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Unforgettable, complete Holocaust story

Book Book Review, Title The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale, Author Art Spiegelman, Rating 5.0, History Holocaust

The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale

Art Spiegelman

Book Review

Books in the Maus series:
Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I: My Father Bleeds History
Maus: A Survivor's Tale. II: And Here My Troubles Begin

If you were looking for just one story that would give you some sense of the personal impact of the Holocaust on its victims, survivors and their families, this is it. Spiegelman's cartoon version of his father's life before, during and after the Holocaust, of which he was a survivor, provides a more direct, complete and highly visual means of telling the story. Maus draws you close, and with each panel, you feel the emotional impact of this terribly difficult and sad world.

This takes nothing away from the many autobiographical accounts such as Anne Frank’s diary, Night by Elie Wiesel, or Survival in Auschwitz: If this is a Man by Primo Levi, which are compelling stories in their own right. In this context, though, none of these classics cover the subject as completely. The story starts before the invasion of Poland (‘normal’ life), proceeds through the gradual ghettoization of the Jewish population in Poland, where terror begins immediately with people being killed in the streets, dragged from their homes, moved out of villages and slowly concentrated in ghettos. The ghettos were ultimately eliminated, with the final survivors transported to concentration camps, both work and death camps. At this point, since the author’s father was imprisoned in Auschwitz, a work camp, and his mother in Birkenau, a death camp (within a mile of each other), both of these aspects of the Holocaust are clearly depicted.

Both parents survived; they were separated at the end of the war, which was common, went through displacement camps, found each other. The unhappy post-war return of many Polish Jews to their former homes is also described here, where some were murdered by the Poles. The Poles killed many thousands of Jews AFTER the war was over, with near impunity, sometimes because they did not want to give back homes and property that they had taken when the Jews were driven out of their communities, sometimes just because they were Jews. The author’s parents emigrated to the US, where the story extends to depict the author’s growing up in the home of his parents, two Holocaust survivors, and ultimately depicts the actual writing of the book.

Spiegelman is a professional cartoonist, and he brings the best of that world to the all pervasive subject of his father’s, and by direct extension, his own life. A cartoon can be described as a crude version of a film, and it is this stop motion visualization that makes Maus more than the written story that accompanies the images. The images are realistic save the one cartoon world device of portraying the different ethnic groups by drawing them as different mammals: The Jews are mice (hence the title), the Germans cats, the Poles are pigs, etc. The cat and mouse metaphor, while obvious, is powerful, and works on multiple levels; at its most basic it makes clear, in every panel, the root animalistic approach the Germans took: We are more powerful, and we deserve to use our power any way we see fit. The animal metaphor only goes so far here, as each ethnic group is portrayed in a more ethically complex manner: Some Jews collaborate with their captors and help oppress other Jews, Poles suffer at the hands of the Germans, some help Jews while others collaborate, etc.

The story does not describe heroes in any ordinary dramatic sense: His father is irascible, difficult to live with, unfair, imperious, and generally unlikeable. His depiction of the interplay between he and his father is not flattering to him, either; he can hardly bear to be around his father most of the time. This makes the story feel all the more real and emotionally complex. That this might be the result of the inhumane treatment survivors endured seems likely, and certainly to survive the Holocaust required a level of toughness that would be unseemly in more ordinary conditions.

It seems to me that Maus would be as good a means as any of introducing teenagers to the difficult but important subject of the Holocaust. Highly, highly recommended.

Thanks to my brother Peter for recommending this book to me.

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