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Linda Rader Overman is so proud of her former student Natalie Grill who was a winner of the Oliver W. Evans Writing Prize in Fall 2023--Well done!!

A Comparative Analysis of Spiegelman’s Maus II and Oster’s The Stable Boy of Auschwitz It has been nearly eighty years since that decis...

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Henry Oster & Dexter Ford many thanks from Linda Rader Overman & CSUN for The Kindness of the Hangman

Once again, it is with enormous gratitude that on Thursday, March 3, 2016 at California State University, Northridge, Dr. Henry Oster & co-author Dexter Ford, of The Kindness of the Hangman gave an extraordinary talk about the crafting of Oster's memoir.  Thank you is simply not enough to show my utmost appreciation to these two amazing men for the gift they paid CSUN and my students for sharing the challenging journey they traversed in bringing Dr. Oster's story of survival to light.

My literature class was extremely honored to hear Dr. Oster and Dexter Ford discuss the process by which they created this amazing testament to survival, hope and courage. As one student notes:

Seeing Dr. Oster in person was such an incredible and humbling experience. When he was telling his tale it was like reading the book we knew everything he was telling us, but hearing it first hand from him made me realize and understand the importance of so many of the scenes especially [Kristallnacht] the "Night of the [Broken Glass]." It was so moving and powerful what he said and it was ironic that he became an optometrist to help people see clearly. I really appreciated when he said “if you have the guts to listen I’ve got the guts to talk.” When he was talking about how they never imagined things could get worse and after each setback and terrible obstacle there was another and another to the point when he was finally liberated he thought something was still going to go wrong and they would die. To live in that situation and hope and rumors to get you by seems so excruciatingly painful that Oster’s current outlook on life is inspiring in that he has this humorous and gracious attitude.---Nicole Lutes

 The Kindness of the Hangman details Oster's witnessing of the decimation and murder of his fellow Jews from Cologne, Germany by the Nazis as well as the destruction of his own family.  Oster "hid his mother from the SS in an attic in the Lodz, Poland Ghetto. He escaped a firing squad in Auschwitz. Endured a death march through the Polish winter. Formed a life-long friendship in the nightmare barracks of the Buchenwald concentration camp." At sixteen, Oster was liberated by General Patton's Third Army.

 My Writing About Literature students were tasked with writing a comparative essay about
The Kindness of the Hangman and Maus II: A Survivor's Tale And Here My Troubles Began. The idea was to let them critically assess and analyze the differences between a primary source and a secondary source each a retelling of a similar horror and time in history, which continues to defy comprehension. And sadly, as Henry Oster noted, such horrors and inhumanity have not ceased in the past and more recent continuing global conflicts of today. As another student of mine notes:

As an Armenian-American, it’s especially difficult to live in a country that refuses to acknowledge the genocide of 1.5 million of your people. America deliberately refusing to accept our history, is essentially asking us to also deny it as a fact, and to forget what happened 100 years ago. What happened to the Armenian people 100 years ago was the first genocide of the 20th century. What Hitler did to the Jews during WWII was evidence of history repeating itself, of what the Ottoman Empire did to the Armenians in 1915. ---Aleen Arslanian

Below are some of my other students' essays in response to these chilling tales of heroism, suffering, and hope:

Out of Darkness by Rebecca Starkman

When it comes to the Holocaust, everything we learn is blanketed in darkness.  This darkness encapsulates an unimaginable horror.  Since the end of World War II, survivors, witnesses, and artists have used different means in an attempt to explain the tragic events that took place.  Henry Oster’s The Kindness of the Hangman and Art Spiegelman’s Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began are based on the personal experiences endured in Nazi Europe; Oster using remembrance and Spiegelman using present tense.  The two works of creative nonfiction use varying differences in style, prose, and medium; both successfully able to bring understanding and tolerance to their readers.  

In Henry Oster’s The Kindness of the Hangman, the narrator tells a firsthand account of what happened to him as a child.  The author invites us to witness what happened.  The story begins like a fairytale: “A long time ago, I was a five-year-old German boy.  Heinz Adolf Oster” (9).  It’s a familiar form of story-telling that we can all connect to.  However, it quickly becomes a nightmare.  Even losing his citizenship is hard to imagine, and it ultimately becomes the lesser of what he endures.  Oster explains that the Nuremberg laws, “revoked all Jews’ German citizenship” (28).  The facts are delivered with poignancy, helping the reader connect and process the information given.  
Art Spiegelman redefines the literary depth of the comic book genre.  He takes a subject matter and story that is hard to watch, listen to, read about, or perceive and makes it accessible to an entirely untapped demographic.  Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, offers its readers a new approach to connect with an unimaginable, horrifying piece of nonfiction.  We connect to the graphic novel via the use of the present tense.  The reader is invited to travel through multiple and changing time periods.  No matter what part of history we are reliving, it’s told in the present.  We become “unstuck in time,” much like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V.  Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, travels back in time to Dresden in 1945, where he relives his time as a prisoner of war.  In many ways, we are all the Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse V and the Art of Maus II.  While that helps the reader become part of the story, it also simultaneously allows for detachment.  Traveling through time is not realistic.  This science fiction element relieves some of the weight distributed by such a heavy story.  Between Vladek’s dwindling health and straining relationship with Art, the tension continuously builds as we travel through the tale. Similar to Henry Oster’s work, in Maus II, the process of connecting also aligns with being allowed to detach.
Coauthor of The Kindness of the Hangman, Dexter Ford, offers historical facts to help the reader connect and better understand the rest of the world’s involvement during World War II.  America has a significant role in how it affects the birth of Nazi Germany.  Eugenics laws bring the war home, so to speak.  Oster and Ford explain:

In many countries, including Britain and the United States, the Eugenics movement advanced the idea that it was the right and responsibility of governments to prevent the “unfit” – pretty much anybody who didn’t look or act like the people in power – from reproducing (16).

The historic facts help us understand the powerful emotions that Oster’s memoir conveys.
Spiegelman’s character, Art, invites us to attempt to understand what it’s like to be the child of a Holocaust survivor.  His guilt resounds through his retelling.  A glimpse into his conversations with Francoise helps us recognize this theme.  He confesses: “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 had an easier life than they did” (16.2A).  Art is desperately trying to connect and relate to what his parents went through.  As readers, we are attempting to do the same thing.  Even more difficult than processing the horror of the story is the task of accepting that what we’re reading is fact, not fiction.  It represents an even bigger blow to our psyche.  We’re all programmed to ask ourselves: “How could this happen?”  Knowing that Art is grappling with the same internal conflict adds a form of intimacy to the narrative.  We aren’t coping alone.  As the creator, he goes on to ask himself: “Sigh.  I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams” (16.3A).  He is acknowledging his own fallibility in attempting to recreate something he can never wholly understand.  Further, using a medium previously marketed namely toward children and teenage boys can be construed as making light of a historical horror that shouldn’t be taken with any lightness.  In bringing his father’s memories of the Holocaust out of the deepest darkness, a new audience is able to see it slightly more.

Henry Oster allows us to glimpse through a window into his darkest fears, his regret, his sadness, and his drive to survive.  The intimacy offers a way to get close to what we are reading.  He tells us how he feels physically and mentally: “When you are that scared, exhausted and assaulted, your brain just tends to shut down, to go into survival mode” (72).  Oster helps us understand how he made it as far as he did.  This is the closest we can get to what he went through.

As readers, being a part of the action draws us in.  In the beginning, Art and Francoise are discussing the writing of Maus II.  We aren’t just given an invitation to be a part of the present, we are experiencing the process of writing.  Art says: “I’ve got it!...Panel one: My father is on his exercycle…” (12.1A).  He offers a piece of the writing process to the reader.  We can see his creative wheels turning on the page.  The inner turmoil he faces while struggling to successfully execute his work is revealed.  Offering a window into how he grappled with the process of creating his art is one attempt to bring the reader closer to the work.  We become a part of this process.
The Kindness of the Hangman offers no buffer for the information being received.  It has to be told as a story from the past.  As readers, we cannot be invited to partake as if it is occurring while we experience it.  We can’t be in it; it is too overwhelming and thus couldn’t be processed.  Dr. Oster offers us a way in through his powerful, albeit devastating feeling being recollected.  We are not feeling it with him, but we are feeling his remembering.  This is remarkably apparent as he recounts the one memory he has never told before.  He watches a man die in front of him and awaits his own death: “He fell back on top of me, and I felt a pain in my knee, and then I was under a pile of thrashing, heaving, dying men” (96).  If we were feeling this with him, the reaction would be one continuous, long scream.  The distance is needed to process the emotion.  

In Maus II, Spiegelman creates a different kind of detachment.  Art has to process Vladek’s impossible life story just as we do.  The Holocaust is an impossible piece of history to imagine.  In depicting the events, as Vladek tells them, using mice and other animals to represent people and scenes, Spiegelman gives us a way to process what we’re being told.  It makes everything easier to take in.  We can open our minds with more ease and accept what’s being told.  This is seen in the image of Art sitting atop the massive pile of the dead Jewish bodies in the concentration camps (41.3A).  By depicting what he’s told as sketched dead mice, he’s able to share how he copes.  Even the image of dead mice is hard to accept.  He sits on top of them as he grapples with accepting all of the success and fame he’s earned from the thousands of dead mice that haunt him.  Art literally cowers behind a mask of guilt and sadness, and questions his success.  He recounts his success due in part to his father’s hell: “At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out.  I’ve gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don’t wanna.)  In May 1968 my mother killed herself.  (She left no note.)” (41.3A).  Art feels like he is making money off of his mother’s suicide. The guilt of not being able to understand rivals how he feels about profiting off of what his parents endured.  The difficulty of telling someone else’s story is revealed as Art tells some of his own. 

The Kindness of the Hangman is a first person account via a primary source, whereas Maus II uses dialogue between characters combined with the used of comic strip panels, to recount the events delivered by a secondary source.  Two strikingly different mediums are used to bring understanding to a hell we never witnessed.  The medium is a crucial catalyst for how this information is received.  Both works offer varying methods to help the reader connect and detach in order to understand and process the personal stories we are invited to experience.

Works Cited:
Oster, Henry, and Dexter Ford. The Kindness of the Hangman. Manhattan Beach: Higgins Bay
Press, 2014. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1991. Print.


Of Maus and Man by Jake R. Rarick

Out from the black smoke of the death camp crematoriums and miasmic dust of unceremonious mass graves, an immutable ghost would forever haunt the souls of witnesses and survivors, a lingering presence of guilt, loss, and despair. At the end of the second great war, the genocide of the Jews marked a grim awakening in the modern world — recognition that there are no limits as to the evil of man. After such unimaginable horror and degradation, as victims began to rebuild their broken lives, many were unable to articulate their experiences or properly express their memories — a fact which further establishes personal accounts of the Holocaust to be especially invaluable and undeniably profound. Two such compelling works are the autobiography, The Kindness of the Hangman by Henry Oster, and the graphic memoir, Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman, which both employ a variety of elements to poignantly and eloquently communicate the importance of humor, determination, and hope in even the darkest of times. Although these unique pieces differ in structure and style, Oster utilizing direct language through his own uninterrupted perspective while Spiegelman presents a nonlinear interpretation of his father, both authors maintain a certain amount of levity so as to cushion their words for the sake of irony, accessibility, and overall effect.  

To begin, The Kindness of the Hangman is the tragic yet inspirational story of Henry Oster, a survivor of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp, and the only remaining Jew from his hometown of Cologne, Germany. Transcribed by writer Dexter Ford, the book is an unaltered account of the life of Dr. Henry Oster, of his experience as a young prisoner of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. With uncluttered and straightforward language, Oster candidly and thoughtfully guides the reader through his youth as a Jew in Nazi Germany — a journey of inconceivable hardship, directly relayed by the very man who lived it. For example, as he describes only his own history and observations, his narrative is recognizably devoid of dialogue, save for the occasional paraphrase. In one instance, as Oster and a group of fellow boys are loaded into trucks toward Auschwitz, he depicts a scattered assortment of undefined voices: “‘Where are we going?’ ‘Are they going to put us to work?’ ‘Are they going to gas us all?’ ‘Shoot us?’” (Oster 80). Here, much is delegated to the imagination of the reader, his or her own perception of the event, which cleverly allows for an air of palpable confusion and haze, the mess of outside voices acting as a detached surrogate for the speaker’s own deliberation and concerns. Moreover, this singular point of view lends itself to a patent sense of loneliness within the text, unassuaged by the usual fulfillment of drama between characters sharing a distinct scene; in its confinement to the mind and memory of its author, the account projects the isolation and uncertainty of an existence where hatred and distrust consume the essence of many men. Therefore, without the distraction of speculative exposition or the burden of wrangling with multiple characters and their viewpoints, The Kindness of the Hangman is free to maintain a stable connection with the reader — intimate, undemanding, and enlightening, exposing the individual emotion and knowledge of an individual man. This clear and unchanging point of view contrasts with that of Maus II, wherein the author chronicles the survival and endurance of his late father.

Interpreting multiple perspectives within his memoir, Spiegelman is able to examine his relationship with his father while simultaneously analyzing himself as an artist. This less direct connection to the Holocaust, conjoined with the fact that Spiegelman portrays Jewish prisoners as anthropomorphic mice, somewhat hinders the work from being as attached and emotionally genuine as the firsthand narration of Oster. Nevertheless, the dark comic book, Maus II, is a complex interweaving of father and son, through which the author can transition from alternate points of view in a blurring of time and space. At a moment in the story where Spiegelman questions his own identity and his authority to display his father in such a distinct, cartoonish fashion, he draws himself as a child, struggling to understand the hell through which his father, Vladek, had endured in Auschwitz. In speaking to his psychiatrist, he notes, “Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz. I can’t visualize it clearly, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like” (46, 1A). Explaining the experiential disconnect between his subject, the macabre drawings and authentic accents in dialogue represent an inability to decipher his father in a manner that fairly recreates his life through words and graphics. Indeed, Spiegelman broods on this throughout the memoir, wrestling diligently to understand the truth of the Holocaust, to do his father justice in his representation. His dual perspectives offer the reader the relatable cause of comprehending and empathizing with the immense suffering of a victim like Vladek, an accessible form that ties together profoundly separate worlds. Contrary to the typical structures of a historical narrative, Spiegelman approaches a personal and ambiguous psychology, tackling an abstract sense of guilt along with the complexity of the writing process itself — a cogent amalgamation of enthralling, cinematic scenes that perform as a noticeably cathartic exercise for the author. Overall, the multiple perspectives of the book provide for a mosaic of observation that form together to explain the complex relationship between a father and son, the hardship of a Holocaust survivor, and the hurdles in discussing either.  

Though the tales of Maus II and Kindness of the Hangman differ substantially in structure and perspective, both discuss the sadistic nature of the Nazis while still maintaining a life affirming levity. In fact, Spiegelman and Oster show an optimistic sense of humor despite and due to the dehumanization and dread of the past. With Spiegelman’s work, for instance, cartoon mice take the place of Jews while the Nazis are represented as cats; playing off a symbolic cat and mouse dynamic, along with a jab at the dehumanization of the Jews during the Holocaust, the comic adds a sinister yet somewhat fantastical, removed tone. As the book opens, a joking Spiegelman is spending his summer with his wife, Francoise — a scene of joy and humor in which they joke and discuss how he should draw her: as a mouse or frog, she being both French and Jewish (Spiegelman 11). By beginning such a nightmarish tale with a loving and lighthearted picnic conversation, Spiegelman eases the reader into his life. Similarly, Oster begins his story with a patient description of his childhood, that his “was a comfortable, normal life” while joking about what clothes he wore (Oster 9-10). In these introductions, both authors contrast moments of peace with imminent doom; these scenes and images add to the accessibility of each piece, resisting any inclination to overwhelm the reader by directly burying their text in bitter lamentation or concern for humanity. Besides this, both authors maintain their humor throughout each tale. Later in Maus II, Spiegelman draws himself sitting at his desk, atop a mangled pile of corpses, juxtaposed with butting reporters who reduce him to the size of a child (42, top). These symbols, mixed with a perturbed irony, challenge his feelings of guilt by coating them in a dark, shocking humor. Meanwhile, Oster is less bold in his approach than is Spiegelman, who adds a liveliness and adorability through his cartoons. As Oster speaks of his past, his simple and conversational tone makes his work just as accessible as Spiegelman’s comic book. The chapter titles, for example, are mostly sarcastic or playfully euphemistic considering the material within them. Rock and roll song titles sneak their way into a few of the chapters, while chapter twelve is cleverly titled, “The Calculus of Soup” (51). Though most of his humor is evidently subtle but striking, these titles keep things light, like interwoven signposts that act as amusing distractions for the reader. In the end, both stories incorporate playful language, without detracting from their messages. As these tales prove, humor is a powerful weapon against tragedy, something that allows for readers to access an important work that they might not otherwise have been able to stomach or understand. 

Overall, though Oster and Spiegelman utilize similar methods to tell their woeful histories of mass extermination, Maus II is concerned more with an interpretation of character while The Kindness of the Hangman is most focused on plot, unfiltered and authentically conversational in tone. Eloquently, both are tales that express potent historical truth and purpose, asking solemnly that the reader not forget the lessons within. The differing perspectives provided by both stories are crucial for humanity’s understanding of the Holocaust, their diversity a representation of the diversity of people as a whole.

Works Cited:
Oster, Henry, and Dexter Ford. The Kindness of the Hangman. Manhattan Beach, CA: Higgins        Bay Press. 2014. Print.  
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon    Books. 1991. Print.


The Burden of Survival: A Comparative Thematic Analysis of Maus vol. II (1991) and The Kindness of the Hangman (2014)by Antonio Manriquez

The graphic memoir Maus vol. II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991) by Art Spiegelman and the memoir The Kindness of the Hangman (2014) by Henry Oster and Dexter Ford share in common the accounts of male survivors of the Holocaust, along with the weight, burden, and obligations of its storytellers to accurately represent experiences that only a small percentage of those who suffered as victims survived. Both stories share specific detailed depictions of the brutality of the protagonists’ capturers, the relentless struggle for their survival, and their resolute ability to retain a sense of hope. Both texts are transparent about the source of the stories coming from survivors who have delivered their stories decades after the incidents have taken place. The reasons for and importance of these stories to be told are left either unspoken, subtly mentioned, or left to be deduced only by the fact that they exist.Spiegelman, in his graphic self-characterization, is asked by a reporter about what message he intended his audience to receive from the first volume. He answers, “a message? I dunno…” (Spiegelman 202.2A). Oster and Ford do not reveal any conflict of guilt with Dr. Oster’s survival or the purpose of the retelling of the story. Aside from the fact, learned from external sources, that he donates a great deal of time telling his story at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California, a thematic element is made obvious through the use of historical context and comparative recent events. Dr. Oster and Mr. Ford have created their text to inform and educate readers of the catalyst of the human atrocities so that a continued effort to make the world more peaceful has another resource to support it. Their interest is not solely with the survival of the Jewish people, but with the tolerance and survival of all people, as argued in the statement,
“Everything would be great”, they always seem to say. “If it wasn’t for ‘them’”. ‘Them’ can be anyone. Blacks. Jews. Latinos. The Irish. The Italians. Muslims. Immigrants. People who go to college. People who don’t go to college. Elitists. Welfare recipients. Gays. Union Workers. Even Women. Anybody who is not “us”. (Oster and Ford 15)
Frustrated by a combination of his inability to handle the press, his inability to express the purpose of writing the text, and his internal conflict with multiple forms of guilt, Spiegelman seeks help from his therapist, Pavel who, like his father, is also a Holocaust survivor. In a statement that challenges his patient, Pavel says, “look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed… Maybe they need a newer, bigger, Holocaust” (Spiegelman 205.2B). If Spiegelman, struggling with his writer’s block, was to accept this idea as more than a philosophical probing, the text would not exist. Spiegelman, the character is not deterred from his goal of completing the second volume. This hyperbolic exchange between him and Pavel is successful in guiding Spiegelman to channel the energy of his guilt and focus on the continuation of his work.

Dr. Oster demonstrates a similar dichotomy that Spiegelman, in the text, and his father Vladek, in the story, have of unrelenting hopefulness despite seemingly impossible odds to escape doom and destruction. Vladek “helped a Frenchman to also organize a shirt so we could both got always soup” (254.3C), and earlier helps his close friend Mandelbaum with a spoon, new shoes and a belt, bringing Vladek to admit “He was so happy, he was crying… and I started also crying with him” (Spiegelman 194.3B). Yet he advises his wife, Anja, “I BEG you Anja—keep yourself strong. For my sake” (Spiegelman 216.3A) and shows a surprising prejudice towards a black hitchhiker that brings Spiegelman to burst out, “That’s OUTRAGEOUS! How can you of all people be such a racist! You talk about blacks the way Nazis talked about the Jews!” (259.3A). Oster demonstrates the dichotomy by at once going back on a promise to never set foot in Germany again, by visiting his hometown of Cologne “in the summer and fall of 2011 — the 70th anniversary of the deportations from Cologne to Lodz” (Oster and Ford 29) and gave a speech in German, a language he had not spoken in 70 years, and delivering a message that contains both a yearning of hope, but a pessimistic and practical outlook. “When these horrible events took place, the world failed to understand how seemingly civilized and cultured people could allow themselves to be so willingly and tragically misled. We try very hard, but still fail to understand this today. And we can be sure that we will fail to understand it in the eternal future” (Oster and Ford 212).

The two extremes of fighting through hopelessness and a guilty burden leading to the sharing of an important message for the sake of a better world lead me in my analysis to search for a single unifying element that caused Dr. Oster and Vladek to have what was necessary to survive, but not only survive, but to hesitate to remain silent and bury the dark memories of their pasts. I am not satisfied with the answer merely being luck. It must be more. I argue that it was the rarest speck of human kindness that Dr. Oster was the recipient of, which the text was titled after, bread from two brothers who had the duty to hang prisoners in the Ghetto. Oster is able to justify it by recalling, “I guess they gave it to us to ease their consciences a little bit” (Oster and Ford 65).
In Maus, Vladek builds rapports with those he is able to make deals and trade with. He gives lessons to a kapo, who has the foresight to learn English and explains, “Now the Allies are bombing the Reich. If they win this war, it will be worth something to know English” (Spiegelman 192 bottom). In return for those lessons, Vladek is given access to rich food and clean clothing. He is later able to use his skills to trade the service of shoe repair for favors. These are not enough to convince me that they are the catalyst for an unrelenting belief that there is a hopeful goodness that has the power to save lives. It is earlier in the story as Vladek arrives in Auschwitz, crumpled on the floor in despair, he is treated to the kindness of a Polish priest who eases his mind by reading the tattooed numbers on his arm as though they were a fortune in his palm or tarot cards. Finding connections relating to Valdek’s faith, the priest concludes his reading with “I can’t know if I’ll survive this hell, but I’m certain you’ll come through all this alive!” (188.4A).

Throughout the time I have spent in study and analysis of these two texts, there has been a connection to the current state of American society, particularly in the political arena with the 2016 presidential election. It was Dr. Oster in a phone interview presented by a classmate whom I heard first make the comparison of Republican candidate Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I have been for almost six months prior to that, getting heavily invested in learning more about how I could make a difference to improve my community and society by understanding more about politics and government. I have been very much inspired by the message of Democratic candidate Senator Bernard Sanders, who has had a history of running, what I did not think existed, a clean campaign. The lack of negativity and the reliance on the goodness of humanity to create or steer the federal government to be more responsible for the needs of the weakest members of our society sincerely inspires me to be a kinder, happier person. The texts I have analyzed share another connection to American government and policies, beyond the events Dr. Oster and Mr. Ford intersperse in their text, is the part of Senator Sanders’ family history that I now believe have shaped who he is and the message he spreads. Senator Sanders’ father’s family had all been killed in the Holocaust. I am led to believe, as stated in my arguments above, that those who have been given the kindness of a priest, a hangman, or the chance of survival, feel a burden of that survival to do everything in their power, beyond all rational logic and forces against their goals, to educate, demonstrate, and illustrate what humanity is capable of, both good and bad. Fueled by depression, guilt, nightmares, and cultural obligation, Dr. Henry Oster, Art Spiegelman, and Bernard Sanders use the weight of the burden of survival to make this world a better place.

Works Cited:
Oster, Henry, and Dexter Ford. The Kindness of the Hangman. Manhattan Beach, CA: Higgins        Bay Press. 2014. Print.  
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon    Books. 1991. Print.


Luck and Resources: Vladek Spiegelman and Henry Oster’s Survival of Auschwitz 
by Dan Sellery

Art Spiegelman's graphic memoir Maus II: A Survivors Tale and Henry Oster’s The Kindness of the Hangman are harrowing stories of Holocaust survival. Speigelman recreates his father, Vladek’s, experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald through animation and dialogue, while Henry (with the help of Dexter Ford) recounts through more traditional prose his childhood as a German Jew throughout Hitler’s reign of terror, including his time in the same infamous concentration camps. Though both men endure the Holocaust in different ways and under different circumstances, both Vladek Spiegelman and Henry Oster survive the horror by utilizing a distinct combination of remarkable resourcefulness and abundant luck. Ordinarily, I would only refer Vladek and Henry by their last names, but in order to maintain consistency and avoid confusion with the two Spiegelmans, I refer to them by their first names throughout. 

Opportunistic is a strange word to use when referring to the Holocaust. Circumstances were far from opportune for Jewish prisoners of the Nazi Reich, but within the context of such utter hell, Vladek Spiegelman and Henry Oster make the most of what little opportunity they have. With so little food given to prisoners, obtaining nourishment is crucial to the survival effort. Vladek explains about meals at Auschwitz that One time a day they gave a soup from turnips. To stand near the first of the line was no good. You got only water…Near the end was better—solid things to the bottom floated. But too far to the end it was also no good…because many times it could be no soup anymore” (Spiegelman, 49.2A,B). Early in his imprisonment, Vladek observed the value of something as simple as a soup line. After observing the nature of being fed, he strategically places himself in a position to get the most calories possible from the rare and meager meals.

By the time Henry arrives at Auschwitz, he’d been under Nazi control for years and had mastered many of the smaller details, such as what he calls “the calculous of soup” (51). Henry gives an almost identical account to Vladek’s, but from the Lodz ghetto years earlier. He illustrates that, “you didn’t want to be at the front of the line, because all the good parts of the soup would settle to the bottom, and all you would get would be liquid. And you didn’t want to be at the end of the line, because there was no guarantee that if this can ran out, there would be another” (Oster and Ford 52). Of the many parallels in each text, this is the most similar. Above all, their accounts of the soup demonstrate the savviness of both survivors. They employ tremendous sensibilities for observation and strategy. The agony of slow starvation is incomprehensible for those of us that have never experienced it, but the necessity of every extra calorie is apparent through the fact that both men made it out of Auschwitz alive.

Another resource both Vladek and Henry use to their advantage is their knowledge of languages. Their simple ability to communicate with the right people at the right times saves them from certain extermination. Vladek, the older of the two, had developed a very astute business acumen as well. Combining those two skills, he manages to improve his overall conditions at Auschwitz on several occasions. The Polish capo of his bunk happened to want to learn English, and he is one of the few prisoners that speaks Polish and English. Seizing this chance to improve his situation proves extremely fruitful. Vladek describes these conditions noting that, “I had it still happy there. For me it was not yet the end. Newcomers were afraid from me. I looked like a big shot and the capo kept me close” (Spiegelman, 35.3). He was better fed and better dressed than the rest of the Jewish prisoners. Utilizing his knowledge of the English and Polish languages not only preserves his life, but improves it.

Likewise, Henry is in Birkenau wasting his days away with a looming death seeming inevitable. Yet, Henry evades the inevitable by uncharacteristically volunteering during a selection by yelling out that he speaks German. Though being a German-speaking Jew made Henry few friends among the Nazis or the Polish Jews, his ability to communicate with his evil captors curries enough favor with them to save him from Birkenau. After being selected to work in the stables at Auschwitz I, Henry describes that, “after all these days and nights sleeping with my fellow prisoners like rats, the warm smell of hay and horse urine and manure actually felt reassuring. It smelled rich. It smelled more like life than death” (82). Hay and horse droppings equate to life. As dire as that sounds, it means survival for Henry. At the very least, it’s an improvement upon the overpowering stench of burning bodies throughout the rest of the camp. For Henry, speaking German may very well have been the difference between life and death. 

Each survivor’s ability to speak life-saving languages is a combination of luck and resourcefulness. They’re fortunate to be in situations that require those skills and they’re equally lucky that nobody else with those skills takes their places. I’m certain many prisoners that spoke German, Polish, Yiddish, English, French, or whatever else, weren’t able to employ it for their self-preservation. Last words were uttered by thousands of people in dozens of languages at Auschwitz, but to no avail. Perhaps, many that didn’t make it, didn’t have the courage necessary to step forth when opportunities were presented. Calculated risks and making the exact right moves at the exact right times are paramount to living.

Frugality is another strange term to use when referring to the Holocaust. When people have nothing, how can they be frugal with it? Somehow, both Vladek and Henry find a way. Shortly after discussing the soup strategy, Vladek reveals that, “one time each day they gave to us a small bread, crunchy like glass. The flour they mixed with sawdust together—we got one little brick of this what had to last the full day. Most gobbled it right away, but I always saved a half for later” (Spiegelman 49.3). Experiencing the excruciating hunger that the Jews faced in Auschwitz, saving food for later was undoubtedly a difficult and painful thing to do. Yet, somehow, Vladek’s instinct to survive told him to ration what little food he received. 

Living and dying came down to such minuscule amounts. Henry largely describes the advantages of working in the stables in terms of food. Working with the horses means having access to the smallest of scraps. Consuming those scraps means risking life, but when death seems inevitable, gaining any little advantage is essential. Henry hides small carrots and anything else he can get his hands on to save for later eating. Henry articulates the direness of his situation, recounting that “it was basically a competition between me and the horse. You can’t eat the clover flowers. But the green clover leaves would give us just a little more nourishment, nourishment the others couldn’t get. That’s how we survived, myself and the other stable boys” (Oster and Ford 87). Again, resourcefulness and luck are the major factors in survival. Henry and the other stable boys have the gumption and smarts to sneak and hide small bits of food, knowing the smallest amounts might be the difference between life and death, but they also had the luck of being in a position to acquire those extra little bits of life-granting food.

There’s no shortage of adjectives to describe Vladek and Henry’s survival of Auschwitz—miraculous, remarkable, incredible, unconscionable, unfathomable—the list goes on. As great a role as resourcefulness plays, much of their survival hinged on luck alone. Surrounded by indiscriminate killing, no amount of desperation or hard work can preserve life on its own. Henry notes of the Nazis on several occasions that “they will shoot first and ask questions later” (Oster and Ford 89). This is the most difficult part of either story for me to reconcile. In no way do I wish to diminish the accomplishment of survival that either man achieved. Their strength is something unquantifiable that I can never dream of, and hopefully never have to. That said, neither man makes it out of Auschwitz without ample luck on their side. Sometimes it was in conjunction with their abilities, and other times it was as simple as the SS pointing a stick to the left or the right.

Vladek poignantly states that “if you want to live, it’s good to be friendly” (Spiegelman 62.2A). While I agree whole-heartedly, I must respond by saying it’s better to be lucky. If Vladek’s first capo didn’t care about learning English, there’s a very real possibility that he only leaves Auschwitz through the crematoria. He survives numerous work and death selections under the protection of that capo. Likewise, Henry escapes death by divine intervention, or rather, (seeing as how neither of us believe in a God willing to allow something like the Holocaust to happen) amazing circumstances of good fortune. Luck is another terrible concept to try to examine within the context of the Holocaust. Being a Jew in Germany during the 1930s is hardly lucky. Losing one’s entire family to frenzied racism via starvation, bullets, and gas chambers is quite the opposite of lucky. Yet, somehow, luck plays a key role in Henry’s survival. The SS points right instead of left. Dozens of people stand in front of him taking bullets while he manages to escape a massacre. He stands at the front of a train car while those behind him are strafed by allied aircraft fire. We would be reading someone else’s story if any of a number of instances had played out even a little bit differently.

The unquantifiable nature of luck and resourcefulness is the most difficult part of drawing conclusions from these two stories. Being lucky but not resourceful results in death. Being resourceful but not lucky results in death. Dealing with genocide on such a large scale leaves little room for anything beyond acknowledgment and heartbreak. Though I can point to Vladek and Henry as success stories—proof that the Nazi ideology lost—I struggle to cope with the utter devastation that surrounded them. Thanks to their good fortune and incredible resourcefulness, we have the good fortune of being able to know their stories and share them in the hope that what they endured never happens again. The sad truth, however, is that it has happened again. It’s happening right now and will continue to happen until we find a way to limit suffering and end hatred.

 Works Cited:
Oster, Henry, and Dexter Ford. The Kindness of the Hangman. Manhattan Beach: Higgins Bay            Press. 2014. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon Books. 1991. Print.