Maus: a living lesson on the holocaust
by Amanda Acey
Mice screaming in horror, their eyes wide. Flames surrounding them. A pile of bodies behind them, already burned alive.
The above scene is just one of the many horrors of the holocaust depicted in Maus, a graphic novel by American cartoonist by Art Speiglman. The book chronicles Art’s father Vladek’s experiences before the war and up to the liberation of Auschwitz. At times it can be difficult to consume media that is so connected to you in such a terrible way, but I’m very glad that I read it. Maus is an incredible book that I highly recommend. It is a worthwhile read because it’s very educational, the format lends itself well to the heavy symbolism throughout the book, and through the way Art uses frame-tale timeline, even shows how the holocaust still effects people today.
When someone is learning about the holocaust, actual experiences help them humanize it. History can gloss over what it’s not proud of, and we can’t let that happen. There are certain elements that are staples in our education about the holocaust, such as hiding, living in ghettos, and gas chambers. But what isn’t always highlighted is the smaller ways that Jews were able to scrape by in such awful conditions. The book mentions trading in the barracks, how one day’s bread could get you three cigarettes, and 200 cigarettes could get you a bottle of vodka. Vladek was able to survive because he knew multiple languages, which gained him favor with the kapos, the guards, and later with the American soldiers. Knowing how to fix a boot also gained him favor with the kapos, so he could use his skills and his resourcefulness to get more food, clothes, the little he needed to survive.
Its symbolism also makes the book compelling. The work is an allegory, employing postmodernist techniques, and a minimalistic art style. Speiglman depicts Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and the Polish as pigs. Arthur is sometimes depicted as a human wearing a mouse mask, and you can see the elastic from certain angles, symbolizing that he does not feel entitled to his Jewish identity. Another example is early in the second volume. In the narrative present, Speiglman is working on the second volume of the book and shown sitting in a desk, with his mouse mask on, (only partially covering his head). His desk is sitting on top of a pile of emaciated bodies. This visual is very often shown when referring to the holocaust. It’s incredibly traumatic, especially for Jews. It symbolizes that Art feels as though he’s exploiting holocaust victims.
The book uses a frame-tale timeline, switching between the narrative present and narrative past. Throughout the book in the narrative present, Arthur is working on the book. It follows him first proposing the idea to his father, all the way up to him finishing gathering Vladek's stories. The way the timeline is set up lends itself very well to show how the holocaust effects people today. For example, part of a chapter in the narrative past talks about the Nazis taking Jews, and Vladek explains to Arthur “We came here to the concentration camp Auschwitz, and we knew that from here we will not come out anymore.” In the same chapter, Spieglman moves the character into the narrative future. Arthur is talking to his wife and says “I did have nightmares about S.S men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids.”
At some point in the future, there will be no holocaust survivors left. Reading about the holocaust in history books provides you with facts, but the only way you can truly grasp how awful it was is to listen to the survivors. Maus immerses readers into the never to be forgotten horrors through intense, biographical scenes of dehumanization and through the book's visual symbolism. Speiglman doesn’t gloss over the grizzly details.
The holocaust still very much effects people alive today, and Maus does an amazing job of showing this. Once you start reading, you will immediately be invested and forever changed.