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Jewish Fathers and Sons in Spiegelman’s Maus and Roth’s Patrimony

By Andrew Gordon

It’s an old joke:

A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he’s been given a role in the school play.
“Wonderful. What part is it?”
The boy says, “I play the Jewish husband.”
The mother scowls and says, “Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.”

In Jewish-American fiction, the father has often been consigned to the role of the nebbish, under the thumb of his assertive, talkative wife: Jake Portnoy in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is the archetype of such a character. Mr. Balkan in Daniel Fuchs’ Homage to Blenholt and Morris Bober in Malamud’s The Assistant are also shlemiel fathers.

But there are other sorts of fathers in Jewish-American fiction, such as the tyrant who rejects his offspring, seen for example in Albert Schearl in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Dr. Adler in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Mr. Gold in Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, or Reb Smolinsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, (although the Reb seems to merge the monster father with the ineffectual shlemiel).

A third type is the absent father, as in Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky –David’s father is dead–or Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March–Augie’s father ran off.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) and Maus II (1991) and Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991) are memoirs by Jewish-American sons paying homage to their fathers, and the most moving accounts of relations between Jewish fathers and sons in recent literature. These two works of non-fiction depict a different kind of Jewish father: a mensch (although others might term him a kvetch or a nudzh–a complainer or a nag). Michael Rothberg describes Vladek and Herman as “what Paul Breines, in a recent attempt to characterize post-sixties Jewish maleness, has called a ‘tough Jew’” (Rothberg 678). Even though Vladek Spiegelman was born in Poland and survived the Holocaust while Herman Roth lived in New Jersey, they show many of the same attributes–stubbornness and tenacity, a capacity for hard work, and a devotion to family–that defined Jewish men of their generation and enabled them to survive and to succeed despite their lack of education and the obstacles of anti-Semitism.

Neither Vladek nor Herman were easy to live with, although they were not cold tyrants like the fictional fathers depicted by Henry Roth, Bellow, Heller, or Yezierska. Instead, they were loving, difficult and domineering, even maddening men from whom their sons sometimes fled but to whom they were nevertheless deeply attached. In their memoirs, both sons show mixed motives: on the one hand, to memorialize the father and to record family history; on the other hand, to expose the father and to triumph over him through art. As Adrienne Rich writes in her memoir “Split at the Root,” “I have to claim my father, for I have my Jewishness from him . . . and . . . in order to claim him I have in a sense to expose him” (quoted in Miller 29). Finally, their accounts of their fathers’ lives and of their complicated, conflicted relationships with them enable Art Spiegelman and Philip Roth to mourn and to come to terms with the deceased fathers and with the Jewish patrimony they have left them.

In talking about their relationships with their Jewish fathers, Spiegelman and Roth are writing ethnic autobiography, a genre Barbara Frey Waxman sees as a double discourse negotiating between two cultures. Such authors must nourish “both the ethnic hunger of memory and the auctorial appetite for an American (literary) future, “ and therein lies the tension in their texts (Waxman 219). Another way to theorize this tension is as the opposition between descent and consent, which Werner Sollors calls “the central drama in American culture”: “Descent language emphasizes our position as heirs, our hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements” –in other words, our patrimony–“consent language stresses our abilities as mature free agents and ‘architects of our fates’ to choose our spouses, our destinies, and our political systems” (Sollors 6).

Spiegelman is a second-generation Jewish-American and Roth is third generation. Both their fathers struggled against anti-Semitism and sacrificed and worked hard so that their sons could get a good education and be more accepted as Americans. But their success created an abyss: the sons became educated beyond their fathers, rebelled against paternal restrictions, and, in assimilating to America, became only vestigially Jewish.

Maus and Patrimony are centrally about memory: the father’s relationship to his memories of a vanished ethnic past and the son’s relationship to the father’s memories as witness and interpreter who can transmit them to the American future. In order to be a truthful witness, the son must reconcile with the father. This involves seeing the father clearly, both his strengths and weaknesses, admitting ambivalence toward the father, and working toward forgiveness and acceptance.

Art Spiegelman tries to work through his mourning in Maus, first by juxtaposing different time lines, and second by splitting his father and himself into various different characters represented in visually distinct styles. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, covers mid-1930s to Winter 1944; Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, goes “From Mauschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond.” Vladek lived from 1906 to 1982; Art Spiegelman was born in 1948 and wrote the two books of Maus from 1978 to 1991, starting while his father was still alive and continuing for years after his death. But the “present” of the narrative is 1978-79, as Artie recounts Vladek’s narration to him of the story of his life from the 1930s in Poland through his liberation from Auschwitz in 1945. There are two flashbacks in Maus I: in the prologue, to 1958 in Rego Park, NY; and, in an inserted comic, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” to 1968. And there are two flashforwards in Maus II: in Chapter Two, “Time Flies,” to 1987, when his father is already dead five years and Art is struggling to compose Maus II and visits his psychotherapist; and, in the final image of the book, to the gravestone of Vladek and Anja Spiegelman. Juxtaposing these time lines demonstrates the interplay of past, present, and future, and creates ironic and poignant effects as well as the sense that the Holocaust goes on and on.

In addition to the complex time lines, there are also three separate visual representations of Vladek: as a human with the head of a mouse; with a human face in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”; and, toward the end of Maus II, in a photograph, posing after the war in an Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform. The photograph reminds us that behind the metaphoric Vladek is the real person. There are also many versions of Spiegelman: Art, his artistic stand-in, who wears a mouse mask in “Time Flies”; and Artie, the son of Vladek and Anja, who appears in three guises: as a human with the head of a mouse; with a human face in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”; and as a child in a photograph with his mother, also in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” These multiple images create a self-reflexive graphic memoir which comments on its own construction. They also provide Spiegelman with ironic, aesthetic distance from his subject matter and from his father and himself.

Spiegelman needs that distance because of his almost impossible subject, which is so highly charged emotionally that it requires new methods of representation: the Holocaust and its effect on survivors and on the second generation.

Figure 1. From Maus I (p. 5). © 1986 Art Spiegelman

The prologue suggests the bind in which the Holocaust places Artie. In this flashback, as a ten-year-old boy, he turns to Vladek after two friends abandon him when he falls while skating [Figure 1]. Little Artie is a boy in tears needing comfort from his father, but he gets none. Artie at first says nothing, which suggests that he is accustomed to repressing his feelings before Vladek. His father is absorbed in sawing a board and asks Artie for assistance; only in the next panel does he ask Artie why he is crying, which suggests that he is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t take much notice of his son . Then there is the only facial closeup in the prologue: Vladek’s head as he says “Friends? Your friends?. . .” His dialogue continues in the last two panels, which are progressively longer shots, moving away from the scene: “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week. . . .Then you could see what it is, friends!. . .” (Maus 5). Vladek means well: as a father, he is offering his son advice from his own life; but he is completely unaware that his extreme experiences in wartime Poland are inapplicable to the life of a ten-year-old boy living in New York City in 1958. Vladek still has a Holocaust mentality and lives in a world where no one can be trusted and even friends can turn into enemies. His nihilism hints at an abyss which at this point Artie knows nothing about and could not possibly fathom. This is why the only facial closeup in the scene is of Vladek and why, in the last panel, Artie has shrunk to a tiny figure in the shadows while his father is highlighted in white. He has been cast by Vladek into the shadow of the Holocaust. The prologue explains why Artie would become so estranged, hiding his feelings from Vladek and not turning to him for paternal comfort or advice. The sufferings of Vladek are so catastrophic that they dwarf any pain that Artie could ever experience, rendering his life and emotions insignificant and invalid (Bosmajian 11).

Although Vladek is the central character in Maus, and both books are subtitled A Survivor’s Tale, the prologue suggests that the work is also about Artie, who is another survivor. Spiegelman writes Maus to memorialize his parents and to understand their suffering but also to assert his own suffering and to overcome his parents. “In order to live his own life, Art must understand his relations with his parents. To do so, he must confront the Holocaust and the ways in which it affected Vladek and Anja” (Witek 98).

Artie is caught in a bind, overshadowed by Vladek and by his “ghost brother” Richieu, who died in the Holocaust (Artie is a replacement child), and tormented by his mother’s suicide in 1968, when Artie was 20. Artie wants to make restitution for his parents but feels guilty because he can never make up for what they suffered. Judith Kestenberg found that the children of concentration camp survivors “feel they have a mission to live in the past and to change it so that their parents’ humiliations, disgrace, and guilt can be converted into victory” (Kestenberg 101). Artie lives in what Marianne Hirsch calls “post-memory,” his life “dominated by memories that are not his own” (Hirsch 12). But he is also angry at them because they offered him little emotionally: his father was too self-absorbed, domineering, critical, and manipulative, and his mother too fragile and needy. In any case, survivor parents often cannot connect with their children because of unresolved mourning, survivor guilt, or psychic numbing (Epstein 92). Artie is “psychologically and literally unacknowledged and orphaned” (Bosmajian 5).

He is also angry because, despite his respect for their heroic survival and his pity for their suffering, he sees them as victims: his mother a suicide, his father isolated from everyone. And Artie, the mouse child of mice, feels like another weak victim himself, a depressed loser who suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to the state mental hospital, a grown man who often behaves like a child and depends upon the support of his substitute father, the psychiatrist Pavel, himself a Holocaust survivor. “As an adult, Artie frequently depicts himself in infantile attitudes and postures; petulance, anger, sulkiness, self-pity and ingratiating gestures signal the need for acknowledgment he failed and fails to receive” (Bosmajian 5). Artie’s withdrawal from his parents, out of anger and self-defense, only increases his guilt.

Figure 2. From Maus I (p. 103). © 1972, 1986 Art Spiegelman

He feels particularly guilty about his mother’s suicide because, in their last conversation, when she came to him for reassurance that he still loved her, “I turned away, resentful of the way she tightened the umbilical cord. . .” (Maus 103). In an interview, Spiegelman says, “I was the one who was supposed to discover the body [after the suicide]. . . . Was my commitment to the mental hospital the cause of her suicide? No. Was there a relation? Sure. . . . she’d invested her whole life in me. I was more like a confidante than a son. She couldn’t handle the separation. I didn’t want to hurt her, to hurt them. But I had to break free” (Weschler 62). Yet her suicide, “rather than freeing Art from her maternal grip, ties him more closely to her” (Iadonisi 50). In the comic within the comic, which concerns the aftermath of her suicide, he portrays himself as a “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” and identifies with his parents by drawing himself wearing an Auschwitz inmate’s uniform. “He thereby equates his own confinement in his guilt and mourning with their imprisonment in the concentration camp” (Hirsch 18). Lawrence Langer says that Spiegelman “scrupulously avoids sentimentalizing or melodramatizing his tale. He writes with restraint and a relentless honesty, sparing neither his father nor himself” (Langer 36). Thus in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” he gives the last word [Figure 2] to a fellow prisoner who responds to Artie’s loud self-pity with “Pipe down, Mac! Some of us are trying to sleep!” (Maus 103).

Figure 3. From Maus I (p. 159). © 1986 Art Spiegelman

It is significant that, although his parents were the victims of genocide, Artie is so angry that he irrationally accuses them both of being “murderers.” In “Prisoner,” because of his guilt over her death, he accuses her of killing him: “You murdered me, mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!” (Maus 103). His childishness is suggested by his use of “mommy.” And after he discovers that, in his grief, Vladek had destroyed his mother’s Holocaust diary, he accuses him, “God damn you! You–you murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing!!” [Figure 3] Although he quickly apologizes to Vladek, nevertheless he walks away, muttering to himself, “. . .Murderer” (Maus 159). And thus ends the first volume of Maus. In part, Artie feels that his parents have psychologically destroyed him, but in part, he is simply projecting his guilt about his mother’s suicide onto them.

At the center of Maus is Vladek, a character of monumental contradictions. He came from a large, poor family and became a successful businessman. Despite having left school at 14, he learned German and English. He is heroic in surviving the war and Auschwitz, which utilized all his skills and depended on tremendous courage. He is remarkably calm in recounting the horrors he witnessed and experienced during the war, and he is not filled with self-pity or hate. Artie admires Vladek: “I know there was a lot of LUCK involved, but he WAS amazingly present-minded and resourceful. . .” (Maus II 45). After the Holocaust, he rebuilt his life and his family, first in Sweden and then in America. His strength and devotion kept his severely depressed wife alive for years when she was often ready to give up hope. And he also shows love for Artie and generosity toward friends and relatives during and after the Holocaust. One feels sorry for Vladek for all his losses of position, family, and friends in the war and his further losses in his old age: his wife’s suicide, and his ill health, including diabetes, two heart attacks, and the loss of an eye.

Nevertheless, Vladek suffers from a character disorder which makes him an exasperating individual and a burden on those closest to him. He is an “anal character,” showing the combination of traits – orderliness, parsimoniousness, and obstinacy – that Freud noted in “Character and Anal Erotism.” Vladek exhibits this triad of traits to excess. In his obsession for order, he laboriously counts pills and sorts nails. Artie’s wife Francoise mentions, “He straightens everything you touch – he’s so anxious” (Maus II 22). Vladek’s second wife Mala tells Artie, “Put everything back exactly like it was, or I’ll never hear the end of it!” ( Maus 93).

He is also pathologically stingy, a comical miser, picking up discarded wire in the street or taking paper towels from restrooms to save on napkins. He won’t even pay for Mala’s hairbrush. She complains, “Even for himself he won’t spend any money. He has hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, and he lives like a pauper!” (Maus 132). She calls him “Cheap!! It causes him physical pain to part with even a nickel!” (Maus 131). Although he shows little care for his wife and son’s property–he burns Anja’s diaries and throws Artie’s favorite coat in the garbage–he is a pack rat who rarely discards the junk he accumulates. She says, “He’s more attached to things than to people! I really don’t know how long I can take him “ ( Maus 93). Artie sums it up by saying, “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” (Maus 131).

In his obstinacy, Vladek tells Artie, “So it has to be. Always you must eat all what is on your plate.” When Artie was a child and left any food on his plate, Vladek would save it “to serve again and again until I’d eat it or starve.” Mala says, “You should know it’s impossible to argue with your father” (Maus 43).

Although these traits – maintaining order, saving things, and obstinately refusing to give up – may have been survival traits during the Holocaust, after the war they drive his family crazy.

In addition to his anal character, Vladek is also domineering, critical, and manipulative. As he recounts how the Nazis ordered him to clean a stable, he stops and orders Artie to clean up his cigarette ashes. “You want it should be like a stable here?” (Maus 52). The ironic counterpoint between past and present suggests that Vladek is as bossy as the Nazis. Vladek also criticizes Mala for being a poor housekeeper and cook, comparing her unfavorably to Anja. And he criticizes Artie, comparing him unfavorably to himself: “You don’t know counting pills. I’ll do it after. . . I’m an expert for this” (Maus 30). He doesn’t even trust Artie to do the dishes: “You would only break me the rest of my plates” (Maus II 73 ). He refuses to give Artie a copy of the safe deposit key, claiming he would lose it. He calls his son lazy and even blames Artie when he himself knocks over a bottle of pills. The effect is always to make Artie feel incompetent: “Mainly I remember ARGUING with him. . . and being told that I couldn’t do anything as well as he could” (Maus II 44). Artie tells Francoise, “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. . . . 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” (Maus 97).

Vladek is so manipulative that he pretends that he has had a heart attack, just to insure that Artie will call back. He returns half-eaten boxes of food to the supermarket and gets a refund by playing on the manager’s sympathy: “He helped me as soon as I explained to him my health, how Mala left me, and how it was in the camps” (Maus II 90).

In addition to these many flaws, despite having himself been the victim of anti-Semitism, Vladek is also racist. He becomes very upset when Francoise picks up a black hitchhiker because he believes all blacks are thieves.

Vladek lacks awareness of his failings and is oblivious to his effect on others (LaCapra 175). In fact, he is largely unconcerned with other people. Despite his expressions of love for Artie–”Darling. Always it’s a pleasure when you visit”–he constantly criticizes him or tries to manipulate him into moving in with him (Maus II 117).

What maintains our sympathy for Vladek and prevents us from seeing him as a monster, besides the dispassionate way he recounts his harrowing tale and our pity for a lonely, suffering old man, is the fact that a lot of the 1970s story is presented as a sitcom starring a crotchety old immigrant Jewish father who speaks broken English with a Yiddish accent and his neurotic intellectual Jewish-American son (Mordden 91; LaCapra 142). If Vladek is not completely sympathetic, neither is Artie, who unwittingly duplicates some of his father’s flaws: “obsessiveness, peevishness, and imperviousness to the needs of others” (LaCapra 154). As mentioned, Artie can be infantile in his anger and self-pity. Although it is understandable that the old man might exasperate anyone, Artie can be adolescent and nasty in his frequent sarcasm toward Vladek: “Ever since Hitler I don’t like to throw out even a crumb.” “Then just save the damn Special K in case Hitler ever comes back!” ( Maus II 78). He is harsh toward both parents, on whom he blames all his problems (LaCapra 157). He can be as bossy as Vladek when he keeps forcing his father to return to the Holocaust story Vladek is reluctant to relate, and as concerned for order as Vladek, making him tell it chronological order (Ewert 91). “More for his own sake than for his father’s, he compels, even at times harasses, his father to remember” (LaCapra 157). And he can be as self-absorbed and oblivious to others as his father is; for example, he is not interested in Mala’s problems or in her Holocaust story (Hirsch 21).

“The tensions between Art and Vladek are unresolved at the book’s stopping point” (Witek 117). In an interview, Spiegelman admits that “a reader might get the impression that the conversations in the narrative were just one small part, a facet of my relationship with my father. In fact, however, they were my relationship with my father; I was doing them to have a relationship with my father. Outside of them we were still continually at loggerheads” (Weschler 64-65).

Figure 4. From Maus II (p. 136). © 1986 Art Spiegelman

In the final page of Maus II [Figure 4], Vladek has finished his story and lies down in bed to sleep, saying, “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now. . .” (Maus II 136). His falling into sleep substitutes for his death scene. This is the final dialogue in the book, so Spiegelman seems to be allowing Vladek the last word. His slip of the tongue, calling Artie “Richieu,” implies that the past has overtaken the present. Vladek has passed on his story, which is his patrimony, but there is no reconciliation with Artie, whom he seems symbolically to disinherit, reinstating in his place his first-born child, Artie’s “ghost-brother.” “There is no moment of genuine communication between father and son. . . . Artie remains a blank for Vladek” (Bosmajian 9).

But Vladek does not have the last word in the book. Below the final two panels and intruding into them is a tombstone with the names and dates of Vladek and Anja. And at the bottom of the page, beneath the tombstone, is the signature of Art Spiegelman and the dates “1978-1991,” the years in which he wrote the two books. This is an ambiguous closure, giving Spiegelman the last word by suggesting his authorial control over everything, including his mother and father, but also suggesting that he lies dead as well (Bosmajian 13). If the first volume of Maus ends with Artie calling his father a murderer, the second ends with him symbolically murdered by his father and lying in his parents’ grave.

Philip Roth too must deal with a difficult, aged, physically failing father in Patrimony. Although surviving the Holocaust in Poland is scarcely comparable to surviving Newark, New Jersey, there are many similarities between Vladek Spiegelman and Herman Roth. They were of the same generation: Vladek lived 1906 to 1982, Herman from 1901 to 1989. Both came from large, poor families and had to leave school to work: Vladek dropped out at 14, Herman at about the same age (after eighth grade). Both were hardworking and tenacious, raised a family, and were successful businessmen. Herman grew up the child of immigrants in the Newark Jewish ghetto. After failing at two businesses, during the Depression he got a job selling insurance in the city’s poor districts for Metropolitan Life, a firm which at the time employed few Jews, and he stayed with Metropolitan as a manager until he retired. Like Vladek, he became a widower and found a girlfriend, although he did not remarry.

Shortly before his father dies, Philip has a dream in which his father appears as a disabled battleship drifting into shore (I call him Philip to distinguish the character in the book from the author Roth). He sees the dream as summing up his father’s life, “starting with his immigrant parents’ transatlantic crossing in steerage, extending to his grueling campaign to get ahead, the battle to make good against so many obstructive forces–as a poor boy robbed of serious schooling, as a Jewish working man in the Gentile insurance colossus–and ending with his transformation, by the brain tumor, into an enfeebled wreck” (Patrimony 236-37).

The main similarities between Vladek and Herman are in their personalities. Many terms that Roth uses to describe his father could apply as well to Vladek: “blunt” ( 16, 36, 51, 181); “pitilessly realistic” ( 33, 91); and “obdurate” (104, 164). Herman also has some of the same “anal” characteristics as Vladek: he too is miserly and obstinate. Like Vladek, Herman is well off in his retirement. “Despite his solid financial situation, however, in advanced old age he had become annoyingly tight about spending anything on himself” ( 24). He refuses to buy a newspaper but waits for his neighbor’s used copy. The cleaning lady only comes once a month, so his apartment grows filthy. He won’t replace old underwear and socks, and he washes them in the bathroom “rather than parting with the few quarters that it cost to use the washer/dryer in the basement laundry room” ( 26).

Vladek is a packrat but Herman shows the opposite tendency: he throws out or gives things away, divesting himself of as much as possible. Vladek never threw out his wife’s clothes, even offering them to his second wife Mala. But a few minutes after Herman’s wife’s funeral, Philip finds him throwing away all his wife’s things, including sentimental keepsakes that his sons might want. Like Vladek, Herman shows no respect for his family’s possessions: just as Vladek burned his wife’s diaries and tossed Artie’s coat in the garbage, so Herman gives away Philip’s stamp collection without asking his son’s permission.

As to his obstinacy, Roth refers to Herman’s “obstinate tenacity” ( 232). He says Herman is given to “bluntly resisting points of view that diverged only slightly from his own reigning biases. . . . His obsessive stubbornness–his stubborn obsessiveness–had very nearly driven my mother to breakdown in her final years” (36). Philip’s brother humorously calls Herman “a stubborn prick” (153).

Also like Vladek, Herman is anxious, bossy, critical, and insensitive to the feelings of others. Nancy Miller calls Herman a “kvetch” (Miller 27). Roth mentions Herman’s “set of endless worries” (16) and his “anxious, overbearing bossiness” (36). He always needs someone to boss. Once he retires from his job as a manager, “he settled down to become Bessie’s boss–only my mother happened not to need a boss” (37). Herman is a self-styled “hocker” (“hok” is Yiddish for “nag”) or “carer” who claims he hocks only to help friends and family to improve ( 81). “‘I never argue,’” he claims. “‘If I tell her something, I only tell it to her for her own good’” (82). He chooses his wife, his friend Bill, and later his girlfriend Lil for their passivity and tolerance for his endless nagging. But Roth says, “he had no idea just how unproductive, how maddening, even, at times, how cruel his admonishing could be” (79). Roth says Herman at times can be “blatantly thoughtless” (30), “rigorously unthinking”(36), and even demonstrates “prehistoric ignorance” (79).

Vladek criticizes his second wife Mala and sanctifies the dead Anja: “Even though everything was very tough–and it was really very tough–we were happy only to be together. . . .Not so like it is now with me and Mala. I tell you, if Anja could be alive now, it would be everything different with me. Mala makes me crazy” (Maus 67). Similarly, Herman compares his girlfriend Lil unfavorably to his deceased wife: “‘She doesn’t do anything right. . . . Mother did. Mother did everything right’” (Patrimony 193). Roth writes of Lil, “she was doomed by being imperfect never to achieve the status of Bess Roth, whom he now exalted, along with his mother, as a paragon of womanhood. With Lil, once the romantic infatuation had waned, he lived out the less censored version of what he had done with my mother” (195).

Herman is also insensitive or hostile to Philip, as when he gives away or tosses out Philip’s things and his wife’s keepsakes–including Philip’s Phi Beta Kappa key and clippings about his work–returns his gifts, and discards his tefillin (phylacteries for prayer) in a locker at the YMHA rather than give them to his son.

One reviewer sums up Herman as portrayed by Roth: “Grumpy, harsh to his girlfriend, mean, he is not an attractive protagonist” (Rosenheim). However, Herman is not totally without redeeming characteristics. Like Vladek, he has a remarkable memory and is devoted to his family. Roth gets his narrative talent from his father. As Roth writes in his autobiography The Facts, “Narrative is the form that his [Herman Roth’s] knowledge takes, and his repertoire has never been large: Family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine” (Facts 16). Like Vladek, Herman worked hard and sacrificed all his life for his family. Roth gets his work ethic from his father (Patrimony 129). In addition, like Philip, Herman is gregarious, likes to tell jokes, and loves the all-American game of baseball.

Most of all, like Vladek, Herman is a survivor, tenacious in adversity. In fact, Roth makes Herman metaphorically into a Holocaust survivor and therefore akin to Vladek. Michael Rothberg notes that the description of Herman’s brain tumor “as merciless as a blind mass of anything on the march” (136) is a “Nazi-like image” (Rothberg 663). And Patrimony’s last line, his father’s motto, “You must not forget anything” (Patrimony 238), “is a slogan often applied to the Nazi genocide” (Rothberg 664). In addition, Roth explicitly compares Herman to a Holocaust survivor when he mentions “the premature deaths of so many loved ones” and “all that he had weathered and survived without bitterness or brokenness or despair” (Patrimony 115). He says what he prizes in his father is “survivorship, survivorhood, survivalism” (125). And Philip’s Polish friend Joanna says of Herman, “‘The Europe in him is his survivorship’” (125), as if to validate Roth’s Holocaust metaphor by bringing in a European who lost her father in the war. Rothberg claims that Roth is using the Holocaust “as the dominant metaphor for collective and individual Jewish survival,” which he calls “a kind of emotional kitsch” (Rothberg 665).

A primary difference between the two memoirs is in the relationship of the son to the father. Whereas Artie remains estranged from Vladek and has no relationship with him outside of his father’s recounting his Holocaust narrative, Philip is very close to Herman. Artie respects Vladek for what Vladek has suffered and survived but finds him maddening to deal with. Philip not only respects but venerates Herman, wants to be close to him and to take care of him.

Figure 5. From Maus I (p. 101). © 1986 Art Spiegelman
Figure 6. From Maus I (p. 101). © 1986 Art Spiegelman

One can see the difference between the two memoirs by comparing similar scenes: in both, father and son must mourn together the mother’s death. In Maus, in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” Artie is already fragile when his mother dies: he had only been released three months before from the state mental hospital. He focuses on his own agony, on his shock, depression, and guilt at her suicide. “I felt confused; I felt angry; I felt numb! . . .I didn’t exactly feel like crying, but figured I should! . . ..” If Artie is emotionally numb, he portrays Vladek at the other extreme, as out of control: “My father had completely fallen apart!” “I was expected to comfort him!” (Maus 101 [Figure 5]). He is so absorbed in his own feelings that he has nothing to give him. Being placed in the position of comforting his father makes him profoundly uneasy. “The night was bad. . .My father insisted we sleep on the floor–an old Jewish custom, I guess. He held me and moaned to himself all night. I was uncomfortable. . .We were scared!” [Figure 6] When his father loses control at the funeral and clings to the coffin, screaming “ANNA,” Artie says, “It was too much–I had to leave. . .” (102) Rather than coming together in their mourning, Artie cannot relate to his father’s grief. The physical closeness to his father makes him uncomfortable, and the Jewish emotionality embarrasses him. Lest one dismiss Artie as a self-absorbed creep, consider his recent nervous breakdown and his history with his father. If he is withdrawn and critical of Vladek when his father is in pain, it is because Vladek was cold and critical with him and, as we see in the prologue, never offered him emotional comfort either, so he does not know how to give it to him.

In contrast, when Bess Roth dies, Philip gives his father Valium to help him sleep. “We took turns in the bathroom and then, in our pajamas, we lay down side by side in the bed where he had slept with my mother two nights before, the only bed in the apartment. After turning out the light, I reached out and took his hand and held it as you would the hand of a child who is frightened of the dark. He sobbed for a moment or two–then I heard the broken, heavy breathing of someone very deeply asleep, and I tuned over to try to get some rest myself” (Patrimony 99-100). The focus is not on Philip’s grief but on his father’s. Unlike Artie, Philip enjoys being physically and emotionally close to his father. In this scene, by taking Bess Roth’s place in the bed and by holding his father’s hand, he begins to assume the caregiver role he will now assume in his father’s life. Interestingly, as the father in decline turns into a needy child, Philip the son becomes not a father to him but a substitute wife–assuming his mother’s place in the bed–and a mother. As Herman later says, “‘Philip is like a mother to me’” (181).

Nevertheless, despite the differences in the respective father-son relationships, both memoirs depict a conflict “between a willful father and a relentless son” (Rubin-Dvorsky 138). As much as Roth venerates and sentimentalizes, even mothers his father, he also brutalizes him by describing in gruesome detail his physical decay. Moreover, both Artie and Philip betray the father by breaking a promise. After Vladek tells Artie about his affair with Lucia Greenberg, the woman he dumped before the war to marry Anja, he makes Artie promise not to tell about it in his book: “But such private things, I don’t want you should mention.” “Okay, okay–I promise,” swears Artie as he holds up his right hand (Maus 23). And when, after an operation, Herman loses control of his bowels and sprays shit all over Philip’s bathroom (which Roth describes in excruciating detail), he is so ashamed he makes Philip promise not to tell, and Philip promises twice: “‘I won’t tell anyone’” and “‘Nobody’” (Patrimony 173). Of course, both authors can claim to be scrupulously honest by including the promise in their texts along with the disclosed secret.

As Adrienne Rich says: “I have to claim my father, for I have my Jewishness from him . . . and . . . in order to claim him I have in a sense to expose him.” Sons must honor the father, but they are also in competition and in conflict with him and must betray him by exposing his nakedness, which Spiegelman does metaphorically and Roth does literally. As Roth says, “you clean up your father’s shit because it has to be cleaned up. . . . That was my patrimony: . . .the shit” (Patrimony 175-76). Metaphorically, Roth seems to be saying, “I had to put up with a lot of crap from my father.”

In an unconscious sense, Roth perhaps even sees himself as his father’s shit. While his father is ill, Roth has a dream in which he is “standing on a pier in a shadowy group of unescorted children who may or may not have been waiting to be evacuated.” He sees a disabled warship float into harbor, “a ghostly hulk of a ship, cleared by some catastrophe of all living things.” It is a wartime dream, reminding him of when he was twelve and “President Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage. . . .my father was the ship. And to be evacuated was physiologically just that: to be expelled, to be ejected, to be born” (234-36). He sees the dream as crystallizing “my own pain so aptly in the figure of a small, fatherless evacuee on the Newark docks, as stunned and bereft as the entire nation had once been at the passing of a heroic president” (237).

Of course, dreams have many levels and can be subject to many interpretations. One level on which Roth does not comment is his repetition of terms such as “evacuated,” “evacuee,” “expelled,” and “ejected.” The unconscious equation of excretion with giving birth is a common one on which Roth may be playing. His imagery combines death and life, excrement and birth, as if Herman’s death is also symbolically Philip’s birth.

Figure 7. From Maus II (p. 95). © 1986 Art Spiegelman

Like Roth’s, Spiegelman’s patrimony is also shit: the inconceivable human waste of the Holocaust. When Vladek in Dachau gets typhus, “At night I had to go to the toilet down. It was always full, the whole corridor, with the dead people piled there. You couldn’t go through. . . . You had to go on their heads, and this was terrible, because it was so slippery, the skin, you thought you are falling. And this was every night. So now I had typhus, and I had to go to the toilet down, and I said, “Now it’s my time. Now I will be laying like this ones and somebody will step on me!” (Maus II 95 [Figure 7]).

“‘What goes into survival isn’t always pretty,’” says Roth (Patrimony 126). At some point, you may have to make your way across the bodies of the dead. Traditional tombstone epitaphs bid the living to “tread lightly,” and yet, in writing about their fathers, both Spiegelman and Roth at times “had to go on their heads, and this was terrible. . . .” No wonder then that both authors are haunted by their dead fathers. Artie says, “I can’t believe I’m gonna be a father in a couple of months. My father’s ghost still hangs over me” (Maus II 43). Philip dreams of that “ghostly hulk of a ship.” Then, right after Herman dies, he returns to Philip in another dream, dressed in his funeral shroud, “to reproach me. He said, ‘I should have been dressed in a suit. You did the wrong thing’. . . . In the morning, I realized that he had been alluding to this book. . .” (Patrimony 237).

Cleaning up their father’s shit is the task of both Spiegelman and Roth in their memoirs. It isn’t pretty, and it exposes and betrays the father, but it’s what they have to do to survive the survivors. “He could be a pitiless realist,” writes Roth, “but I wasn’t his offspring for nothing, and I could be pretty realistic too” (Patrimony 91).


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