How strange, to be reading a book about the Holocaust while another slaughter takes place.
For no good reason, I missed reading Art Spiegelman’s classic book, “Maus,” a graphic novel about his parents’ survival, of sorts, from Auschwitz. I always meant to read it since the first part was published in 1986, but just did not until now.
However, when school boards and mayors and other American worthies began to ban this Pulitzer-Prize winning book as too controversial for young people, I realized I had to join the millions who had read it.
I tried to take it out from the wonderful Nassau County library system only to discover I was 31st in the electronic waiting line – but fortunately there was a Spanish-language copy available from a few towns away. With my moderate Spanish and a handy dictionary – and the graphic panels displaying cruelty and hope – I read it.
Meanwhile, a latter-day Hitler has decided to take over a neighboring people, even if he has to kill thousands, maybe millions, of them – “Man’s inhumanity to man,” to quote the Robert Burns poem, all over again, "a boot stamping on a human face – forever," in the words of George Orwell.
Art Spiegelman was documenting it decades ago, as his aging father began to tell how the world fell apart in the late 30s in Poland, when the Nazis were flexing their muscles and most locals were none too hesitant to cooperate.
Chapter by chapter, Spiegelman portrays himself, already an adult cartoonist with a political bent,
getting his widower father to tell the story of his courtship and marriage and the inexorable plodding toward Auschwitz, followed by a reunion of the parents and the path to Rego Park, Queens, and the Catskills in the summer – heaven on earth, sort of, for people who have lived in Nazi hell.
The artist portrays Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, the British as fish, the French as frogs, and the Swedish as deer. What would the Russians be, if and when we get to a similar re-telling of this horror? Perhaps, lumbering, dim-witted bear cubs, with an old and rabid bear sending them off to mutual slaughter, up against a Ukrainian people with a (Jewish!) hero/president, trying to rally the world.
As the father talks to his son, he tells how he and his wife went underground, surviving with the help of the occasional kindly Pole, and then how they survived in adjacent camps, he by being fluent in English and German as well as Polish – and learning skills that make him valuable to the warden, who feeds him, protects him.
The father tells of death, step by step, of men around him. It’s a horror show, but also a testimony to the will to live – now being seen by Ukrainians who fight bravely for what is theirs, while many elderly and children are sent to relative safety.
Spiegelman’s masterpiece is worth finding – buying -- and assimilating. In “Maus,” people are flawed, one way or the other, but the urge to survive against the wicked is strong. For the people of Ukraine, my heart goes out.
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023