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Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors Theme Icon
Family, Identity, and Jewishness Theme Icon
Grief, Memory, and Love Theme Icon
Guilt, Anger, and Redemption Theme Icon
Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Maus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence Theme Icon

The ghettos, cattle cars, and concentration camps through which Vladek and Anja move during the war are filled with death, most of which is a result of random and senseless violence. Though the Nazi regime is sometimes calculating about which people it will murder — as when Vladek’s sister Fela, whose four children are considered an unnecessary drain on the state’s resources, is sent to her death during a mass registration of Jewish families in Sosnowiec — soldiers also deal out death sentences for minor infractions, or for no reason at all. Likewise, illness and privation ravage the bodies of those in concentration camps completely indiscriminately; frail, skinny Anja survives Birkenau against all odds, while strong, healthy Vladek nearly dies of typhus in Dachau. Though Vladek is, as Artie puts it in his conversation with Pavel, “incredibly present-minded and resourceful” in his efforts to keep himself and Anja safe, their survival is a matter of luck much more than intelligence or merit. Pavel reminds Artie soberly of this fact, and warns him against thinking about the Holocaust as a contest that the living have won and the dead have lost.

While chance is the most powerful force determining Anja and Vladek’s survival, they also depend on the compassion and humanity of those around them — people who share their knowledge and resources, sacrifice some of their own wellbeing, and on occasion even risk their lives to help Vladek and Anja. From the nameless priest who gives Vladek hope with an auspicious interpretation of the identification number on his arm; to the French man who shares food from his Red Cross packages; to Mancie, who carries Vladek’s letters to Anja in Birkenau, the kindness of strangers gives the Spiegelmans both the emotional strength and the material resources they need to survive. Likewise, random indifference and undeserved cruelty — the unpredictable aggression of guards, or the fear of Jewish collaborators trying to save themselves at the expense of others — compromise the safety of innocent people, and trap some in deadly situations. Nearly all the men and women of Maus, regardless of their ethnicity or social position, are forced to make decisions that will determine whether others live or die. Though Vladek is pessimistic about human nature — he encourages Anja to think only of her own wellbeing, assuring her that her friends won’t have her best interest at heart — many such people prove themselves generous and humane even in the worst of circumstances.

Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence ThemeTracker

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Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence Quotes in Maus

Below you will find the important quotes in Maus related to the theme of Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

I’m not going to die, and I won’t die here! I want to be treated like a human being!

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker)
Page Number: I.54
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladek has been imprisoned in a POW camp for Polish soldiers fighting against the Nazis. In the camp, Vladek's life is incredibly hard--it's cold, he's hungry, and he's in danger of developing a serious disease and dying.

Above all else, Vladek is concerned with one thing: survival. When he learns that the German prison guards are offering Polish prisoners a chance for more food and better conditions, he takes the opportunity. Vladek will have to perform manual work for the Germans--essentially helping his enemies with their own war effort. While some of Vladek's fellow prisoners are reluctant to help the Nazis with anything, Vladek insists that doing so it worth it: he'll get more food and warmer clothes. (Also notice that Vladek--who's depicted as a mouse--insists that he wants to be treated like a human being; a reminder that Maus, despite its fantastical elements, is concerned with depicting human nature and humanity's struggle to survive.)


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Vladek: Always I went to sleep exhausted. And one night I had a dream … A voice was talking to me. It was, I think, my dead grandfather. It was so real, this voice.

Grandfather: Don’t worry … Don’t worry, my child … You will come out of this place — free! — on the day of Parshas Truma.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker)
Page Number: I.57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Vladek is still imprisoned in a POW camp, tyrannized by the Nazis. Vladek is tired and hopeless--he senses that he's going to die soon. But one night, he has a vivid dream in which his grandfather tells him that he'll be released on Parshas Truma, a day that Jews set aside for the reading of a special passage of the Torah. Later, the vision comes true, and Vladek is released on Parshas Truma.

What does the vision mean? Although Spiegelman is dealing with a deadly serious topic, the Holocaust, there are many scenes in the book which suggest an element of magic or fantasy. Spiegelman isn't saying that his father really did have a magical vision in which he saw the future--but he isn't denying the possibility, either. Perhaps people need to believe in fate or religion in order to get through the most difficult moments in their lives. Vladek gets through the Holocaust in part because of his faith in God and destiny.

This is for me a very important date. I checked later on a calendar. It was this parsha on the week I got married to Anja … And this was the parsha in 1948, after the war, on the week you were born. And so it came out to be this parsha you sang on the Saturday of your bar mitzvah!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman (speaker)
Page Number: I.59
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladek explains the true meaning of the Parsha Truma for him. Vladek was released from his POW camp on the day of the Parsha Truma, just as he foresaw in his vision. Furthermore, Vladek married Anja, his wife, on the Parsha Truma--and later on, Artie was born during the week of the Parsha.

In short, Vladek spells out a series of incredible coincidences--coincidences which may or may not signal a divine presence in Vladek's life. Vladek has been miraculously lucky, of course--he's managed to survive the Holocaust, partly because of his own ingenuity, but mostly because of incredible luck. Vladek, a very religious man, seems to believe that God has blessed him with life--a blessing that's apparent in otherwise inexplicable coincidences like that of the Parsha Truma. Artie doesn't deny or agree with Vladek's beliefs, and we the readers are free to believe that Vladek has been blessed, or that he's just the beneficiary of some incredible good luck, and has found a sense of order in the chaos of life.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

Ilzecki and his wife didn’t come out from the war. But his son remained alive; ours did not.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Richieu , Mr. Ilzecki
Page Number: I.81
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladek and his wife, Anja, had a first son named Richieu, and when Vladek explains his experiences during the Holocaust to his son Artie, he lingers on the memory of Richieu. Here, he tells Artie that his associate, Mr. Ilzecki, had a young son who survived World War II--despite the fact that Ilzecki himself did not. By contrast, Valdek did survive the war, though his first child did not.

There is no rhyme or reason in World War II, and in fate in general--indeed, as the passage suggests, the only "rule" of the war seems to be that no family emerged unscathed. Vladek was lucky and blessed to survive the Holocaust, but he could do nothing to pass on his good fortune to his child.

Cohn had a dry goods store. He was known all over Sosnowiec. Often he gave me cloth with no coupons. I traded also with Pfefer, a fine young man — a Zionist. He was just married. His wife ran screaming in the street … Ach. When I think now of them, it still makes me cry.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Nahum Cohn , Pfefer Cohn
Page Number: I.83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Vladek describes people he used to know, Nahum and Pfefer Cohn. The Cohn family was hanged by the Nazis to warn Jews to obey the Nazis at all costs. Strangely, Vladek is still immensely moved by the deaths of the Cohns, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he didn't know them particularly well. (He just bought some clothes from Nahum now and then.)

Why do the Cohns' deaths move Vladek so greatly, when he's witnessed so many horrors? Why does he remember the Cohns years later? Perhaps the passage is meant to suggest that Vladek is an enormously compassionate man, capable of feeling sympathy even for people he didn't know closely. Or perhaps the passage conveys a more subtle point: the very fact that Vladek didn't know the Cohn family at all well makes their deaths more, not less, moving. Almost every single person Vladek knew died in the Holocaust--whether he knew them closely or slightly. Perhaps Vladek isn't crying for the Cohns so much as he's crying for the overall devastation of the Holocaust, and for the utter destruction of his previously peaceful, safe community--a place where he could trade goods on credit with people he knew and trusted.

Vladek: I couldn’t see anywhere my father. But later someone who saw him told me … He came through this same cousin over to the good side. Then came Fela to register. Her, they sent to the left. Four children was too many.

Mr. Spiegelman: Fela! My daughter! How can she manage alone — with four children to take care of?

Vladek: And, what do you think? He sneaked on to the bad side. And those on the bad side never came anymore home.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Mrs. Spiegelman (speaker), Mordecai , Fela
Page Number: I.91
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladek recalls a particularly frightening and moving moment from his Holocaust experiences. He and the rest of his family was being "relocated" by the Nazis; i.e., sent into nightmarish concentration camps. Some of the Jews in the area were sent to work (a blessing, relatively speaking, since it kept them out of the death camps), while others were sent to be murdered. Vladek's father was sent to work, since he was in good health. Yet when he saw his daughter, Fela, being sent to her death, he sacrificed his own life by going to the "bad side"--i.e., going with her to the camps.

Vladek's father's gesture is incredibly bold and compassionate--and it may have been even braver than he intended it to be (most didn't yet realize just how dangerous the "bad side" was). The passage testifies to the heroism of ordinary people, like those in Vladek's family. Many gave up their lives, simply to provide aid and comfort to the people they cared about. They preferred to die with their family than survive alone.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

In 1968 my mother killed herself … she left no note!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.100
Explanation and Analysis:

Artie recalls one of the saddest moments of his life--the suicide of his mother, Anja. Anja always had a difficult relationship with her son. In his last interaction with her, Anja woke Artie up in the middle of the night to ask if she loved him, and Artie sarcastically said "Sure, ma." Artie felt that his relatives blamed him for Anja's suicide--they believed that because of his own issues (he had recently been released from a mental hospital) Anja had killed herself.

Artie's description of Anja's suicide--focusing on the fact that she left no note--is interesting because it suggests Anja's pain or spitefulness, or maybe Artie's denial, or maybe neither. By refusing to leave a suicide note, it would seem, Anja was trying to cause her family as much pain as possible--or else she was in so much pain that she couldn't even write anything. But perhaps it's wrong to make assumptions about Anja's behavior, as Artie clearly does. The fact that Artie faults Anja for not leaving a note suggests that he's still trapped in his own sense of guilt and responsibility, angry at Anja because she left no way for him to resolve anything at all.

Well, Mom, if you’re listening … Congratulations! … You’ve committed the perfect crime … You put me here … shorted all my circuits … cut my nerve endings … and crossed my wires! … You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.103
Explanation and Analysis:

Artie creates a comic book in which he tries to come to terms with his mother's suicide. In the comic book, he depicts himself in a prison cell, yelling at Anja. Artie screams that Anja has sent him to jail for murder: she's killed herself, manipulating the rest of the family to blame Artie for the tragedy. Artie will always be "trapped" in the prison of his own guilt and shame.

The passage is important for two reasons. First, it reinforces the tense relationship between Artie and his family: Artie is an enormously complicated individual, and in many ways he's still living out the legacy of the Holocaust, in the sense that he's living in the shadow of his parents' pain and suffering. Second, the passage reinforces why Artie writes Maus in the first place: as with Anja's death, he thinks that he can use art, fiction, and even humor to move past his own pain and guilt.

When things came worse in our ghetto, we said always: “Thank God the kids are with Persis, safe.” That spring, on one day, the Germans took from Srodula to Auschwitz over 1,000 people. Most they took were kids — some only 2 or 3 years. Some kinds were screaming and screaming. They couldn’t stop. So the Germans swinged them by the legs against a wall … and they never anymore screamed. In this way the Germans treated the little ones what still had survived a little. This I didn’t see with my own eyes, but somebody the next day told me. And I said, “Thank God with Persis our children are safe!”

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Richieu , Bibi , Lonia , Persis
Page Number: I.108
Explanation and Analysis:

As the situation deteriorates for Jews under Nazi rule, tragedy strikes Vladek's community. Nazis savagely murder hundreds of children--a crime that's virtually unspeakable. Vladek and his family have sent their own children into the care of Persis, the head of the Jewish council in the ghetto. Vladek believes that his child and his family's children will be safe with Persis, because Persis has some power with the Nazis. Little does Vladek know (at the time) that Persis will be murdered soon, leaving the children to be killed--ironically, by Tosha (Anja's sister).

The passage is enormously sad--so sad that there's almost nothing left to say about it. In the midst of tragedy, there's nothing Vladek can do but thank God that he and his own loved ones are safe. And yet the tragedy is even greater than he imagines, since his loved ones are anything but safe. Spiegelman suggests that the scale of suffering at this stage in the book is really beyond human understanding--we can only bear witness to it and remember.

Tosha: No! I won’t go to their gas chambers! And my children won’t go to their gas chambers! Bibi! Lonia! Richieu! Come here quickly!

Vladek: Always Tosha carried around her neck some poison … She killed not only herself, but also the 3 children. I’m telling you, it was a tragedy among tragedies. He was such a happy, beautiful boy!

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Richieu , Tosha , Bibi , Lonia
Page Number: I.109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this wrenching section of the book, Tosha (the sister of Anja) makes a big decision. She knows that she and her sister's children will be arrested by the Nazis and sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Instead of allowing such an atrocity to occur, Tosha decides to kill herself, along with the children.

Vladek's grief at hearing that Richieu (his child) was murdered is beyond understanding. It's not even clear that Tosha did the "wrong" thing--she probably did protect Vladek's children from an awful, prolonged death, preceded by weeks of fear, starvation, and cold. As Hannah Arendt said, the Holocaust forced the Jews to do things that were neither wrong nor right--things that were simply outside the scope of mortality altogether. Spiegelman dares us to judge Tosha's actions--our own criteria of good and evil simply aren't strong enough to help us understand her decision.

Artie: Wouldn’t they have helped you even if you couldn’t pay? I mean, you were from the same family.

Vladek: Hah! You don’t understand … At that time, it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Jakov Spiegelman , Haskel Spiegelman
Page Number: I.114
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust was that it forced Jews to turn against other Jews. Just as the Nazis presumably wanted, Jews were forced to betray each other, fight with each other, and collaborate with the Nazis to murder each other--all because they wanted to survive. Here, Artie learns that Vladek's own blood relatives refused to help him without some money: Vladek had to pay his cousin Jakov to smuggle him out of the ghetto. Family loyalty often disappeared at the time: people looked out for themselves (or perhaps their children), but no one else.

It's all too easy for us to judge Vladek's relatives for refusing to help Vladek out of the goodness of their hearts. But Jakov is a human being: as much as he values family, he also values his own life. Jews had to sacrifice their ideals and loyalties to protect themselves--their sacrifice wasn't barbaric, but deeply human.

Haskel took from me Father-in-Law’s jewels. But, finally, he didn’t help them. On Wednesday the vans came. Anja and I saw her father at the window. He was tearing his hair and crying. He was a millionaire, but even this didn’t save him his life.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman , Mr. Zylberberg, Haskel Spiegelman
Page Number: I.115
Explanation and Analysis:

In the ghettos, Vladek tries to use his family connections--backed up with some bribery--to get himself to safety, along with his family. In the end, his connection, his cousin Haskel Spiegelman, can't sneak Vladek's father-in-law, Mr. Zylberberg, out of the ghetto--the old man is simply too old and feeble to be moved safely. Mr. Zylberberg is so desperate to leave and survive that he gives away all his money and jewels as bribes--he's a rich man, with a lot of money to throw around. But in the end, no amount of money can save him, and he's taken away to the death camps like all the rest.

The passage underscores the terrifying randomness of the Holocaust--there was absolutely no way to predict who would live and who would die. Even a rich, powerful man like Mr. Zylberberg wasn't likely to live--money did nothing to help him survive. The passage also reinforces the total breakdown of society during the Holocaust: money (the cornerstone of any society, let's be honest) no longer worked.

Anja: The whole family is gone! Grandma and grandpa! Poppa! Momma! Tosha! Bibi! My Richieu! Now they’ll take Lolek! … Oh God. Let me die too!

Vladek: Come, Anja, get up!

Anja: Why are you pulling me, Vladek? Let me alone! I don’t want to live!

Vladek: No, darling! To die, it’s easy … but you have to struggle for life! Until the last moment we must struggle together! I need you! And you’ll see that together we’ll survive.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman (speaker), Mr. Zylberberg, Matka Zylberberg , Richieu , Tosha , Bibi , Lolek , Mr. Karmio , Mrs. Karmio
Page Number: I.122
Explanation and Analysis:

As the situation for European Jews deteriorates, Vladek's wife, Anja, falls into despair. She's endured more suffering than most people would have to deal with in ten lifetimes: her entire family, more or less, has been killed, or is on the way to death. Anja can barely stand to live any longer, so great is her misery.

At this moment in the text, Anja relies heavily on Vladek for emotional support. Her desire to give up in the face of such horror is entirely understandable, but Vladek takes a different view. He tries to convince Anja to be strong and optimistic: he says that they have a profound responsibility--they owe it to their dead relatives to survive the Holocaust together. One great tragedy of the Holocaust is that even when the victims survived (as Vladek and Anja did), they had to live with the agony and guilt of being the last living members of their families.

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

And we came here to the concentration camp Auschwitz. And we knew that from here we will not come out anymore … We knew the stories — that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens. This was 1944 … We knew everything. And here we were.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.157
Explanation and Analysis:

Vkladek and Anja are shipped off to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. There, they immediately realize that they're never going to see each other again--they're going to be murdered. They both know the rumors of gas chambers and mass graves, and now they can see that the rumors are true. The passage, in short, evokes utter hopelessness. Here, surrounded by machines of death and destruction, even Vladek feels his hope leaving him. He has nothing to look forward to; no relatives to bribe; no children to protect. His reasons for hopefulness are extinguished. But as we'll see, Vladek still summons the courage to survive--with sheer willpower, as well as lots of luck, he manages to brave the concentration camps and come out alive on the other side.

Vladek: These notebooks, and other really nice things of mother … one time I had a very bad day … and all of these things I destroyed.

Artie: You what?

Vladek: After Anja died I had to make an order with everything … These papers had too many memories, so I burned them.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Vladek tells Artie about Anja’s notebooks. Anja kept journals and diaries for many years—included in these diaries, it’s implied, were discussions of her time in the Holocaust, her feelings for Vladek and Artie, and many other important pieces of information. To Artie’s genuine shock, Vladek hasn’t preserved his wife’s papers—after she committed suicide he destroyed them in order to escape from “the memories.”

The passage illustrates a basic difference between Vladek and Artie: Artie wants to remember, Vladek wants to forget. Artie is writing a book on the Holocaust, but seems not to consider the ethical implications of what he’s doing; by interviewing his father, he’s asking him to relive the worst moments of his life. By the same token, Artie can’t understand why Vladek would burn Anja’s diaries—he’s so hungry for information (information that could potentially absolve him of some of the responsibility for Anja’s suicide) that he can’t conceive of anyone who wouldn’t want it.

God damn you! You — you murderer!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman , Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.159
Explanation and Analysis:

Immediately after Artie learns that Vladek burned Anja’s papers, he lashes out at his father. Artie is furious that Vladek destroyed Anja’s writing, in part because he believes that the writing could have relieved some of his intense guilt, or at least given him a sense of resolution (Artie partly blames himself for his mother’s suicide years before). His hunger for knowledge—and forgiveness, which he associates with information—means that he’s furious with his father for denying him the chance for this forgiveness. Artie even calls his father a murderer--by burning Anja's papers, it's as if Vladek has killed Anja all over again.

In essence, Artie is making his father a scapegoat for his own lack of closure with regard to Anja’s death. There’s no guarantee that Anja’s papers and diaries would have brought Artie any peace or comfort—so it’s easier for him to get angry with Vladek than it is for him to face the facts: he’ll never be truly at peace with his mother's death. Artie still feels that he caused his Anja's suicide—and so by yelling at his father, he deflects some of the guilt he (Artie) feels.

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Priest [to Vladek]: Your number starts with 17. In Hebrew that’s “k’minyan tov.” A very Seventeen is a very good omen … It ends with 13, the age a Jewish boy becomes a man … And look! Added together it total 18. That’s “chai,” the Hebrew number of life. I can’t know if I’ll survive this hell, but I’m certain you’ll come through all this alive.

Vladek [to Artie]: I started to Believe. I tell you, he put another life in me. And whenever it was very bad I looked and said: “Yes. The priest was right! It totals eighteen.”

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), The Priest (speaker), Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman
Page Number: II.28
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladek has been imprisoned in a concentration camp along with other Jews. He’s hopeless, and convinced that he’ll die. But here, Vladek meets a mysterious Polish priest (a Christian, not a Jew), who gives him some hopeful news. The priest explains to Vladek that his number—i.e., the registration number that’s been tattooed on his wrist—is extremely lucky. Citing rules of Judaism (including the mystical Kabbalah), the priest shows Vladek that his number represents some key tenets of Judaism, suggesting that Vladek will survive the camp.

What does the passage (or the fact that Vladek does, indeed, survive the camps) prove? As Spiegelman admits, it might not prove anything—it could be a total coincidence that Vladek’s number is lucky. But perhaps the point is more complicated—whether or not you believe in God, it’s important to notice that the priest is using religion to transform a symbol of death (the registration number) into a symbol of life and luck. Perhaps this is what religion does, more than anything else—it help humans translate their pain and suffering into hope and meaning—hope that eventually becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vladek believes that he’s going to survive, and this belief then gives him the inner strength to survive.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

Vladek died of congestive heart failure on August 18, 1982 … Françoise and I stayed with him in the Catskills back in August 1979. Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 … I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Françoise and I are expecting a baby … Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944, over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman , Françoise Mouly , Nadja Mouly Spiegelman
Page Number: II.41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Artie contrasts his own work as a writer with his father’s life and work. But he does much more: he compares his life with the lives of his ancestors, including the millions of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

It’s imperative that Artie keep the Holocaust “in perspective” as he proceeds to write a book about it. The Holocaust is a tragedy almost beyond the comprehension of any individual person. Artie’s book isn’t just about the Holocaust—it’s about his struggle to try to understand the Holocaust. Artie talks to his father about his (father’s) experiences, but even here, mere words can’t convey the full extent of the tragedy to Artie. In the end, Artie’s experience writing his book is a sobering experience. His own petty acts of creation—the book, the baby, the marriage—pale in comparison with the single act of destruction that took place in Europe during World War II. There is simply no decent way to write a book about the Holocaust that doesn’t involve the acceptance that one’s book is neither a solution nor a comprehensive response to the Holocaust.