In my abbreviated posts on Krik? Krak! I noted the absurdity, for lack of a better word, of the prevalence of normalcy - particularly normal, everyday problems - in the face of something as violent, tragic and life-altering as civil war or genocide. In Maus II, I saw the same thing - the issues of normal life cropping up amongst the stories of horror during the Holocaust. My pediatrician growing up was an elderly woman named Anna Sandberg who eventually became a kind of grandparent stand-in as mine were far off in Minnesota. Always clad in nice dresses, well-coiffed and perfectly made up, Dr. Sandberg had a certain presence about her - almost as if she were a figure from the high society of a different time ago. She had a thick Austrian accent, but she never told us where she was from or anything about her family, no matter how close to her we grew. Before she passed away, she had to trade in her pretty dresses for hospital garb and we noticed a tattoo on her lower arm. Only at her wake did we find out from her best friend that they had escaped Auschwitz together. She shared an anecdote with us. Young Anna Sandberg had brought one pretty blue dress with her when they dragged her and her father to the concentration camp. It was her pride and joy, and she managed to hold onto it and wear it for the first few weeks at the camp. After hanging it to dry one day, she found someone had stolen it. As the appel was being called, she stood shivering in her barracks as her friends pleaded with her to swallow her pride and go out to be counted naked. If she didn't, she would surely be killed. She refused - I can't remember exactly what she told them, but the gist was that even after being treated as vermin, she still deserved a little dignity. By some miracle, they didn't notice her absence and she went on to survive, escape, and later be one of very few women at the time to earn a medical degree.
I've told this story many times, mostly for its shock value and to show how incredibly brave Dr. Sandberg was. I think of it now, though, and realize that it has connotations besides bravery. When Vladek mentions cigarettes being used as a form of payment, Art is shocked ("They issued a luxury like that?") (p. 224) Before that, Vladek discusses the issue of ill-fitting clothes: something obviously problematic but which I would not have even considered to have been an issue when every moment was a life-or-death situation. On the other hand, I saw how the situation was also reversed: things that, in everyday life would have been abhorrent or a cause for mourning are noted matter-of-factly. After telling Art about a friend or relative, Vladek off-handedly mentions that they were killed, or that he never sam them again, and moves on with his story. Both of these types of situations say something about the nature of war or genocide. The emotional normalcy of regular life vanishes - people are killed and there is no grief - and regular life tries to exist within the confines of tragedy, whether it is the dignity of a donning nice dress or the promise of a "luxurious" three cigarettes.
As the child of two anti-tattoo sticklers (lord knows why, after all they are ex-hippie artists/poets), I must say that the most interesting and exciting thing I learned in this class was encompassed by the Tattooing section - from its history in Oceania to seeing everyone's hypothetical tattoos chalked on the board. When we discussed our reactions upon seeing a tattooed person, I didn't know what to say. I had always been somewhat judgmental, unless the tattoo was something which I considered artistically beautiful, but learning more about tattooing and especially tatau changed my outlook, I think for the better. I may not have dropped by judgments completely, but it is really tattoo as a form of travel that struck me - even if it's a poorly drawn Disney character or a heart with "Mom" written inside, that tattoo (and that person) has a story, and with my new outlook, I think I'd like to hear it.