World War II and the Holocaust of the Jews have been a significant part of my life. I have toured Washington DC’s Holocaust museum several times, spent a day at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and read several books on the subject. My grandfather was an Army Corps engineer, building bridges across Europe to provide supply lines to the Allies as they closed in on Germany toward the end of the war. Nonetheless, reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Maus II was a powerful experience. It was a painful reminder of an immensely important part of 20th century history. What I found unique, however, was the dialectic present throughout the graphic novels—the juxtaposition of Vladek’s experiences at the hands of the Germans (and Poles) on the one hand, and the way these experiences deeply shaped and distorted the elder Vladek as we get to know him at the end of his life.
The Cost of Grasping for Rights
The point seems to be that in order to survive something so horrible, one must die many deaths—Vladek indeed survived, but at great cost to himself and those dear to him. His son suffered from mental illness, his wife committed suicide, his second wife felt trapped by him, and repeatedly sought to leave. The patterns cultivated by a relentless drive to survive had so deeply shaped him as to make him a nearly intolerable human being. The first book ends with the harsh accusation of his son: “Murderer!”
But isn’t “survival” a right? Surely it must have an intimate connection to our dearly held inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How could the relentless affirmation of the inalienable right to life be so destructive? A right, it turns out, is a precious thing. Inalienable though it may be, this does not protect it from countless horrific violations, as the story of Vladek Spiegelman well attests. But clinging to these rights is no alternative—a lonely high-school girl clinging to a friend, a man clutching a flower in a sudden gust of wind, a toddler grasping a paper airplane to bring it to his father: life is full of well-meant actions that destroy something precious in an attempt to safeguard and seize it, and rights are precisely one of these things. They are precious, but delicate. Grasping, seizing and clinging to them destroys precisely that which we seek to save.
What recourse do we have, then, when these rights are threatened? The logic of it all seems to be that what I destroy by clinging to myself, I nurture by fighting for my neighbor. My desperate clutching to life may so distort my soul as to make me intolerable to my dearest loved ones (so runs Art Spiegelman’s argument). But my desperate defense of the life (and right to life) of others may not run the same risk. What I can only crush by grabbing, I may nurture and strengthen by giving to others. And this is precisely the logic of Christ’s atonement: what the eternal Son would not grasp for himself, he secured for others (Phil. 2:5-11). We too are called to have the same frame of mind, the same pattern of grasping for others what we must not, cannot, grasp for ourselves.
Fighting for the Rights of Others
What does this look like? We need only to look at Art Spiegelman’s work for painful evidence of a deadly clinging to rights. Our calling is a different one. We are to fight for the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to vote for others, not ourselves. Only as we fight for the rights of our neighbors and especially our enemies will we be truly human survivors of these wars, filled with grace and charity as we someday look back upon the struggles we have come through, whether they be petty interpersonal conflicts, or armed wars on a global scale.