MAUS Summary and Analysis

Book I, Chapter 3

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Note: Maus jumps back and forth often between the past and the present. To facilitate these transitions in this summary, the Holocaust narrative is written in normal font, while all other narratives are written in italics.

Prisoner of War

Art returns again to Rego Park to visit his father. Vladek is obsessed with Art finishing everything on his plate, just as he was when Art was a boy. Anja, though, would always eventually give him something he liked. Vladek tells his son that when he was twenty-one, his own father purposefully starved him and kept him deprived of sleep so that he would fail his army physical and not have to join along with the rest of the boys his age. The plan worked, but the army told him to work out for a year and then return. Vladek begged his father not to starve him again, and the next year he joined the army. Basic training was eighteen months, and he returned every four years for another month of training.

It is 1939, and Vladek has been sent to the German front. He sees a tree that seems to be moving and fires towards its center. It is a German soldier using branches for cover. The German falls and holds up a hand in surrender, but Vladek continues to shoot until he is dead. Vladek is soon captured and made to carry the German dead and wounded. He walks over to the river, finds the man he killed, and carries him back to be buried.

The Jewish prisoners are forced to live outside in tents in the bitter autumn cold and are fed only crusts of bread, while the Polish prisoners stay inside in heated cabins and receive two meals a day. Though it is cold, Vladek goes to the river every morning to bathe so as to keep away the lice that attacked so many of his comrades. To pass the time, he does gymnastics, plays chess, and prays. Vladek wakes up one morning to find a sign requesting workers and advertising good food and accommodation. He volunteers, and when he arrives at the camp, he is given his own bed and a full day to rest. The labor is hard work, literally moving mountains to flatten the terrain, and some men are too weak or old to do it.

One night, Vladek dreams of his grandfather, who tells him that he will be released from the camp on the day of Parshas Truma, a special event in the Jewish calendar. It is also a week of particular significance to Vladek: it was during this week that he was married to Anja, and it was also the week in which Art was born. Three months later it is Parshas Truma, and the prisoners are lined up in the main courtyard. He is made to sign a release form, and he is free to go. Vladek's dream about Parshas Truma has come true. He boards a train, which takes him through occupied Poland towards Sosnowiec, but the train travels past Sosnowiec (now officially part of Germany) and into the German-controlled government of the Reich Protectorate to the east (formerly central Poland). He is finally let off in Lublin, in the heart of the Reich Protectorate.

In Lublin, Vladek is led to a camp of large tents and hears stories about the last train of prisoners that arrived at the camp, from which six hundred Jews were marched into the forest and killed. Jewish authorities in the camp have bribed the guards to release prisoners into the homes of nearby Jews, and Vladek tells them that he has a cousin in Lublin. That night, Vladek leaves his tent to go to the bathroom and a guard begins to shoot at him. Vladek runs immediately back into his tent. The next morning the cousin arrives, and Vladek is set free. A few days later, he boards a train for Sosnowiec. He does not have the proper traveling papers, but by pretending to be Polish, he enlists the help of a Polish train conductor, who hides him from the German soldiers. He arrives first at his parents' house. His mother looks ill; she will die from cancer within a few months, thereby missing the worst of the Holocaust. His father, a very religious man, has been forced by the Nazis to shave off his beard. Vladek walks him over to Anja's apartment for a tearful reunion with his wife and son.

Art's father begins complaining about his relationship with Mala, claiming that everything would be better if Anja were still alive. Mala, he says, is always trying to take his money. Art looks for his coat, and Vladek tells him that he threw it in the garbage outside and that by now the garbage men have probably taken it. "Such an old, shabby coat," he tells his son. "It's a shame my son would wear such a coat."

Analysis

The scene at the dinner table provides yet another example of how the Holocaust has affected both Vladek and Art. Vladek's insistence that his son eat everything on his plate has its origins in his Holocaust experiences: he needed to eat whatever food he acquired in order to survive. This is particularly true in Auschwitz and the other concentration camps to which he is sent (Book II). These situations left him with an extraordinary aversion to wasted resources of any kind, and the preoccupation with food is only the first example of this (see, for example, the matches in Book II, Chapter I). As we have seen before, Art was directly affected by his father's thrifty impulses and his mother's more compassionate demeanor.

Interestingly, Vladek throws away his son's coat at the end of the chapter, behavior that stands in sharp contrast to his overwhelming compulsion to save. The best explanation for this seemingly uncharacteristic behavior lies in Vladek's reasons for saving. In discussions regarding his money and last testament (see, for example, Book I, Chapter 5), it becomes clear that Vladek wishes all of his money - hundreds of thousands of dollars saved over the forty years since the Holocaust - to be left to his son. His compulsive saving, then, reflects his desire for his son to live a good and prosperous life. Vladek is therefore offended by the sight of his son wearing an old and shabby coat, and he conspires to replace it with one that he thinks is better.

Chapter 3 also elaborates on the book's discussions of race and class. When Vladek boards a train from Lublin back to Sosnowiec, he is drawn wearing the mask of a pig, signifying that he is hiding his Jewish identity by pretending to be Polish. This concept of masks will appear again throughout the novel in similar fashion, as the Nazis begin to systematically exterminate the Jews, and Vladek and Anja are forced to go into hiding. The ease with which Vladek is able to assume the identity of a non-Jewish Pole is striking, considering the extremes of the Nazi racial stereotypes, and the incident highlights the irrationality of classifying people based on race. The role of masks is expanded later on in Maus, during the meta-narrative that begins Chapter 2 of Book II, in which all characters are portrayed as humans with animal masks. In this meta-narrative, the author suggests that race and nationality are only man-made classifications and that underneath these masks, we are all more alike than we are different.

Chapter 3 also includes Vladek's first - and only - mention of the Jewish religion within the pages of the story (with the exception of the "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" comic in Chapter 5 of Book I). Up until this point, the classification of Vladek, Art, and their friends and family as "Jews" is taken for granted and made concrete through their representation as mice, but the classification of "Jewish" seems to define a set of racial and cultural factors more than anything else. The Jewish religion is rarely mentioned. Freezing and starving within the confines of the prisoner of war camp, however, Vladek prayed every day.

Also in the camp, Vladek dreams of his grandfather, who tells him that he will be released on Parshas Truma, a week of the year corresponding to a specific section of the Torah. The day of Parshas Truma assumes a special significance to Vladek for the remainder of his life. However, he does not mention his religious faith again within the pages of Maus. The only other overt reference to religion occurs in Chapter 5 within the pages of the short "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" comic. Here, Vladek is shown praying in Hebrew over the casket of his dead wife. Vladek's religion manifests itself only in times of extreme stress and peril, and does not seem to play much of a role in his daily life. It is possible that Vladek's feelings towards the Jewish religion have been deeply affected by both the Holocaust and the death of his wife.

Significantly, while Vladek's father says he is religious, Art is not. He does not know the meaning of "Parshas Truma", for example. And later on, during the "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" comic, he recites from the Tibetan Book of the Dead during his mother's funeral, rather than from the Torah. This indicates a break in the transmission of religious faith from generation to generation.