While his interviews with Vladek keep a tight focus on the war, Artie’s parallel narrative of recording those interviews and writing Maus considers the multitude of ways in which the war continues to influence Vladek in his old age, and shapes Artie’s relationship both with his father and with his own Jewish identity.
Reverberations of the Holocaust are visible in almost every aspect of Vladek’s life and character, and so have a profound impact on his relationship with his son. From the novel’s first scene — in which Vladek scoffs to hear his young son refer to neighborhood boys as “friends,” and advises Artie to test the sincerity of their friendship by “lock[ing] them together in a room with no food for a week” — it is clear that Artie’s whole life has been colored by the catastrophes his father faced during the war. Nevertheless, Artie sees the Holocaust as an impenetrable barrier between him and his parents. He admits to his wife Françoise that he sometimes wishes he had been in Auschwitz with them, so he could better understand what they lived through and how it impacted them.
Because Anja and Vladek’s experiences during the war are inextricably intertwined with their membership in a Jewish community — a network of family members, neighbors, business partners, and friends who all suffer and struggle together during the war — his own freedom from such suffering seems to undermine Artie’s own sense of membership in that community. With the exception of Françoise, a convert, every Jewish person Artie meets is a Holocaust survivor: Pavel, Mala, even the couple living next door to Vladek in his bungalow in the Catskills. Jewishness, as Artie understands it, is linked to the experience of survival. His inability to relate to that experience compromises his sense of his own Jewish identity, and creates distance between him and the family members about whom he writes.
Though Artie feels a tenuous connection to his family, it is clear that family relationships are central to the moral universe in which Vladek and Anja operate throughout the war. Their bonds with parents, siblings, and cousins sustain them materially — since relatives, even distant relatives, are more willing to extend help to one another amidst the chaos and privation of the ghettos — and play an even more important role in sustaining their sprits. In a letter from Birkenau, Anja tells Vladek that knowing he is alive is the only thing that keeps her from throwing herself on the electric fence and ending her life. Likewise, Vladek’s father chooses to follow his daughter and grandchildren to the death camps rather than abandon them. Bonds of love and kinship are a source of meaning that persists even when many reasons to live have been stripped away. This makes Artie’s alienation from his Jewish roots even more disconcerting to him; he lacks an intimate understanding, not only of his parents’ lived experiences, but of the values that shaped their lives. Through writing Maus — a project that coincides with the birth of his own daughter, Nadja — Artie begins to address those feelings of alienation, cultivating deeper and more complete understanding of the connections that held his family together during the war, and the ways in which those connections have had repercussions for his own life.
Family, Identity, and Jewishness ThemeTracker
Family, Identity, and Jewishness Quotes in Maus
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.
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!
Ilzecki and his wife didn’t come out from the war. But his son remained alive; ours did not.
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.
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.
He wants me to go help him fix his roof or something. Shit! Even as a kid I hated helping him around the house. He loved showing off how handy he was … and proving that anything I did was all wrong. He made me completely neurotic about fixing stuff. I mean, I didn’t even own a hammer until we moved into this place! 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.
In 1968 my mother killed herself … she left no note!
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!!!
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!”
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!
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.
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.
Mala: Pragmatic? Cheap!! It causes him physical pain to part with even a nickel!
Artie: Uh-huh. I used to think the war made him that way.
Mala: Fah! I went through the camps … All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!
Artie: Mm … It’s something that worries me about the book I’m doing about him … In some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.
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.
I never felt guilty about Richieu. But I did have nightmares about S.S. men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids away. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t obsessed with this stuff … It’s just that sometimes I’d fantasize Zyklon B coming out of our shower instead of water. I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! … I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.
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.”
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.