“At that time it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself.”
Polish Jews Vladek and Anja Spiegelman survived the Holocaust and immigrated to America with their son, Art, who was born in Sweden after the war. But the atrocities of the war cast a long shadow over their family. Beginning in 1978, Art Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experiences during the war, and serialized them in comic form. He would ultimately spend thirteen years of his life capturing this history, grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, and his complicated relationship with his father.
Maus is famous for depicting the characters as anthropomorphized animals, in the tradition of Aesop’s Fables or Animal Farm. However, the visual medium really emphasizes this narrative choice, which allows Spiegelman to approach the unspeakable. Jews are depicted as mice, and Nazis as the cats that prey on them. Nazi propaganda often compared Jews to rats and vermin, so Spiegelman’s technique is an interesting way of turning that prejudice around into social commentary. The metaphor does occasionally become overextended, such as the scene where Anja is hiding in the dark, and is afraid that there are rats, while Vladek reassures her that they are only mice. Spiegelman also sometimes deliberately breaks the metaphor, as in the early pages of Volume II, where panels showing characters from the side show that the mouse faces are only masks.
Maus is certainly a story about the Holocaust, but it is also about Art and Vladek’s tense and complicated father-son relationship. Because he interviewed and recorded his father, the dialogue really seems to capture Vladek’s voice in an authentic way. The story of collecting and preserving the story is as significant to Maus as the Holocaust narrative itself. Maus includes material that Vladek asked Art not to put in the book, and this question of what to preserve is grappled with publicly rather than privately, since Spiegelman puts this scene in the book. On page scenes also show his worries about how to depict his father honestly when “in some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.” Much of the power of the narrative comes from this grappling with the lingering effects of the war on those who survived it. The effects are multigenerational, as Art also confronts his own feelings about being born after the war, while the older brother he never knew did not survive.
If Vladek heavily defines the narrative by his voice, and combative relationship with Art, Anja’s influence on the story is largely a question of her absence. Because she died before Art began documenting the family’s history, the narrative rests squarely in Vladek’s hands, even if it is Anja’s story as well. Art can provide limited memories of his mother from his childhood, but we have access to her experiences during the war only through Vladek’s eyes. Seeing how Vladek behaves with his second wife, Mala, there is much to wonder about how Anja saw things, and what her perspective would have added to the story. Vladek’s destruction of her diaries only adds to that sense of loss, and wondering what more Maus might have been if her voice could have been heard.
Spiegelman’s unusual metaphor of cats and mice approaches the Holocaust in a unique way that lends a fresh perspective to a period of history that is much covered. But Maus stands out just as much for its complex depiction of familial relationships, and the inter-generational consequences of such tragedies. The story of the story adds context and depth to Vladek’s recollections.
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