Artie Spiegelman, a young Jewish-American cartoonist, arrives for a visit at the home of his father, Vladek, after a long estrangement. Vladek is sick and unhappy, stuck in a bad marriage to a resentful woman named Mala, and still mourning the loss of his first wife, Anja, to suicide ten years earlier. Artie and Vladek have a tense relationship, but Artie has determined to write a comic book about his father’s life. Vladek, a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York after World War II, is a Holocaust survivor. Along with Anja, and most of their family members, he endured life in the ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Poland.
Through a series of interviews over more than two years, Vladek tells Artie his stories. He begins in prewar Poland, when he meets and marries the brilliant, charming daughter of a wealthy manufacturer: Anja. The two live happily together in the city of Sosnowiec, surrounded by their families. When war breaks out in 1939, Vladek is called to the front as a Polish soldier. Vladek is captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war, and spends months in a forced labor camp before escaping and returning home to Sosnowiec. Reunited with his family — which includes, by this time, a young son named Richieu — Vladek finds that the German invasion has had a dramatic impact on the situation of Poland’s Jews. In the months following his return to Sosnowiec, violence against Jews becomes a common occurrence. Both German Nazis and Christian Poles are eager to marginalize and dehumanize Jews. Soon, Jews are forced to give up their homes and move into ghettos: segregated neighborhoods where they face constant surveillance, as well as random violence, from soldiers and police.
As more Jews are herded into ghettos, the Nazis begin deporting people to concentration camps — most notably, to Auschwitz. At this point, people are only beginning to learn the extent of the atrocities perpetuated in these camps: starvation, forced labor, and — most shocking — the mass murder, in gas chambers designed to maximize efficiency, of Jewish prisoners from all across Europe. The Spiegelmans send Richieu to a different ghetto, in the care of his Aunt Tosha, where they believe he will be safer. This decision turns out to be disastrous. When Tosha learns that the Nazis are planning to “liquidate” her ghetto and send all its residents to Auschwitz, she poisons herself and Richieu — as well as her daughter and niece, who are also in her care — to avoid the horrible fate of the gas chambers.
Eventually, the Nazis decide to “liquidate” the Srodula ghetto, where Vladek and Anja are living. Though Vladek has lost his parents and most of his siblings by this time, Anja still has her parents and her nephew, Lolek. The family manages to evade capture for a short time, but a stranger soon discovers them and turns them over to the Nazis. Within a few weeks, the family has been completely splintered. Mr. and Mrs. Zylberberg are sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, and Lolek — who believes his skills as an electrician will make him valuable, and so prevent the Nazis from killing him — surrenders himself for transport to the camp soon after. Vladek and Anja manage to evade capture by hiding out in bunkers and the homes of sympathetic Polish Christians, but they are caught after Vladek makes plans to flee the country with the help of Polish smugglers, who turn them over to the Nazis. After years of hiding, Vladek and Anja are sent to Auschwitz.
In Auschwitz, Vladek — separated from Anja, who is sent to nearby Birkenau — uses his exceptional charm and resourcefulness to win himself jobs as an English tutor to one of the guards, then as a tinsmith, and eventually as a shoemaker. In these positions, he is treated better than common prisoners, and saves himself from some of the back-breaking labor forced on his fellow prisoners. He does his best to protect Anja from afar, who is small and frail and struggling to survive in Birkenau. They are in the camps for ten months before the Germans, facing a devastating attack from the Soviet Union and eager to escape Poland, evacuate Auschwitz-Birkenau and relocate its prisoners to different camps within the German borders. Vladek is sent to Dachau, while Anja goes through other camps, including Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück. After they are separated, Vladek assumes Anja is dead. He is amazed and overjoyed when — after the end of the war and the liberation of surviving Jewish prisoners, when nearly everyone they know has been killed — they are reunited in Sosnowiec. A difficult and sad future lies ahead for them, but Vladek ends his story in a moment of triumph, as they embrace for the first time after months of separation.
As Artie narrates his father’s memories of the war, he constructs a parallel narrative of his own experiences collecting those memories: his interviews with Vladek, which often dredge up feelings of resentment and disappointment that have shaped their relationship; and his experiences shepherding his father, whose health becomes increasingly poor as they delve deeper into his stories, through the difficulties of old age. As the book draws to a close, it becomes clear that Vladek is nearing death. His weak heart and lungs leave him frail and dependent. The complicated love he shares with his son comes to a head during a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, after Mala abandons him and Artie, along with his wife Françoise, is called upon to care for him. Though their relationship never reaches a tidy conclusion, the two men develop a deeper and more compassionate understanding during their hours of interviews and visits. Though still uncomfortable and uncertain about his relationship with his parents, Artie offers Maus as a gesture of love and forgiveness toward them — which, though painful and flawed, is sincere and deeply felt.