83 pages 2 hours read


Nonfiction | Graphic Novel/Book | Adult | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide


Maus by Art Spiegelman is the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. It originally ran in Spiegelman’s Raw magazine between 1980 and 1991 before receiving mainstream attention as two collected volumes, Maus I in 1986 and Maus II in 1991. This guide is based on the 1996 complete edition. This historic memoir interlaces two narratives, one of Spiegelman’s Jewish father as he survives World War II Poland and the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the other of Spiegelman recording his father’s story while navigating their contentious relationship. The graphic novel is notable for its art style, with the Jews drawn as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. The characters are depicted as animals to reflect the dehumanization caused by prejudice, war, and genocide.

Over several years cartoonist Art Spiegelman interviews his aging Jewish father, Vladek, to record his survival in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, including roughly 10 months in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp (for this guide, “Spiegelman” refers to the author, while “Art” refers to his presentation of himself in the text). In the 1930s Vladek is a talented, multilingual salesman who weds the intelligent Anja Zylberberg. As the couple have a child, Richieu, and treat Anja’s severe depression, Nazi Germany ignites a new wave of anti-Semitism throughout Europe. When the Nazis invade Poland, Vladek reluctantly fights on the frontlines before facing capture and internment in a POW camp that purposely places Jewish prisoners in squalid conditions. Upon release, Vladek sneaks back into German-controlled territory to reunite with Anja and her family.

Vladek takes black-market jobs and secures work papers to avoid both the Nazis and the Jewish authorities that cooperate with them. He and Anja’s family survive a mass inspection to send the elderly and large families to concentration camps, but it claims his father and sister. After initial resistance from Anja, they send Richieu into hiding with her relatives; sadly, Anja’s sister poisons herself and Richieu when soldiers clear out their ghetto. The Nazis send the remaining family to Srodula, where they build bunkers to avoid capture until an informant discovers them. Vladek and Anja escape deportation by paying off Vladek’s cousins, but they can’t save Anja’s parents. After hiding from the final elimination of the area, the Spiegelmans return to Sosnowiec to stay with sympathetic Polish residents. After several near discoveries, Vladek convinces Anja of a plan to sneak into Hungary, but the smugglers turn out to be Nazi collaborators.

As Art records his father’s story, he brushes against Vladek’s overbearing and stingy attitude. He is stubbornly self-reliant but cannot take care of himself due to heart, diabetic, and vision problems. Vladek discovers a stark comic by Art about Anja’s suicide, and Art rages at Vladek after learning that he burned her diaries. Vladek feuds with his second wife, Mala, and Art briefly stays with Vladek after she leaves him. As Art works on the second half of Maus, he struggles with his father’s death shortly after the interviews, the birth of his own son, and media scrutiny following the book’s breakout success. He reveals his paralysis at depicting Auschwitz and the psychological therapy he receives about his unresolved family tensions and the random nature of the Holocaust.

Now a prisoner at Auschwitz, Vladek avoids elimination by teaching English to a Polish supervisor. The supervisor transfers Vladek to a tin shop, where he appeases his communist superior with food, and Vladek eventually becomes a shoe repairer. Learning that Anja is alive in the nearby Birkenau camp, Vladek reconnects with her and saves a stash of cigarettes to trade for her transfer to Auschwitz. They must avoid Nazi guards, however, with Vladek suffering a beating on one occasion.

As Russian troops approach Auschwitz, the guards march the prisoners hundreds of miles on foot to Gross-Rosen, where Vladek waits for days in a train of dying prisoners. At the Dachau camp, he contracts a debilitating case of typhus. When news arrives of a prisoner exchange, he pays other prisoners in bread to take him on the train. The Allies’ approach forces the Nazis to abandon their final attempts to eliminate the Jews. After several days in an abandoned farm, Vladek meets a group of American soldiers who take him in. Vladek learns that Anja waits for him in Sosnowiec, and the two reunite.

In the present, Vladek shares with Art a collection of family photos from before the war. The father goes to Florida to reconcile with Mala, but Art flies down after he suffers another medical incident. Vladek calls Art by Richieu’s name as he finishes his story and falls asleep.

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By Art Spiegelman