Survival of the Frugal-est
The Holocaust was devastating to the Jewish community and millions died, yet some managed to survive. Among those which survived was Vladek, father of author Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman wrote Maus, a graphic novel about Vladek’s survival of the Holocaust. Although the story is centered around Vladek’s story, Spiegelman explores his relationship with his father as well as some of the remaining trauma Vladek continues to unknowingly struggle with. Vladek survived the Holocaust and continued to survive it every day of his life afterwards. Spiegelman manages to depict how Vladek coped with having experienced the Holocaust while also illustrating how this experience continued to affect the relationship between him and his father, however well-meaning Vladek may have been. Spiegelman’s wife, Francoise once says of Vladek’s survival, “…in some ways, he didn’t survive” (250, p.2). Francoise’s adept observation can be viewed as an explanation to many of Vladek’s quirks, mainly his hoarding and frugality.
Spiegelman often mentions his father had preference for his deceased brother, yet throughout the novel there are several instances in which Vladek shows his appreciation and need for his son, though often obscured by his frugal, hoarder-type personality. In book one, Vladek throws out Art’s coat in favor of a “better” hand-me-down which Art doesn’t appreciate and scolds him, despite Vladek being of the opinion that “I have for you a warmer one…It looks on you like a million dollars” (71, p. 2 & 4)! It appears to Art as an insult for Vladek to throw out his coat, making him feel as though Vladek thinks he can’t make his own decisions as a “over 30-year-old.” However, Vladek has always cared very highly of his appearance, as the reader can even see him depicted wearing a suit and tie despite the fact Art was simply there for dinner. This event also parallels with the Vladek’s story about his friend Mandelbaum, whom had only one shoe and pants too large in the camp. Vladek makes friends with the “block supervisor” who provides him with better fitted clothing; he even requests for better fitting clothing for Mandelbaum as well. It seems Vladek looks for opportunity to provide a more comfortable lifestyle to those which he cares about. He likely felt that Art’s coat was ill-fitting and ratty, unfit for anyone to wear, and wanted to give him the opportunity to feel “like a million dollars” without actually needing to spend anything. Vladek acts as Art’s opportunity for gain much as the overseer did for Vladek. In panel 6 of this page, Vladek is joyous, his eyes drawn happily, and his hand on Artie’s back in a loving manner which further shows Vladek’s attempt to make his son feel better about how he looks without intending to harm. Vladek emphatically feels he has done his son a great favor, unaware of the value the jacket may have had to Art due to his own need to hold onto things.
Vladek’s most suffocating issue could be his uncontrollable hoarding as he views it as his ability to be resourceful. While looking for his mother’s diaries, Art criticizes Vladek to Mala for collecting hoards of what most would consider junk such as multiple “1965 Day Dock Savings Bank calendars” and “old menus” (95, p. 4-5). The panels on the entire page are laid out in different sizes, illustrating the mess of junk Vladek has allowed to populate his home. Vladek’s need to keep every little thing he can get for free can easily be linked to his past traumas. It was necessary to be resourceful and useful to keep random objects as they might’ve become useful at some point during the war. Vladek later comes across a telephone wire, that was presumably thrown away, and takes it as “…inside it’s little wires. It’s good for tying things” and proceeds to criticize Art for suggesting he buy wire instead (118, p. 5). Although Vladek was well-off pre- and post- WWII, his lifestyle as a prisoner forced him to see value in what little he had as most prisoners literally had nothing but the clothes they could wear i.e. that fit them. He seems to stay in a mindset of having to hold onto whatever he can, because one never knows what the next day could take away. This hoarding mental is simply a remnant of his having been resourceful in times of severe lack of goods.
Vladek’s frugality can be attributed to the amount of stress and trauma caused by the Nazis and the camp environment he lived in. When working on his bank papers with his son, their math doesn’t seem to align and so Vladek decidedly states, “Pfah, it doesn’t come out so as on the statement. We’ll have now everything to do again” (183, p. 2). Vladek expresses such dismay for not having all his financial paperwork in order. This is emphasized by the hand he holds up to his temple and the darkened brows, both of which are indicative of stress. More importantly, this is coupled with panic marks to the side of his head, which are more associated with moments of terror. Because of Vladek’s age and build at the time of the Holocaust, he was used for as many jobs as they could and like every prisoner of the camps, everything had to be left perfect. Vladek’s trauma from the camps seeps through in how he handles his own affairs in his daily life now, where nothing can be out of place otherwise it is chaos. The black coloring of Vladek’s left shoulder in the panel is perhaps most indicative of the trauma as it is on the same side in which one can see both the panic marks and hand-to-forehead gesture, representative of the tenseness Vladek feels in this moment. As the scene progresses, Vladek becomes more closed off to Art’s criticisms of him caring about the fact that his paperwork is off by “less than a buck” (p. 3). Vladek’s arms are crossed, with the shadow over his shoulder still present, and an angry expression on his face. To Vladek, it is pertinent to know where every dollar is, because money was of such high value in times of war. In his time at the concentration camps, bartering already had such value placed on it, money was nearly unimaginable. For Artie to give such little value to money is therefore insulting to Vladek, a survivor of inconceivable conditions, both for his lack of appreciation of money and sloppy work ethic.
Vladek places extremely high value upon food and it becomes a question as to whether it is him being money-savvy or paranoid. Vladek describes an encounter with food amidst his time in Auschwitz and exclaims, “Here I saw rolls! I saw eggs! Meat! Coffee! All the table FULL! You know what it is to see such things…this food, it was for me” (192, p. 3-6). In panel 3, Vladek stands at the doorway, in an awkward stance that makes him appear as though he is frozen in place, likely in awe of the display of food in front of him. There is a plethora of food before his eyes, with a shining aura around it, indicating its godliness in his eyes. Perhaps the food laid out had not actually been presented this way and simply been a few pieces of the typical foods they had at the camps, but Spiegelman presented it in such a manner so as to depict Vladek’s euphoria in having more than just saw-dust bread and watery soup for a meal. Panels 4-6 are movement-to-movement shots of Vladek’s face as he rubs his eyes in disbelief and his eyes grow large at the sight of the feast before him (McCloud). This type of multi-panel shot is useful in accentuating exactly how awestruck Vladek is in this moment and it all happens one right after the other as opposed from the usual, slower, movement of panel shots. During a later visit to Vladek after his wife, Mala, has left him, he tells Art, “I cannot forget it…ever since Hitler I don’t like to throw out even a crumb…I can glue together the box…” (238, p. 7-8). This scene is pivotal to Vladek’s character as he acknowledges his issues with food and in a sense, his cheapness, stems from Hitler and therefore, the concentration camps. Vladek wants to return a nearly empty box of cereal to the store as it was Mala’s and he cannot eat it; therefore it serves no value to him. Because of his resourcefulness with food during his time at Auschwitz, Vladek holds onto hope that he can also barter similarly to the way he would then e.g. trading x amount of half-pieces of bread for another good or service. Vladek worries needlessly that if he were not to make the most of what food he does have, there may be some sort of negative repercussion to it which can then be attributed to why he feels the need to be resourceful.
Ultimately, Vladek survived the Holocaust, which is an accomplishment in itself, yet it came with unimaginable mental trauma. Vladek’s experiences changed him entirely as a person, no longer able to spend money or get rid of junk like most could. Spiegelman gave the reader insight into how his father’s rational worked and elaborated by means of illustration. He also managed to interweave both the past and present together, giving a full look into how Vladek got to be the person he was post-WWII. Francoise’s theory about whether Vladek survived at all is therefore true in that a person is made up entirely of their mind – and Vladek’s mind was irrevocably changed by the Holocaust.
McCloud, Scott. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2006. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Print.
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