The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

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In The Complete Maus, Art Spiegelman tells not just his mother’s and father’s story but the story of all Jews in World War II Poland. The Complete Maus is the story of the Holocaust.

In a break-through way, he tells this story in the form of a graphic novel. I was amazed not just with how approachable this made the horrible story of the Holocaust, but also with how appropriate it was. The story of the Holocaust is not an easy story to tell. By telling his father’s story from the perspective of a son watching his father and via a graphic medium, Spiegelman captured the effects of the events on his father. As a reader, I could see the aftermath of the story because Spiegelman had captured the emotions in the illustrations. The Complete Maus is an essential story in the body of work about the Holocaust and rightly deserves the special Pulitzer Prize awarded it in 1992. It is a book anyone, even those who don’t consider themselves readers, can approach to learn about the Holocaust.

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History

In Maus I, Spiegelman approaches his father Vladek to learn the story of how he met his mother Anja and how they survived in Poland in the early years of the World War II. Interspersed through Vladek’s story is the modern-day struggles Vladek faces with his second wife, Mala. At first, I was frustrated by the presence of people not associated with the historic story. Why not tell the entire story from the perspective of the past? However, I realized that seeing Vladek’s reactions to modern events helped me to see how his past is still his present: he cannot forget the war. Despite the fact that he wants to set the past behind him, he is still untrusting of people and frugal. He is still suffering, still “bleeding” history.

What struck me most about the Jews in Poland in 1938-1944, particularly Vladek and Anja, was that the only reason they survived thus far was because they were lying, stealing, and cheating, besides the fact that they still had some money to pay people for help. Vladek put himself and his wife before everything: that was the way to survive. It was shocking to realize how little mercy others had for them. While some were willing to risk their lives to help the Jews, it was shocking how little chance the Jews had to live. The Nazis, in general, showed no mercy.

Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began

Maus II continues the story of Vladek and his wife, now sent to Auschwitz, and it continued the story of Spiegelman as he faces his father’s life story, now in the wake of his father’s death. Spiegelman (the graphic novel author) feels guilty not just because his father survived Auschwitz but because others want to exploit it, because he never suffered as his father has, and because he will never really understand what suffering is. It is emotional, with that introduction, to read the story of Vladek and Anja’s 10 months in Auschwitz, again trying to find an advantage so that they can survive, despite the odds.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

What stood out to me in these two volumes of history is that the graphic novel format is a griping way to tell a story. It showed me, again, that this is medium that needs to be embraced.

Spiegelman does not want his graphic novel turned in to a movie. I would agree: a movie of this story would be too harsh and too insensitive. A wordy memoir also would be too “heavy”: I love to read, but I couldn’t read a memoir like this because it would be too much, too depressing, and too detailed. But a graphic novel medium is perfect. In Maus, we learn about the Holocaust but we also learn about the effect of the Holocaust on subsequent generations. And it is very readable: for the legions of people in the world that don’t “like” to read, this is something that they could easily approach, painful as the story may be. That said, I was greatly disturbed the story (as should be expected) and I wouldn’t recommend this for children.

The Holocaust happened: the world needs to know story. Maus is an excellent approach to it.

I read Maus I and Maus II at the same time, in one volume called The Complete Maus. They were originally published in 1986 and 1991. I cannot comprehend separating these two stories; they seemed to be one. Did you read these at different times? How did that affect your reading of the story? Did you feel something was missing after the first one?

Reviewed on July 2, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have heard so many good things about Maus! Recently I found the 2nd part of Maus in our local bookshop (the only one that carries an albeit small but reasonable assortment in English), but since they didn’t have part I (and I don’t know if they ever will), I didn’t buy it. Unfortunately, that’s the way I have to think living in a country with limited access to good books. 🙁

  • @Myrthe: Where are you? I’m in Australia and I had a hard time finding graphic novels–I wanted to give them a try. They had this one and Persepolis. But they are good if you ever get them. Definitely read Maus I before Maus II. Like I said, I can’t imagine reading them at different times!

  • I read them together and I also really can’t imagine one without the other. And you’re right, this story wouldn’t work in any other medium. Not the same way.

  • @Nymeth:

    It’s so interesting that they were published five years apart. And I could tell that they were, and yet, I needed both parts to feel like it was complete. I guess it’s the desire for a happy ending, huh?

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