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The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors Theme Icon
Family, Identity, and Jewishness Theme Icon
Grief, Memory, and Love Theme Icon
Guilt, Anger, and Redemption Theme Icon
Death, Chance, and Human Interdependence Theme Icon
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The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors Theme Icon

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

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The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors Quotes in Maus

Below you will find the important quotes in Maus related to the theme of The Holocaust and the Responsibility of its Survivors.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Lucia Greenberg
Page Number: I.23
Explanation and Analysis:

Early in the comic book, Artie and his father, Vladek, have a conversation in which Vladek asks Artie to omit some of the information they've just discussed. Vladek has been talking about his ex-lover, Lucia, who (years before, when Vladek was still a young man) tried to break up his engagement. Vladek doesn't want Artie to include such information in the book Artie is writing about the Holocaust. Artie disagrees, arguing that the personal information is crucial to understand the Holocaust.

First, it's important to see that Artie conceives of his project (he's writing a graphic novel about the Holocaust, as reflected in the life of his father, Vladek) as a humanistic story. To understand the Holocaust in fiction, we must understand the lives of the people who lived through the Holocaust--not just their experiences in concentration camps, but also their lives leading up to the Nazis' atrocities. Second, notice that Artie clearly disobeys his father--the fact that we are reading about Vladek's old lovers means that Artie includes the information Vladek wants omitted. Right away, Spiegelman raises questions about the morality of writing a comic book about the Holocaust. What purpose could such a book serve? What purpose does remembering the Holocaust at all serve? Don't the memories just cause more pain to survivors?


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Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

Ilzecki and his wife didn’t come out from the war. But his son remained alive; ours did not.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Richieu , Mr. Ilzecki
Page Number: I.81
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladek and his wife, Anja, had a first son named Richieu, and when Vladek explains his experiences during the Holocaust to his son Artie, he lingers on the memory of Richieu. Here, he tells Artie that his associate, Mr. Ilzecki, had a young son who survived World War II--despite the fact that Ilzecki himself did not. By contrast, Valdek did survive the war, though his first child did not.

There is no rhyme or reason in World War II, and in fate in general--indeed, as the passage suggests, the only "rule" of the war seems to be that no family emerged unscathed. Vladek was lucky and blessed to survive the Holocaust, but he could do nothing to pass on his good fortune to his child.

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.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Nahum Cohn , Pfefer Cohn
Page Number: I.83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Vladek describes people he used to know, Nahum and Pfefer Cohn. The Cohn family was hanged by the Nazis to warn Jews to obey the Nazis at all costs. Strangely, Vladek is still immensely moved by the deaths of the Cohns, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he didn't know them particularly well. (He just bought some clothes from Nahum now and then.)

Why do the Cohns' deaths move Vladek so greatly, when he's witnessed so many horrors? Why does he remember the Cohns years later? Perhaps the passage is meant to suggest that Vladek is an enormously compassionate man, capable of feeling sympathy even for people he didn't know closely. Or perhaps the passage conveys a more subtle point: the very fact that Vladek didn't know the Cohn family at all well makes their deaths more, not less, moving. Almost every single person Vladek knew died in the Holocaust--whether he knew them closely or slightly. Perhaps Vladek isn't crying for the Cohns so much as he's crying for the overall devastation of the Holocaust, and for the utter destruction of his previously peaceful, safe community--a place where he could trade goods on credit with people he knew and trusted.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

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!”

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Richieu , Bibi , Lonia , Persis
Page Number: I.108
Explanation and Analysis:

As the situation deteriorates for Jews under Nazi rule, tragedy strikes Vladek's community. Nazis savagely murder hundreds of children--a crime that's virtually unspeakable. Vladek and his family have sent their own children into the care of Persis, the head of the Jewish council in the ghetto. Vladek believes that his child and his family's children will be safe with Persis, because Persis has some power with the Nazis. Little does Vladek know (at the time) that Persis will be murdered soon, leaving the children to be killed--ironically, by Tosha (Anja's sister).

The passage is enormously sad--so sad that there's almost nothing left to say about it. In the midst of tragedy, there's nothing Vladek can do but thank God that he and his own loved ones are safe. And yet the tragedy is even greater than he imagines, since his loved ones are anything but safe. Spiegelman suggests that the scale of suffering at this stage in the book is really beyond human understanding--we can only bear witness to it and remember.

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!

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Richieu , Tosha , Bibi , Lonia
Page Number: I.109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this wrenching section of the book, Tosha (the sister of Anja) makes a big decision. She knows that she and her sister's children will be arrested by the Nazis and sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Instead of allowing such an atrocity to occur, Tosha decides to kill herself, along with the children.

Vladek's grief at hearing that Richieu (his child) was murdered is beyond understanding. It's not even clear that Tosha did the "wrong" thing--she probably did protect Vladek's children from an awful, prolonged death, preceded by weeks of fear, starvation, and cold. As Hannah Arendt said, the Holocaust forced the Jews to do things that were neither wrong nor right--things that were simply outside the scope of mortality altogether. Spiegelman dares us to judge Tosha's actions--our own criteria of good and evil simply aren't strong enough to help us understand her decision.

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!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Jakov Spiegelman , Haskel Spiegelman
Page Number: I.114
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust was that it forced Jews to turn against other Jews. Just as the Nazis presumably wanted, Jews were forced to betray each other, fight with each other, and collaborate with the Nazis to murder each other--all because they wanted to survive. Here, Artie learns that Vladek's own blood relatives refused to help him without some money: Vladek had to pay his cousin Jakov to smuggle him out of the ghetto. Family loyalty often disappeared at the time: people looked out for themselves (or perhaps their children), but no one else.

It's all too easy for us to judge Vladek's relatives for refusing to help Vladek out of the goodness of their hearts. But Jakov is a human being: as much as he values family, he also values his own life. Jews had to sacrifice their ideals and loyalties to protect themselves--their sacrifice wasn't barbaric, but deeply human.

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Mala Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman
Page Number: I.131
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Artie complains about Vladek to Vladek's wife, Mala. He wonders aloud if he should forgive Vladek for his stinginess and irritability because of the fact that Vladek survived the Holocaust. Mala insists that Artie should do no such thing--Vladek turned out irritable because of his own personality, not the Holocaust.

The passage is interesting because it confronts a traditional Jewish stereotype--the miserly, greedy, "Shylock" Jew. Artie is deeply concerned with how to represent his father in print--it seems wrong to make a stereotypical Jew the protagonist of a book about the Holocaust (a tragedy that was partly caused because the Nazis used anti-Semitic propaganda that trafficked in the very stereotypes Vladek echoes).

In short, the passage raises profound artistic and ethical questions--who should be the protagonist of a book about the Holocaust? Who is the "representative" figure of such a book? And what is the "correct" way to represent Jews in the post-Holocaust world? Of course, Spiegelman suggests, there is no such thing as a representative Holocaust victim--the Holocaust killed without any regard to people's personalities. By the same token, Artie chooses to present Vladek as he really is--despite the fact that in some ways he seems like a Jewish stereotype. Just because miserliness is a stereotype doesn't mean Vladek isn't really a stingy person. Artie's commitment to truth and accuracy is so great that he's venturing into dubious ethical ground.

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.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.157
Explanation and Analysis:

Vkladek and Anja are shipped off to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. There, they immediately realize that they're never going to see each other again--they're going to be murdered. They both know the rumors of gas chambers and mass graves, and now they can see that the rumors are true. The passage, in short, evokes utter hopelessness. Here, surrounded by machines of death and destruction, even Vladek feels his hope leaving him. He has nothing to look forward to; no relatives to bribe; no children to protect. His reasons for hopefulness are extinguished. But as we'll see, Vladek still summons the courage to survive--with sheer willpower, as well as lots of luck, he manages to brave the concentration camps and come out alive on the other side.

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.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Vladek tells Artie about Anja’s notebooks. Anja kept journals and diaries for many years—included in these diaries, it’s implied, were discussions of her time in the Holocaust, her feelings for Vladek and Artie, and many other important pieces of information. To Artie’s genuine shock, Vladek hasn’t preserved his wife’s papers—after she committed suicide he destroyed them in order to escape from “the memories.”

The passage illustrates a basic difference between Vladek and Artie: Artie wants to remember, Vladek wants to forget. Artie is writing a book on the Holocaust, but seems not to consider the ethical implications of what he’s doing; by interviewing his father, he’s asking him to relive the worst moments of his life. By the same token, Artie can’t understand why Vladek would burn Anja’s diaries—he’s so hungry for information (information that could potentially absolve him of some of the responsibility for Anja’s suicide) that he can’t conceive of anyone who wouldn’t want it.

God damn you! You — you murderer!

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman , Anja (Anna) Spiegelman
Page Number: I.159
Explanation and Analysis:

Immediately after Artie learns that Vladek burned Anja’s papers, he lashes out at his father. Artie is furious that Vladek destroyed Anja’s writing, in part because he believes that the writing could have relieved some of his intense guilt, or at least given him a sense of resolution (Artie partly blames himself for his mother’s suicide years before). His hunger for knowledge—and forgiveness, which he associates with information—means that he’s furious with his father for denying him the chance for this forgiveness. Artie even calls his father a murderer--by burning Anja's papers, it's as if Vladek has killed Anja all over again.

In essence, Artie is making his father a scapegoat for his own lack of closure with regard to Anja’s death. There’s no guarantee that Anja’s papers and diaries would have brought Artie any peace or comfort—so it’s easier for him to get angry with Vladek than it is for him to face the facts: he’ll never be truly at peace with his mother's death. Artie still feels that he caused his Anja's suicide—and so by yelling at his father, he deflects some of the guilt he (Artie) feels.

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Anja (Anna) Spiegelman , Françoise Mouly , Richieu
Page Number: II.16
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Artie tries to come to terms with his own guilt concerning the Holocaust. He tells his wife, Francoise, that he sometimes wishes he’d been a part of the Holocaust. Furthermore, he continues to think about his dead brother, Richieu—although he claims not to feel any survivor’s guilt, it’s clear enough that he does.

In short, Artie feels guilty that he's alive and his brother, Richieu, is dead: growing up, Artie sometimes felt that he was competing with Richieu (who died long before Artie was born) for his parents' love. Artie senses that there's always going to be a gap between himself and his parents: because his parents went through the horrors of the Holocaust, they'll never be able to understand Artie's "normal," trivial life.

Spiegelman doesn't reveal if Artie is right to point to a gap between his own life and those of his parents. Of course Anja and Vladek have had hard lives--but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're unable to love Artie fully (although this does help explain some of Artie's troubles with Vladek and his constant criticisms). Spiegelman implies that Artie is just burdened with guilt--even though his parents really do seem to love him, he feels a perverse desire to go through the Holocaust so that he can be truly close to them. 

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman (speaker), Vladek Spiegelman , Françoise Mouly , Nadja Mouly Spiegelman
Page Number: II.41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Artie contrasts his own work as a writer with his father’s life and work. But he does much more: he compares his life with the lives of his ancestors, including the millions of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

It’s imperative that Artie keep the Holocaust “in perspective” as he proceeds to write a book about it. The Holocaust is a tragedy almost beyond the comprehension of any individual person. Artie’s book isn’t just about the Holocaust—it’s about his struggle to try to understand the Holocaust. Artie talks to his father about his (father’s) experiences, but even here, mere words can’t convey the full extent of the tragedy to Artie. In the end, Artie’s experience writing his book is a sobering experience. His own petty acts of creation—the book, the baby, the marriage—pale in comparison with the single act of destruction that took place in Europe during World War II. There is simply no decent way to write a book about the Holocaust that doesn’t involve the acceptance that one’s book is neither a solution nor a comprehensive response to the Holocaust.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Françoise Mouly (speaker)
Page Number: II.99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Vladek is driving in a car with Francoise. Francoise picks up a black hitchhiker--much to Vladek's distress. Vladek is sure that the man is a criminal or a thief of some kind. Later, Francoise calls out Vladek for his obvious racism--how is it possible, she asks him, that a victim of Fascist anti-Semitism could despise black people so completely? Vladek simply replies that blacks and Jews are nothing alike.

The passage confirms a troubling truth: just because someone endured a lot of pain and suffering does mean that they've become a kinder, more tolerant person. Vladek suffers through the Holocaust--the ultimate tragedy caused by racism--and yet he unironically perpetuates racism toward black people, confident that Jews are better than blacks (just as the Nazis were sure that Aryans were superior to Jews). Artie's challenge in Maus is that he has to learn to empathize with his father's enormous suffering while also recognizing that, in many ways, his father isn't a particularly good man.

Part 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

So … Let’s stop, please, your tape recorder … I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now.

Related Characters: Vladek Spiegelman (speaker), Arthur (Artie) Spiegelman, Richieu
Page Number: II.136
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Maus, Vladek reveals, beyond any doubt, that Richieu (his dead son, a victim of the Holocaust) is just as much a part of his life and his consciousness as is his living son, Artie. Vladek has just finished talking to Artie about his experiences during the Holocaust. Tiredly, he calls Artie "Richieu" by mistake. Vladek's mistake could suggest that he's slowly losing his mind to dementia. But it's also a sign that he thinks about his son constantly--not because he's getting senile but because he's a loving father. More generally still, Vladek's misstatement suggests the way that he continues to remember all his experiences during the Holocaust--just because they happened a long time ago doesn't mean they don't continue to affect his life.

Artie's burden, we come to realize, is that Vladek will never have his complete attention. On some level, Vladek will always measure Artie against Richieu, his deceased son, and compare his American life with Artie to his old European life with Richieu. While Artie will never be entirely okay with his father's "divided love," he's learned to accept Vladek's behavior and respect his father's courage and heroism.