Friday, October 19, 2012

Broken Pioneers

(of a person) having given up all hope; despairing

a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new area

It was not a simple matter, recovering from her mother’s death. And Alex knew that.
            She just didn’t know it would be so hard.
            Her therapist told her to draw pictures, so Alex painted elaborate portraits of her mother laughing and humming and twirling like she did before she died.
            But it did no good.
            It was as though she was wandering through a dark, interminable tunnel, and Alex decided that she would crouch in the shadows and not let anyone see that her hands were slipping.
            The journey of recovery would be long and grim.
What will the future bring me?
That’s the question hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews asked after the collapse of the Third Reich. They had limited financial resources and few surviving family members, and some of these survivors saw the United States as the first step to a prosperous future. As a result, more than 80,000 Holocaust survivors immigrated to the United States between 1945 and 1952.
            When studying the Holocaust, people tend to focus on survivors’ lives in the ghettos and concentration camps. They are most interested in stories on how survivors pulled themselves through the Holocaust with their own wit and common sense, and how those same survivors lived a wonderful life after the Holocaust. However, these people do not realize that the Holocaust radically altered the Jews’ lifestyle and environment, which in turn changed the way they viewed the world and regarded others around them. These changes would sometimes follow the survivors throughout their lives, even after the Holocaust.
            The story of rebuilding is hard, and sometimes it hurts.

            Every day after her mother’s death, Alex came home to an empty house. The kids at school gave her sympathetic looks, and her teachers gave her A’s and B+’s even when she knew she deserved a C.
            There used to be numerous pictures of her mother, arranged on the mantle like birds on a telephone wire.
            But her father burned them.
            One morning Alex had woken up to the wispy smell of smoke that is known to fill a space the same way emptiness fills a melancholy house. She groggily walked down the stairs to find her father kneeling in front of the fireplace, slowly burning her mother’s pictures one by one.
            He said that doing that made it easier to forget.

            When writing Maus, Art Spiegelman had asked his father, Vladek, about the location of his mother’s personal journals. His mother, Anja, had committed suicide years before, and Art was unable to ask her directly about her Holocaust experience. Her journals were his only hope of finding out her story.
            Vladek simply told him, “These notebooks, and other really nice things of mother…one time I had a very bad day…and all of these things I destroyed.”
            Art, in a sudden state of shock, retorted, “God damn you! You–you murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing?”
            By destroying Anja’s journals, Vladek had demolished her memories, and thus she had died another death.

            Alex remembered how, when she was younger, her father would let her sit on his shoulders and he would show her the constellations traced in the night sky.
            Now she and her father were distant. There was tension between them; both felt it was their fault that Alex’s mother had died, and each of them wanted to apologize to the other for the part played in Alex’s mother’s death.

            Art had an unpleasant childhood. He was continually compared to his brother, Richieu, who had died in the Holocaust and whom Art had never met. A photo of his brother hung in an honored place in the Spiegelman household. As Art said, “The photo never threw tantrums or got in any kind of trouble…it was an ideal kid, and I was a pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete.”
            Since Art was so unable to relate to his father because of Vladek’s rare Holocaust experience, he and Vladek had an estranged relationship. When complaining to his wife, Fran├žoise, about the matter, he said “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 an easier life than they did.”
            This problem was reflected in the writing of his graphic novel, Maus. “I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father,” said Art. “How am I supposed to make sense out of Auschwitz?...of the Holocaust?”
            No one cooked dinner in the house anymore. Alex’s father ordered pizza every night from the local pizza shop.
            Two months after her mother’s death, Alex figured out something profound. She realized that she and her father were at opposite ends of the dark tunnel, and neither of them had a flashlight.
            Alex had never explored the realms of death before, but she was figuring it out. She and her father talked more often, and they would make dinner at home some nights. She smiled a little more often, and she was slowly becoming certain that life was starting to settle down.

            To survive the Holocaust, Vladek had been practical and resourceful. Even after World War II, Vladek would live the life of a miser despite his successful retirement and the large amount of money he had in the bank. Vladek stated in Maus that “Ever since Hitler I don’t like to throw out even a crumb.”
            One scene in the book depicts Vladek picking up wire from a trashcan to ‘save for later’. Art, embarrassed, shouts “You always pick up trash! Can’t you just buy wire?”
             Art would often question Vladek's habits and the unusual experiences he'd had with his father, from the burning of Anja's journals to Vladek's obsessive hoarding. Art realized that the horrors Vladek had seen and experienced would stay with his father until the end.
After all, the story of rebuilding is hard and painful. 

Sometimes Alex felt ancient, a thousand years older than she actually was. Sometimes Alex wished she could go back to when her mother was alive, when she was young and she felt young, too. Her mother’s death would follow her for a long time, but that was okay.
Life was looking up. 

Click here to visit the Shmoop site for Maus I and II.
Click here to visit the Wikipedia site for Maus I and II.
Click here to read an article about what happened to Jewish people after the Holocaust.
Click here to see the online exhibition titled Life After the Holocaust.
Click here to see The Lighthouse and the Whaler’s biography.
Click here to see the lyrics to “Pioneers” by The Lighthouse and the Whaler.
Click here to listen to “Pioneers” by The Lighthouse and the Whaler.

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