Maus Powerfully Portrays a Survivor's Story

Art Spiegelman. Maus: A Survivor's Tale: Book I: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Maus; A Survivors Tale, My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman is a classic account of a young man’s survival of and endurance throughout the beginning years of the Holocaust. The narrator, Artie, retells his father’s tale of his experiences during the Holocaust as a Jew through this graphic novel. Artie's father, Vladek Spiegelman is the main character in this well written page turner. Although it is not written in the typical form of a novel, it has the power to transform even the most classic reader into an avid graphic novel lover. Spiegelman moves his story through themes that all young readers can draw on. While doing this it also shows artisanship and a master of the language.maus1_p33.jpg
During the events Vladek is explaining to his son, Poland was just beginning to feel the grasp of the Nazi’s hands. He saw his first Swastika while taking his first wife, Anja, to a sanitarium. The story began with tales of German cruelty. “It was many, many such stories. Synagogues burned, Jews beaten with no reason, whole towns pushing out all Jews. Each story was worse than the other”(33). Eventually these acts lead to the mass murder of Jews across the continent. First, Vladek fought for his business, then it ended with him fighting for his freedom and life in Auschwitz. While ending with almost all of the characters dying. “My whole family is gone, Grandma, Grandpa, Momma, Poppa, Tosha, Bibi, my Richiev”(122)! It portrays the hardships of each character, the loss of friendship through such difficult times, and the progression of worsening conditions. The Jewish people are portrayed as mice while the Germans are portrayed as cats. This only emphasizes the complicated submissive-dominate relationship between the two sides.

This novel is not just a story, it is a look into the psychological difficulties related to such events and the turmoil felt by millions of people during and after the Holocaust. The collection best portrays the power of family and the eventual importance of self preservation. While emphasizing these, the story also leaves the reader with an understanding of the importance of interpersonal relationships. Vladek remarried after his first wife, Anja committed suicide in 1968. This left him to find a new wife, Mala who is seen several times throughout the graphic novel. Everytime she is in the novel, Artie experiences the disjointness with his father and his second wife due to the effects of the past. Mala draws on Vladek’s inability to let go of physical items, “He drives me crazy! He won’t even let me throw out the plastic pitcher he took from his hospital room last year! He is more attached to things than people”(93)!

Maus is an ideal novel to use in a classroom studying the Holocaust because it is a nonfiction piece that grasps the reader's attention and forces them to be thrown into the story. Readers must pay attention to the text while also focusing on the pictures as well in order to understand the text as a whole. Sometimes the readers may have to remind themselves that the Germans and the Poles are not actual animals. And because they are drawn as animals, strangely readers may feel more empathy for them because they are always exposed to the killing of humans in movies and on television which makes them immune to it. However, many people find it sadder when an animal dies in a movie because they are cute and cuddly. Not to mention, the relationship between cat and mice is one that is familiar to readers of all ages. But, due to the graphic nature of the novel, it may be only appropriate for students in high school who are studying the Holocaust who may want to do something different than The Diary of Anne Frank.

"Maus is a book that cannot be put down, truly, even to sleep. When two of the mice speak of love, you are moved, when they suffer, you weep. Slowly through this little tale comprised of suffering, humor and life's daily trials, you are captivated by the language of an old Eastern European family, and drawn into the gentle and mesmerizing rhythm, and when you finish Maus, you are unhappy to have left that magical world."--Umberto Eco (Literary Critic and novelist)

Recommendations for Teachers
Various techniques can be used in teaching this story.

Students can research the art form of the graphic novel and its use as a literary medium. Students could find information about Spiegelman and explore his writing of the novel. Students could develop a list and share different findings with the class to make it even more personal and create appreciation among the students.

Students can write a compelling dialogue between made-up characters dealing with issues that people dealt with during the Holocaust. This may require outside research by the students in order to get a full understanding of what people had to deal with.

Teachers can have the students study Poland or another country and their responses to Nazi occupation and/or oppression. This study can then be applied to either a paper or presentation.

Teachers can have students write a narrative from the perspective of someone during the Holocaust. It could be from someone in America who has just found out about the Holocaust, or a German not involved in the military (because they had many difficulties that are often overlooked), a Polish Jew in hiding, a young Polish girl, and etc. This would require some outside research into how people dealt with the Holocaust and when they found out about it.

Because Facebook has taken over the world, students could make a Facebook page for a character in the book. They could draw out the entire page and include information about the character just by what is provided in their drawing. Although some characters may be minor, enough information can be gathered about them in order to make a compelling Facebook page.

About Name of Author
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Spiegelman won the pulitzer prize 1992 for his best-known graphic novel, Maus. He was born in 1948 to Vladek and Anja Spiegelman in Sweden. Both of his parents were Polish-Jewish refugees and eventually moved the entire family to Queens, New York where Spiegelman grew up. While attending Harpur College, he audited Ken Jacobs' (filmmaker) class and eventually became friends with him.

Spiegelman had one brother, Richieu who is mentioned in Maus Volume 1. Unfortunately Richieu did not make it out of the war because he was moved to the Zawiercie Ghetto to live with an aunt because it seemed to be safer than the ghetto they were currently residing in. However, this ghetto was not safer because the Germans invaded it and instead of being captured, the aunt (Tosha) poisoned herself, her two children, and Richieu. Spiegelman says in Maus that he often felt a sibling rivalry with Richieu because his parents continued to be very upset by his death.

Spiegelman suffered a nervous breakdown in 1968 and was put into a mental hospital. When he was released his mother, Anja, committed suicide. Spiegelman participated greatly in the underground comics movement during the 60's and 70's. He then married Francoise Mouly and shortly after he began retracing his parent's survival through the Holocaust. The first volume of Maus was published in 1986 and he published the second volume in 1991. He has continued his life with many successes in the years since Maus. He was even named one of the "Top 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2005. He now lives in downtown Manhattan with his family.


An interview with Author Art Spiegelman found on Youtube.

Additional Resources:

--Jacquelyn Girardot, Kevin Shields, and Leanne Woodwyk