The second volume of Maus covers a lot of ground. It talks about Vladek’s time at Auschwitz. It talks about the author’s fears for the future of his relationship with his father — and his guilt over not wanting to have to take care of an ailing man who has suffered so much, but is unrelenting in his demands of his grown son.
Spiegelman paints a vivid picture of the horrors of a death camp, although these horrors are mitigated a bit by the cartoonishness of the animal characters. I don’t know if I’d be able to stomach them otherwise. His father suffered through horrors that I can’t even begin to imagine, no matter how many times I watch “Band of Brothers” and “Schindler’s List.”
But, as with his first volume, he doesn’t pull any punches with his father, either. It can be easy to almost deify Holocaust survivors, to think of them all as saints. It kind of reminds me of how, in the days right after 9/11, everyone kept calling the people who had died “heroes.” For the most part, they weren’t any different from anyone else on the street; they didn’t volunteer to die in this tragedy. They were mostly normal people with normal lives, and, had they survived, they would still occasionally have fought with their spouses and snapped at their children and ignored bums asking for change like most of the rest of us.
Vladek survived a terrible ordeal, and what happened to him should never happen to anyone. But he wasn’t a perfect person going into it, and he wasn’t perfect coming out of it, either.
Spiegelman describes one instance in which he and his wife pick up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. The hitchhiker is African-American, and Vladek is stupefied by what he sees as their foolishness. After all, this “shvartzer” (a Yiddish slur) could steal their money or their groceries! Art and his wife are horrified by Vladek’s racism, but when they try to point out that it’s tantamount to the German’s views on the Jews, Vladek just can’t see it.
It reminds me of an episode from my youth. Tom Bradley had just been re-elected as the mayor of Los Angeles. He was the first (and, to date, the only) African-American mayor of LA, and our teachers in school used the opportunity to teach us that anyone could be anything they wanted to be, no matter what their race. When I excitedly told my dad about it later that night, he said that he didn’t like Tom Bradley. When I asked why, he simply replied, “Because he’s black.”
Having been taught at school that racism was bad, I was shocked to discover that my father, when it came to civil rights, was one of the bad guys. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the reason because my dad was racist was because he owned a market in the ghetto of Long Beach, and that most of the people who stole from the store were African-American and Latino. That was his only experience with other minorities; he disliked black people the way I dislke hipsters. He’d just never met a nice one.
It wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say that, had my parents not bought a house in the nicer parts of Long Beach so that I could go to the district’s better schools, which taught that all people are created equal, regardless of the color of their skin, I wouldn’t be a racist myself. I didn’t agree, but I understood why.
And Here My Troubles Began is a worthy successor to My Father Bleeds History. It continues to explore all of the themes and tell all of the stories that Spiegelman set up in the first volume. My only nitpick was that the ending was a bit abrupt.
But, I guess, when a story’s over, it’s over.