Unforgettable History: The Story of the Execution of Millions The Holocaust was the successful persecution of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and disabled people by the Nazi Regime. This 20th century Holocaust took place in several European countries, and by the end of 1945, nearly twelve million people were killed. Anti-Semitism was the central motive for the execution of European Jews and was led by Adolf Hitler.
Because of this massive genocide there have been many books written to explain the gruesome conditions that Jews and others were subjected to as well as interpret personal stories of survivors, but not many have achieved the level of effectiveness that Maus has. Maus is a graphic novel written by Art Spiegelman and has been awarded both Guggenheim fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman documents the story of his Jewish father, a survivor of the Holocaust, and publishes it in two volumes.
Maus created a new way of seeing the past, it uses animals to represent the different nationalities of people during the Holocaust, addresses the trauma and disgrace Jews suffered, transitions between two different timelines while focusing on the problems between generations, and urges the reader to notice the effects of the Holocaust on its survivors. The use of iconography played a major role in Maus. Spiegelman represents people wearing masks of different animals to show the variety of nationalities during the Holocaust.
Spiegelman represents the Germans as cats, Jews as mice, and Poles as pigs. The use of animal masks makes it easier for people to understand the effects of the genocide; moreover it changes the belief that ignited the Holocaust. Spiegelman allows for a new perspective on the Holocaust by changing the idea held by Nazi’s: that Jews, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Communists etc were inferior “races” and allows for mice (lews), and cats (Germans) to stand on both feet rather than being al all fours but refrain from their humanity. This is what makes Maus so unique and difficult to understand.
The meaning of the symbolism in Maus goes far beyond cats being the predators of mice Maus expresses that although humans have the capability of doing many things that positively impact the human race, they do the contrary. An example of this is the Final Solution of 1941 where Nazis decide to exterminate all Jews, this suggests that Jews were not seen as humans, rather as pests, therefore they ceased humanity. This can be proven by Vladek (Spiegelman’s father) on page 51 in his second volume when he says, “There it was just a death place with Jews waiting for gas… .
At the same time, Spiegelman shows other animals throughout the two volumes such as pigs, reindeer, frogs, and moths. These animals were conscientiously chosen by Spiegelman to represent the role each nationality played during the Holocaust. For example the dogs represented the Americans, to follow with the stereotype that cats are chased by dogs. These animals showed Spiegelman’s personal point of view on the Holocaust, and at the same time helped the reader differentiate between “races”.
Utilizing animals to represent different nationalities is so effective that it conceals its offensiveness to some people. While making use of exceptional iconography, Spiegelman addresses the suffering and torture Jews experienced during the Holocaust. Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, physically and mentally disabled among others were subjected to unimaginable conditions during the Holocaust. Spiegelman effectively depicts forced labor, trauma, and death with the outstanding symbolism held in Maus.
This graphic novel has a unique way to show the horrific conditions that Jews were suppressed to in a way a traditional narrative could not. At one point in the book Vladek is shown getting beat with a stick by a German, where the Nazi’s response to this torture consists of only 10 words, “Count the blows, if you lose count-I’ll start again! “. This shows that the conditions the Jews were treated with only left them with scars and unforgettable memories. At another point in the book mice are shown being thrown into massive fire graves, where some would be burned alive.
Vladek tells Spiegelman on page 73 of Maus II, “And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better” these massive graves caused an surable amount of deaths and at the same time showed no respect for Jewish lives. Another example shown in Maus of the miserable conditions that Jews suffered was starvation; Vladek tells Spiegelman that in Dachau, a concentration camp, Jews got no soup (the only meal of the day) if they had lice; lice was in the barracks prisoners slept in, it became impossible not to get it, most prisoners suffered a slow death due to this.
Not only does Spiegelman tell the horrific story of his father in a concentration camp but he also helps the reader see the disagreements that father and son face, now that the war is over. The distinct character traits of Vladek and Art Spiegelman creates conflicts between them; these conflicts are abundantly addressed in Maus. One of the main focuses of Maus is transporting the reader between two time periods, and while showing the present there are times when Vladek is very selfish and stubborn, but one must understand that Vladek’s personality is primarily due to the Holocaust.
Spiegelman disapproves of Vladek’s behavior, for he has not been through the same circumstances that his father has; such as suffering from starvation, and being resourceless. Although being the obstinate man that Spiegelman is, he does not know much about his Jewish religion. When Vladek has a dream that he would leave a work camp during Parshas Truma, Spiegelman asks what Parshas Truma is, therefore, he is naive of the significance of this event.
The effects of the Holocaust on Vladek are also shown on page 73 of Mauswhere Vladek asks for Art’s help in fixing a leak in the drain pipe, but Spiegelman’s reaction to this is, “… Why don’t you hire somebody? ” this shows important differences in their character. The examples are endless when it comes to Spiegelman expressing his dad’s selfishness when they are both found walking on the street and while Vladek is happy to find a piece of telephone wire, Spiegelman is found to be upset at his dad picking up “trash”.
While creating a journey between time periods, Spiegelman discovers a way to transmit the severe mental wound left in his father. Spiegelman makes the reader transverse between past and present only to convey the fact that the sufferings Vladek underwent never vanished, each memory was alive within him, even after the war. Vladek was left with a continuing trauma after the war, this is a significant contribution to the reader because it teaches the effects war had on its survivors, and helps one understand how cruel and bitter the conditions must have been.
In the book Vladek is shown being driven to the supermarket with the only purpose in mind being returning opened half-eaten cereal boxes. The heart aching final scene in Maus that represents the culmination of the two volumes shows Vladek lying in bed and asking Spiegelman to stop recording, only to call him Richiev, the name of his first son who passed away during the war. Maus is an exceptionally well written book that is presented to one through comic strips to help one better understand the various themes in Maus.
The use of animal masks in Maus to represent “races” is a powerful way to reveal the mentality of the different people and what role they played before, during and after the Holocaust. Spiegelman successfully appeals to one by using the symbolism that can only be shown in comic book panels. At the same time Spiegelman shows his audience of the awful humiliation that Jews suffered in the 20th century and its effects. Most importantly Spiegelman makes the reader travel between different time periods to show the impact of the war, and the indelible scar left in his father.