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Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman - Review

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Okay so if you've been paying attention recently you'll have seen that this book was withdrawn from shelves in a very reactionary manner. This piqued my interest in it so I went on the library system to request it, but it wasn't there. So I asked the next time I went into the library if they could do an interlibrary loan for me. The person there got me to fill in a form and then I didn't hear anything until I got a notice to say that it was in the library for me to pick up! I did so and was then surprised that it wasn't loaned from another library - it was brand new! Barnsley libraries had bought it! I'm really pleased because I hope that it gets circulated around amongst children and adults alike. 

So you might have heard that this is a graphic novel about the Holocaust, written between 1978 and 1991. Let me start there. The author is Art Spiegelman, who is the son of Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja. They were Polish Jews who ended up in Auschwitz but who both survived. Art was born in 1948 when the couple were in Sweden, shortly before their move to America. Anja died by suicide in 1968 and Vladek is remarried to Mala, who he seems to dislike. He is in ill health, and over the months Art starts to get his story about World War Two. 

Obviously you know that both Anja and Vladek survived the war from the beginning, but the book is still immensely harrowing. I'll come back to this point. 

The Jews are portrayed as mice throughout the book, and the Nazis are cats. The Polish are portrayed as pigs, and there's the odd American, Brit and French person along the way too. I found it interesting because sometimes Art portrays himself as wearing a mouse mask, as if he is putting his Jewish side on or something - I found this very powerful. 

Anja and Vladek met and were married before the war, and had a son, Richieu. Anja's family owns a hosiery factory and has a lot of money, which at the beginning they seem to believe will protect them from the full horror of the war. They have to move into a ghetto (fact for you: the first ghetto was in Venice, Italy, and was used to segregate Jews there in the 16th century) and as the years go by, more and more of their family members are deported and, in Vladek's English patterns, "are finished". The family eventually hides in a bunker, and smaller and smaller spaces. The couple decide to send Richieu to family in the country; he did not survive the war and Art talks about the trauma of trying to live up to the spectre of a dead brother throughout his life. Vladek and Anja are separated and both end up in Auschwitz, where they eventually make contact. The end of the book sees the Germans surrender but also shows the absolute confusion at the end of the war when inmates were marched out of the camps and then just....... left free. I actually really liked that Anja and Vladek's life was shown after this, when they were refugees, displaced persons, and how they had to scramble to even try to rebuild their lives. 

Art finds his dad quite irritating, while still loving him and while trying to firstly get his story and secondly understand his trauma. Vladek refuses to spend any money and saves all kinds of things just in case - both of which are easily understood as trauma responses, but which are difficult for his family to live with. I think Art did a brilliant job of portraying Vladek as a very human person - there can be a tendency to show people who have lived through something traumatic as perfect and without fault, I think. That is definitely not the case there, and I liked that.

Vladek is never blase or casual about friends and family members who died, but he is matter of fact about it, and I think that is how he had to be in order to survive. At the end, he talks about how few of their family survived - just a brother and a nephew or something like that. I found this so harrowing - it's easy to intellectually know that six million Jews (and many other people the Nazis wanted to exterminate, including Roma, gypsies, and queer people) but I found it very hard to be faced with the knowledge that of these two people's huge families, only a handful remained by 1945. I found this to be a brilliant part of the book which really brought it home to me. 

I also found the sheer luck that Vladek and Anja had absolutely astonishing. It really felt like their survival wasn't through strategy or anything at all that a person could influence, but that it was just sheer bloody luck that they survived when so many others didn't. Vladek comes close to being found or close to death several times. It is terrifying and so utterly random. 

I'm giving this five out of five - it's absolutely brilliant and will really educate you on the lives of actual Jewish people before and during and after the Holocaust. My undergraduate degree was in Theology and Religious Studies so I do know a lot about Judaism and its history, but there was still a lot for me to learn here and for that I am really, incredibly grateful. I urge you to read this immediately. 

1 comment

  1. As far as I was aware, the book was removed from a school curriculum in Tennessee, it's not been removed from anything in the UK. I've been aware of this book for a long time but I've always been wary of reading it because of it being too intense and upsetting. I'm glad that you got a lot out of it though.



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