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Sample Essay on the Traumas of the Holocaust

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The WWII Holocaust is one of the single most striking events of the 20th century.  It inflicted a psychological wound on the world that is only beginning to heal, hindered by similar atrocities since.  Even if the damage does fully fade in time, the fascination with the Holocaust and the events surrounding it may never fade, nor should it.  Many mediums have been used to immortalize this great tragedy, and there has been no shortage of inspiration; no part of the Holocaust could be deemed insignificant.  

This sample historical essay educates about the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) inflicted on Holocaust survivors, analyzing both primary and secondary sources to depict the tragic events that took place in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

Holocaust survivors describe their life in graphic detail

For the descendants of those who survived the concentration camps, the horrors of the Holocaust live on in descendants and their families. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, tells the story of a post-war man learning his father’s story and coming face to face with all the ways it has shaped both of their lives. Through this story, the details of Marianne Hirsch’s article, “The Generation of Postmemory” are demonstrated, illuminating the way that the trauma of the Holocaust has shaped the lives of those who were born even after it ended. Spiegelman shows how inescapable the memory of the war is for both the father and son in Maus by demonstrating their innate similarities despite the son’s attempt to distance himself from the father.

The first example of interaction between Art and Vladek in the novel suggests the relationship that is to persist throughout.  In the specific example, Art was a child and had hurt himself roller skating and his friends left him behind. He complained of this to his father, it is the sort of thing that dominates a child’s entire universe while it is happening, but Vladek had no patience for this.  

He was a hard man and had only a hard answer for the boy, “Friends?  Your friends?  If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week then you could see what it is, friends!” (Speigelman, p. 5).  

This reflects the kind of situation that Art spent his entire childhood in, reflected at various points in flashbacks. It is not simply a matter of different generational values, however.

Vladek tells his pre-WWII story

When Vladek begins telling Art the story of his life, it begins before the war, in a time not terribly different from Art’s, in many ways. Even values that are commonly considered to be much looser as time has gone on were demonstrated to be fairly similar, like premarital sexual relations, as Vladek explained regarding his first serious romantic relationship.

"We were more involved. So like the youths here today” (Speigelman, p. 15).

One cannot help wondering if the pre-war Vladek would have been a more easygoing man than the one Art grew up with. Even though he spoke of this first relationship as a foolish thing because the woman, Lucia, had no money. It is also apparent that he did not have any deep feelings for her, which is why he chose Anja after meeting and promptly falling in love with her.

It is somewhat unclear if, when Vladek finally parts ways with Lucia, he is doing so because of his love of Anja or because of the money her family has to offer, or both.

“Looks aren’t everything, Lucia. It isn’t good for either of us that you keep coming up here. We have to plan for our futures” (Speigelman, p. 17).  

It was always apparent that Vladek was a pragmatic man, and a very orderly one, but the inability to make human connections seemed to come along much later. The bitterness and severity that shaped the relationship between Art and Vladek were products of the war and the PTSD that followed.

The traumas of WWII changed Vladek's life

A rapid change in Vladek’s personality is seen in the brief time he spends on the battlefield. In Vladek’s account of his time as a soldier, when the battle was just a blind hail of bullets with no enemy in sight he felt no motivation to participate.

As he put it, “Why should I kill anyone?” (Speigelman, p. 48).

Even that changes as he personally encounters the enemy, kills one, and is later captured. When they put him to work collecting bodies, he discovered the soldier he killed and the beginnings of his colder, crueler personality emerge.

“His name was Jan and I knew that I killed him. And I said to myself ‘Well, at least I did something’” (Speigelman, p. 50).  

This is not uncommon among soldiers in war. They must distance themselves and numb their emotions in order to survive.

Non-survivors can't understand Holocaust trauma

As someone who has never been in a war, it would be difficult to comment on this with much authority, but the imminent threat of death from virtually any direction and the certain knowledge that there is an army out there somewhere with every intent of killing you would have that effect on anybody. Unfortunately for Vladek, this was only the beginning of the man he would eventually be to his son.

For the survivors of the Holocaust, it was not the war that left the deepest scars, it was their increasingly horrific treatment at the hands of the occupiers. Nazi Germany inflicted every more hopelessness and desperation on the Jewish people and it took its toll. Self-preservation became the only motivation left to most of those who had to wear the Star of David, even early on when families were still allowed to live in their homes with each other.

Financial concerns stressed families

When Vladek finally made his way back home after his first stint as a prisoner of war, it was to a rapidly deteriorating society, much like America's economy after WWII. His wife’s wealthy family was doing better than most, but the money could not last forever and extra pressure seemed to be placed on Vladek since he felt like he was the only one with the sense to plan ahead. As such he treated his family like children when it came to money.  

“Of course I only said I got half what I really made. Otherwise, they wouldn’t save anything” (Speigelman, p. 77). 

He spent only what he absolutely had to and insisted on doing things for himself whenever possible. These are traits that only became more necessary as the Nazi grip tightened and they never left him. One of the most severe points of contention between Art and Vladek is this very thing, the fact that Art always felt inferior beside his father’s do-it-all attitude.

It was not only Vladek that was forced to look to his own well-being. The tactics employed against the Jewish populations living in the ghettos forced everyone to face situations with no good outcome. Vladek’s father-in-law was forced to give up his own parents after trying all he could to protect them.

“He wrote that we had to give over the grandparents. Even if they took only him away now, next they would grab his wife, and then the rest of his family” (Speigelman, p. 87).

Living in conditions like this, it is no wonder that a certain coldness would develop in many people as a kind of self-defense against losing the ones they love. Forming attachments was made a liability and a little bit more humanity was stolen by the Nazis, never to be fully restored.

Holocaust took toll on familial relationships

Vladek’s detachment from other people would inevitably affect his relationship with his second son, since he had already lost his first to the war and would eventually lose his wife.

This is seen clearly in his interactions with his second wife who laments that, “He’s more attached to things than to people” (Maus1, p. 93).  

In the scene where this comes up, Art and Mala are exploring Vladek’s study and poking through his hoarded items of seeming unimportance. Looking beyond their irritation, however, there is a kind of sorrowful desperation in the collection. Vladek is obviously not a man devoid of sentiment, he had simply transferred his emotional attachments to things that were less important, less tragic if lost, more easily replaced. 

How does PTSD affect Holocaust survivors and descendants?

These displaced emotional attachments in Vladek’s life result in a son that has never felt that attachment to his father. Their entire relationship was defined by things and actions and a competition of manliness that Art is weary of before becoming even becoming a man.

“One of the reasons 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” (Speigelman, p. 97).  

Art felt so unstable in the world created by Vladek that he had to find something to pour himself into that Vladek could not easily take away, much like Vladek had years before learned to become attached only to things that the Nazis could not so easily take away (not possessions, but the valuation of possessions, since there were always more of these while people could never be replaced).

Vladek's story not uncommon among Holocaust survivors

This recreation of conditions is a phenomenon that has affected all children of the war generation. Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, described the tradegies of war in Nazi Germany. Remarque himsekf was a soldier in WWII and wrote about the terros facing soldiers and how it changed their way of thinking. The impact of the war was so deep that it simply could not be removed from the minds and hearts of those who survived it.

“Postmemory describes the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up” (Hirsch, 106).  

While such a thing would exist in the case of every generation as parents’ experiences inform the way they raise their children, it was dramatically more intense in the case of the Holocaust survivors. Hirsch studied the way this phenomenon happened and how thoroughly it affected the post-generation.

“To grow up with such overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that precede one’s own birth or one’s consciousness is to risk having one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation” (p. 107).  

No matter how much Art wants to remove himself from the lifestyle created by Vladek, growing up in the shadow of Vladek’s life has forced the values learned during the war on Art, even though he might not fully realize why.

Graphic novel tells complete story of survivor's life

Spiegelman smoothly and masterfully demonstrates this effect in virtually every component of the interactions between father and son in Maus. As the story reveals all the events that turned Vladek into the man known to Art, it is easy to understand how such horrors could twist a person into almost anything and that Art’s father is really a lesser of many possible evils.  

It is only natural that all these factors would combine to create the semi-hostile, semi-apathetic rift between Art and Vladek since neither man has the capacity to form an emotional bond with the other, that was cauterized away but a generation of loss so profound that it affected not only those who lived it but those who followed.

Works Cited

Hirsch, Marianne. "The Generation of Postmemory." Poetics Today 29.1 (2008): 103-128. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: a survivor's tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 19861991. Print.

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