek explains, “It was nothing to do all day but to lie and to starve. The whole day and night Anja sat writing into her notebook” (123). Through a peephole they saw soldiers searching for remaining Jews. They all were starving. They even resort to gnawing on wood to stave off hunger.


[[Here they are reduced again to rodent-like strategies of gnawing on blocks of wood.]]

After a while, Pesach enters the bunker with a plan. He says that in exchange for a fortune, one of the guards agrees to look the other way while they escape. Then, “our group will mix in with the Poles when they walk past Srodula on the way to work tomorrow” (124). Many agree to join, but Miloch and Vladek do not agree, since they do not trust the Germans. A bunk-mate offers Vladek two watches and some diamond rings just to advise him and his girlfriend on when to leave [apparently they trusted Vladek’s ability to accurately assess risks]. Vladek did not want to take too much, so he only took a small watch [it is not explained why he did not just give the advice for free. He must have needed the watch too much for such charity]. The next day, Vladek secretly follows the others who planned to escape, to see what would happen. They give the money to the guard, but what happens after, Vladek does not see. He only hears loud shouting [and a panel has the sounds “TAKKA TAKKA TAKKA” which could perhaps be gun fire, but that is not clarified]. Vladek did not go see what happened but instead fled back to the bunker (124). Only a few remained there. But after noticing the guard house lights being out for two nights, they think it is safe to emerge. They see that Srodula is deserted. They had already organized good clothes and I.D. papers. [[They now wear pig masks, which might suggest that the I.D. papers conceal their Jewish heritage and instead only show them as normal Poles.]] They split up in different directions, mixing in with the Poles going to work, and Miloch gives Vladek his address, saying Vladek should get in touch when he finds a safe place.


[[Notice the masks on Miloch and Vladek, but how the figure on the far right does not wear a mask. Here we have both the fluid identity of the Jews in this situation and the power of falsehood.]] The wife of the guy who previously asked for advice [on the prior page she was called his girlfriend] had friends to take them, which they did, until he ran out of money and were reported. Vladek and Anja did not have a place to go to, so they walked toward Sosnowiec, without an idea where to go once they arrived.


[Note the swastika formation of the road. Perhaps this suggests that no matter where they do go, they will be hunted by Nazis.] [Final cut to the present.] Vladek and Art arrive at the bank. Vladek requests they assign a key to Art so he can access Vladek’s safety box (125). As they walk to the room with the boxes, Vladek instructs Art to run here if anything bad ever happens to him [that is, if Vladek ever dies]. Art is to remove everything from the box, so that it cannot go to taxes, and also to prevent Mala from taking any of it. Art expresses his reluctance to think about Vladek’s death. Art asks why Vladek does not just spend the money now while he is alive. Vladek does not answer this question, and instead says that he will keep Art’s copy of the key in his [Vladek’s] desk, since Art would probably lose it. Vladek opens the box and shows golden cigarette and powder cases that he had in the attic bunker. Art is confused how he still has them [since later as we learn Vladek was taken to the camps and thus would have lost everything of value in the process]. Vladek explains that he hid them in the chimney [[again note the rodent stocking strategy]]. Then, he explains, “After I came out from the camps in 1945 I sneaked back to Srodula and – at night while the people inside slept – I digged these things out from the bottom of the chimney” (126). Vladek then shows a large diamond that he gave to Anja when they first came to the U.S. Anja wanted Art to give it to his wife. But Vladek kept it instead, fearing Mala would demand it. Vladek then complains that Mala does not want Vladek to share their possessions with family, including Art, and that she had Vladek change his will three times. Art replies, “C’mon – Mala’s okay!” (127). Vladek then claims that when he had a heart attack, while still sick in bed, Mala demanded they change the will again. Vladek continues that he pleaded with Mala, asking, “what you want from me?” According to Vladek, she screamed, “I want the money! The money, the money!” (127). Vladek then expresses regret that he remarried, and buries his head in his hands, saying, “Oy, Anja! Anja! Anja!” (127). Art tells Vladek to go easy, and suggests they go home.




Spielgelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.


Or if otherwise noted:

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Transl. Carol Stewart. New York: Continuum, 1962 / 1973.

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