Art Spiegelman, the author and narrator of Maus, is the child of two Polish Holocaust survivors: Vladek, his father, and Anja, his mother. Following a long estrangement from Vladek following Anja’s unexpected death in 1968, Arthur — called Artie by many close to him — has decided to collect his father’s memories of the Holocaust and narrate them in a series of cartoons. The Holocaust, which occurred between 1941 and 1945, was a genocide perpetrated by the nation of Germany, then under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. During the five-year period before their defeat to the Allied Forces, the Nazi Party murdered six million Jewish people, along with five million others who were deemed “undesirable” in their society (these victims included Roma people, homosexuals, and non-Jewish religious minorities, among many others). Artie, whose Jewish family was almost completely annihilated during the Holocaust, feels compelled to preserve his father’s memories out of respect for the suffering Vladek endured, and in an effort to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are not forgotten. On a more personal level, he uses Maus to explore his own troubled relationship to his parents and his Jewish identity.
Artie understands that narrating his father’s experience of the Holocaust is an enormous responsibility, and he struggles with the pressures of that responsibility — and with the sense that he is not fit to tell Vladek’s stories — during hours of interviews and years of work on the book that will become Maus. The visual metaphor that defines Maus — Artie’s use of animal heads in place of human faces, with a different animal representing each nationality or ethnic group — provides Artie with a platform for investigating his anxieties about his project, acknowledging Artie’s distance from the events of his father’s story while simultaneously binding him to the people about whom he writes. Artie has never met many of the people from Vladek’s life, and lacks sufficient information to create accurate representations of many of the scenes he describes. Artie does not know, for example, what his paternal grandfather or aunts looked like, since there are no surviving photographs of them. He struggles to imagine the layout of the tin shop where Vladek worked during his time in Auschwitz, and Vladek often draws Artie diagrams when trying to explain the layout of a bunker or a concentration camp. All these gaps in his knowledge highlight the limitations of Artie’s imagination and experience.
At the same time, Artie’s mouse head creates an undeniable connection between him and all other Jewish people. Artie shares his rodent features with his parents and other relatives; with the friends and neighbors in Europe who endured the war alongside them; with Jews he meets in his day-to-day life; and with the hordes of nameless dead he depicts standing in line in the ghettos, struggling for breath in overcrowded cattle cars, and dying in torment in the gas chambers and mass graves of Auschwitz. In drawing them all with the same mouse head, Artie unites the identities and experiences of all Jewish people, tying them together across continents and generations. Artie cannot relate to the horror of the Holocaust in the same intimate way Vladek can, but he has been shaped by those events. He is the inheritor of a tremendous intergenerational legacy shared by all Jewish people.
Yet in the moment where Artie struggles most with his decision to publish Vladek’s story — where he feels overwhelmed by the pressures that accompany professional success, and afraid of misrepresenting the horrors his parents’ generation endured — he appears to the reader wearing a mouse mask over a human face, his human ears and hair visible in profile. Just as the mouse head connects Jewish people across different nationalities and generations, the notion that Artie is hiding his true features — features that are different from those of his parents and other Jews — shows his anxiety about profiting off a story that is not necessarily his to tell.
Even as he chronicles his father’s experience, Artie uses Maus to explore problems about the morality of telling Holocaust stories at all. His therapist, a Czech Holocaust survivor named Pavel, reminds Artie that “[l]ife always takes the side of life” — that people always share stories of triumph and survival when talking about the Holocaust, but in doing so erase the perspectives of the dead. Reverence for the survivors of the tragedy is inherently disrespectful to those who died, Pavel suggests, because reverence implies that the people who lived were somehow better or smarter than those who died, and therefore more deserving of life. Vladek clearly feels some trepidation around this problem as well. He dislikes the idea of Artie writing about his life before the war: about his courtship of Anja, or the woman he dated before meeting her. To write in a Holocaust narrative about things that have nothing to do with the Holocaust itself “isn’t so proper, so respectful,” he tells Artie. As a survivor, tied to those who have died through bonds of love and guilt, Vladek feels compelled to construct a story worthy of what has happened; one that takes seriously his responsibilities to those who cannot speak for themselves.
Maus acknowledges that the core narrative of the Holocaust — of rabid persecution and dehumanizing violence — is morally unambiguous, and Artie clearly portrays the cruelty of guards and collaborators. But condemning their actions is not the core project of the book. Instead, Maus explores difficult questions of moral witness, and considers the responsibilities inherited both by the survivors and the generations that follow them. Artie and Vladek both hold the power of authorship; in sharing their stories, they contribute to a larger narrative of the Holocaust, and to the multi-generational struggle to make sense of that tragedy. However, that power is not unambiguously good. As Pavel points out, the fact that the dead will never be able to tell their stories creates a troubling imbalance: the memories of the living persist, but the dead have no power to influence the narrative those memories create. Through their collaboration, Artie and Vladek bring forward a story of moral consequence, for which they must both take responsibility. That burden weighs heavily on both men, and each struggles throughout the act of telling to navigate his own difficult relationship with the reality that has shaped him.
The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors ThemeTracker
The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors Quotes in Maus
Vladek: But this what I just told you — about Lucia and so — I don’t want you should write about this in your book … It has nothing to do with Hitler, with the Holocaust!
Artie: But Pop — it’s great material. It makes everything more real — more human. I want to tell your story, the way it really happened.
Vladek: But this isn’t so proper, so respectful … I can tell you other stories, but such private things I don’t want you should mention.
Ilzecki and his wife didn’t come out from the war. But his son remained alive; ours did not.
Cohn had a dry goods store. He was known all over Sosnowiec. Often he gave me cloth with no coupons. I traded also with Pfefer, a fine young man — a Zionist. He was just married. His wife ran screaming in the street … Ach. When I think now of them, it still makes me cry.
When things came worse in our ghetto, we said always: “Thank God the kids are with Persis, safe.” That spring, on one day, the Germans took from Srodula to Auschwitz over 1,000 people. Most they took were kids — some only 2 or 3 years. Some kinds were screaming and screaming. They couldn’t stop. So the Germans swinged them by the legs against a wall … and they never anymore screamed. In this way the Germans treated the little ones what still had survived a little. This I didn’t see with my own eyes, but somebody the next day told me. And I said, “Thank God with Persis our children are safe!”
Tosha: No! I won’t go to their gas chambers! And my children won’t go to their gas chambers! Bibi! Lonia! Richieu! Come here quickly!
Vladek: Always Tosha carried around her neck some poison … She killed not only herself, but also the 3 children. I’m telling you, it was a tragedy among tragedies. He was such a happy, beautiful boy!
Artie: Wouldn’t they have helped you even if you couldn’t pay? I mean, you were from the same family.
Vladek: Hah! You don’t understand … At that time, it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself!
Mala: Pragmatic? Cheap!! It causes him physical pain to part with even a nickel!
Artie: Uh-huh. I used to think the war made him that way.
Mala: Fah! I went through the camps … All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!
Artie: Mm … It’s something that worries me about the book I’m doing about him … In some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.
And we came here to the concentration camp Auschwitz. And we knew that from here we will not come out anymore … We knew the stories — that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens. This was 1944 … We knew everything. And here we were.
Vladek: These notebooks, and other really nice things of mother … one time I had a very bad day … and all of these things I destroyed.
Artie: You what?
Vladek: After Anja died I had to make an order with everything … These papers had too many memories, so I burned them.
God damn you! You — you murderer!
I never felt guilty about Richieu. But I did have nightmares about S.S. men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids away. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t obsessed with this stuff … It’s just that sometimes I’d fantasize Zyklon B coming out of our shower instead of water. 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.
Vladek died of congestive heart failure on August 18, 1982 … Françoise and I stayed with him in the Catskills back in August 1979. Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 … I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Françoise and I are expecting a baby … Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944, over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz.
Vladek: What happened on you, Françoise? You went crazy, or what?! I had the whole time to watch out that this shvartser doesn’t steal us the groceries from the back seat!
Françoise: What?! That’s outrageous! How can you, of all people, be such a racist! You talk about blacks the way the Nazis talked about Jews!
Vladek: Ach! I thought really you are more smart than this, Françoise … It’s not even to compare, the shvartsers and the Jews!
So … Let’s stop, please, your tape recorder … I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now.