Book Review

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History/Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began

  • Author: Art Spiegelman
  • Genre: Graphic Novel, Holocaust Memoir
  • Publication Date: August 12, 1986/November 5, 1991
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books
  • Series: Maus #1 & #2

CONTENT WARNING: antisemitism, suicide, depression, death, genocide, violence, death of children, racism

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Maus is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist who tries to come to terms with his father, his father’s terrifying story, and History itself. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), succeeds perfectly in shocking us out of any lingering sense of familiarity with the events described, approaching, as it does, the unspeakable through the diminutive. 

Moving back and forth from Poland to Rego Park, New York, Maus tells two powerful stories: The first is Spiegelman’s father’s account of how he and his wife survived Hitler’s Europe, a harrowing tale filled with countless brushes with death, improbable escapes, and the terror of confinement and betrayal. The second is the author’s tortured relationship with his aging father as they try to lead a normal life of minor arguments and passing visits against a backdrop of history too large to pacify. At all levels, this is the ultimate survivor’s tale — and that, too, of the children who somehow survive even the survivors. 

Part I of Maus takes Spiegelman’s parents to the gates of Auschwitz and him to the edge of despair. Put aside all your preconceptions. These cats and mice are not Tom and Jerry, but something quite different. This is a new kind of literature.

The second volume moves us from the barracks of Auschwitz to the bungalows of the Catskills. Genuinely tragic and comic by turns, it attains a complexity of theme and a precision of thought new to comics and rare in any medium. 

I’ve heard so much about this book, and have been meaning to read it for years. I finally decided to do it, even though reading Holocaust memoirs is especially difficult for me, as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. This book was doubly difficult, since I could see so much of my father in Vladek, and I could also see echoes of myself in Art as well. 

The first thing that I noticed, and chuckled about a little, was the way that Vladek’s English syntax was captured so accurately. My father was also from Poland, and would explain that sentences are structured differently in Polish, Yiddish, German, etc. I could actually hear my own father speaking the same way when I read Vladek’s imperfect English, which made perfect sense to me:

“And all from us what weren’t injured they marched over to their side of the river to look for dead soldiers.”

While I’ve read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, this is the first time I’ve ever seen one in graphic novel format. I think it makes the story accessible to a wider range of people, and separates it from other memoirs. Both the graphic novel format and the portrayal of people as animals, with the Jewish characters pictured as mice and German characters as cats, made this story stand out. It highlighted the harsh reality of living as a Jew under Nazi rule, while softening the story in a way. 

The story bounces between time periods. The majority of the story involves the experiences of Vladek and his wife, Anja, as their freedoms and rights are slowly stripped away just because they are Jewish. They are forced to make decisions with no positive outcomes, where either choice could be the one that gets you killed:

“To go, it was no good. But, not to go — it was also no good.”

I loved that the author didn’t sugarcoat his difficult relationship with his father. Both characters were portrayed as flawed humans, and thus realistic. Yes, Vladek went through horrific circumstances, but he wasn’t a saint. He had his own issues, including racism. Growing up as the child of a survivor comes with its own baggage as well, and it seems like many of the survivors that I’ve met struggle with hoarding things, especially food. It can be very frustrating to deal with, and the trauma from the Holocaust has been shown to affect future generations as well. Art depicted a strained relationship characterized by his feeling short-tempered and often lashing out at his father, who only wanted to spend time with him. I felt for both parties, and it made me reflect on my own relationship with my father while he was alive. I also identified so much with Art’s sentiment when he expressed this feeling:

“…I did have nightmares about S.S. men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids away… I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.”

These two books affected me deeply, and I got so attached to the characters, especially Vladek. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still prayed for a miracle, and cried while reading. The love between Vladek and Anja was incredible. No matter how many memoirs I read about the Holocaust, I’m always surprised at how different each person’s experiences during and after the war are, but what I’m never surprised by is how deeply each person and their families are affected. This isn’t by any means an easy read, but it’s so worth it.

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