History is a cruel mistress. On the one hand, there is an undeniable appeal to leave the past in the past and put the unpleasantries of humanity’s torrid existence behind us in order to look for a brighter future. On the other hand, ignoring the misdoings of our ancestors leads us down the path of repeating their actions and learning nothing from the centuries of tragedies that is human history. This is the realm in which Art Spiegelman writes his graphic novel telling the story of his father’s survival during the Holocaust.
When Spiegelman, a graphic artist and the child of Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, began working on the now celebrated graphic novel “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” he was working within a largely new territory. When the first of the duology was published in 1989, the Holocaust was a fairly recent historical event and most recountings of survivors’ stories were purely factual. His decision to write his father’s memoir not as a traditional non-fiction piece, but instead as a graphic novel using animals as its main character, went against the grain to say the least. However, the staying power that “Maus” has held over the last few decades is only a testament to what a great decision it was.
On a large scale, Spiegelman chose to depict different nationalities and people groups as different common animals in the Western world. Jews are drawn as cats and Nazis as mice, putting them into the “cat and mouse” analogy in a very literal way. This serves both an artistic purpose and a literary one. Artistically, the art style is very appealing and easy to follow. The animals have simplistic but expressive faces that are appealing to readers. It also helps to give readers just enough distance from what happens in the story to be properly horrified by it. Were it to have been entirely non-fictional, it would be easier for readers to distance themselves from the story through the lens of history and time.
The story itself is told not only from Vladek Spiegelman’s perspective, but also from Art’s. We get to see Vladek’s version of how he survived the Holocaust as well as his life in the years leading up to it, and we get a glimpse into the family’s lives years down the road. The former is what the majority of the story is dedicated to. We hear about Vladek’s young adulthood, how he met his first wife Anja and how they lived during the Holocaust. The latter is where the heart of the story lies.
As we watch Art collect stories from his father, we are shown the true effect of the Holocaust: broken families and a continued line of generational trauma. Vladek is in poor health as a result of his troubled earlier years and is in a perpetual state of mourning for the family he had before the war. Prior to the war, Vladek was surrounded by a large extended family and had just had his first son, Richieu, with Anja. Following the war, much of his extended family was dead or missing, his son was killed and both him and his wife were permanently changed as a result of the trauma. When we see Vladek from Art’s perspective, we see a man who lost an entire life; he is now married to a woman he cannot stand, and one of his only surviving relatives is Art, who he is constantly comparing to the son he lost.
In “Maus,” Spiegelman shows readers that the tragedy of the Holocaust did not end with the war; it has continued on through the trauma of a generation. I would highly recommend this duology to any Maryville College student looking to gain knowledge about the Holocaust in a approachable format. You can find a copy of both the first and the second books in the basement of the Lamar Alexander Library.