The heartbreaking story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor, in which we accompany him through his early adulthood in Poland through World War 2 to the very gates of hell at Auschwitz. A raw difficult look at the life a survivor through the eyes of his son, Art. Maus takes something that is impossible to understand and makes it real. Be warned this is a very difficult but necessary book. Get ready for an emotional roller-coaster…
The Story of a Father, Told Through His Son
Wow this is a really difficult book to review, not just because of the subject matter but because it cuts close to home. It’s also a great example of why graphic novels are such a great medium for telling stories. Especially important stories.
Art Spiegelman is a young American man with an immigrant background. Both his parents survived the Holocaust. As he gets older, he tries to understand and come to terms with what happened to them. His father is a cantankerous old man who, in his own way, loves his son deeply. But life and history have put up barriers between father and son.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is split into two stories. One follows Vladek from early adulthood to the death camp in Europe. The other follows Art and Vladek in America decades later, as the former documents his father story and tries to come to terms with it.
Maus Vol 1 starts with Art visiting Vladek and asking him to share his life story so that he can write it down in the form of a graphic novel. Vladek starts off by telling us about his life as a young textile salesman in a small Polish town near the German border.
Vladek enjoyed the life of a bachelor and was quiet sought after by the ladies. Trapped in a casual relationship with an attractive woman he meets and falls in love with Anna. Anna is not an outstanding beauty but she is intelligent and kind. Her family are very wealthy industrialists.
We get to witness the unfolding of a very human story. Relationship drama, love and marriage. We see how Vladek’s marriage to Anna almost breaks over her fraternizing with communist sympathizers. We see Anna go through post-natal depression.
On the way to a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia, Vladek sees the Nazi flag for the first time. Flying proudly over a small town’s square. Other Jewish passengers on the train start sharing stories of abuse, theft, discrimination and disappeared relatives in Germany.
Anna’s health improves while the situation in Poland gets worse. Vladek had set up a textile factory with his father-in-laws help, only to come back to Poland and hear that it was robbed. There are riots in town, with Poles going onto the streets and shouting “Jews out! Jews out!”
From there the situation deteriorates. Vladek is drafted into the Polish army and his wife and son have to leave their home near the frontier to go live with her parents in Sosnowiec. Then the war starts. The Polish army is overrun and Vladek becomes a prisoner of war.
We get a preview of what is about to happen to all European Jews, through the POW camp. Polish Jewish soldiers are left to sleep in thin tents without enough food, while their countrymen get two meals a day and heated cabins.
Vladek is a very resilient and resourceful man. He makes the best out of every situation he is in. A very practical and determined man, a survivor.
Eventually, through a work program, Vladek is released and allowed to travel back to his native Poland. It’s a very different Poland than the one he grew up in.
Gone is the independent state, split up between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia –with a much smaller Polish “protectorate” controlled by Nazi puppets serving as a buffer zone between both empires.
A Bitter Homecoming
We see Vladek’s struggle to come home to his family. The ever worsening situation of the Jews. How law and order breaks down and man becomes wolf to man.
What happens next you really have to read and experience for yourself. Art Spiegelman’s word do his families story more justice than mine ever could.
We see the daily struggle to survive. We see people reduced to their base level. The brutality of the Nazis. And how willing and ready many Poles are to betray, rob and abuse their Jewish neighbors. But most heartbreaking is how some members of the Jewish community turn on their own. At the end there were no friends, neighbors or family –only survival.
Through all this Vladek is a man. He bobs, weaves and ducks the punches life throws at him. Until he can’t avoid them any longer…
Maus is a hard book to read. It cuts too close to home. I couldn’t read it in one go. It’s the quest of a son to understand his families painful past in the shadow of 20th century history. It’s a story of two men who aren’t close, separated by life and pain –trying to reach out and connect with each other.
You don’t have to have to be Jewish or a World War 2 freak for this graphic novel to resonate with you most intimately. Any European can relate to the horrors of World War 2. Any human being can relate to the pain of having loved ones killed or taken from them.
The Art and Writing of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
Maus Volume 1, is a very intimate and detailed look into the life and suffering of a Jewish family who survived the Holocaust. Sometimes it seems too intimate… Art writes a comic about his mother’s suicide, his subsequent grief and guilt and his father breakdown. We experience one of the most horrible events of the last 100 years through the very human and fallible form of Vladek Spiegelman. That alone makes Maus a masterpiece in my view.
The strained relationship between Art and Vladek adds another dimension to this story. Is there really such a thing as a survivor? Can you survive hell on Earth and continue to function as a human being?
Old Vladek is difficult, mean to his second wife, overbearing and demanding of his son and a big spendthrift. In many ways he is almost a racist caricature of the cantankerous and stingy old Jew. But he’s not. He’s more. He’s a man. He’s a human being who loves his family. He’s a fighter. He’s a survivor.
Art Spiegelman’s art is beautiful.
He draws Jews as mice, Poles as pigs and Germans as cats. This doesn’t undermine the story or take away from its serious nature. It makes it rawer. Almost like this war, this hate is inevitable? Maybe…
Maus is drawn in black and white, in a rough cartoon like style. Maybe this is the only way to show something so brutal, so senseless and so horrible.
The dialog is tight, Art does not waste any words. He mimics his father’s accent to perfection. Phrases and words in German, Yiddish and Polish are used smartly and don’t take away from the English dialogue or meaning. Each characters personality is communicated in as few words as possible. You can feel tension and a sense of dread creep into you as you progress through the story.
I feel that every thinking adult should read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman. We live in world where it is too easy to ignore the suffering of others. Just change the channel or browse to another site. It’s easy to write suffering and pain off as something that is happening to other people in some far away and uninteresting places.
Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Dafur, Syria and Iraq. And in many ways the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as well. Man is wolf to man. People are in pain and we avert our eyes. Not my problem, we say to ourselves…
Maus reminds me of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl (also a holocaust survivor). My eyes were wet at the end of reading his book and Maus had the same effect on me.
This isn’t an easy book to read. It’s actually downright hard! I had to put it down several times and restart it later. But some of the best things in life are hard. You are a human being. We have to understand the human condition in order to get through life.
Read this graphic novel, it will provide you with a very sobering perspective on history and current affairs.
Once you do, the Holocaust and genocide will not be abstract events to you anymore. Because it has been made real in your mind. You have glimpsed a speck of what it was like and experienced it through the life of Vladek Spiegelman. Through the medium of the graphic novel.
In a very, very, very microscopically small way you walk with Vladek into hell. And that makes all the differences…
Enjoy your reading
PS: You can get your copyof Maus Vol. 1 by Art Spiegelman in paperback here. It’s not an easy book -it will make you laugh, cry, shake your head in disbelief and change you…It simply is one of the best graphic novels ever!