An Analysis of the Holocaust in Maus by Art Spiegelman

There is no doubt in the minds of anyone who is familiar with the atrocious crimes of the Holocaust that this mass genocide is one of, if not the, most horrifying transgressions in all of humanity. Just as it has stained history, it has also made its mark on literature and film and other forms of creative expression. A particularly innovative technique of portraying the Holocaust can be found in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which has been described by Jules Feiffer as being “at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book” (Spiegelman, Maus I).

The cartoon-style media through which the tale is told is unique in its depiction of the Holocaust, for it encompasses the true story of survivor Vladek Spiegelman’s experiences prior to and during his time in Auschwitz as well as the author’s account of his relationship with his father amidst his struggles to lead a normal life after World War II. What differentiates Maus from the litany of works about the Holocaust is not just Spiegelman’s portrayal of life both before and after the Holocaust but also his incorporation of symbolism.

The aspect that strikes the reader upon first seeing Art Spiegelman’s artwork is his depiction of the characters of Maus as animals, most noticeably the Jews as mice and German soldiers as cats. Through this device, Spiegelman is able to highlight racial differences, accentuate the political climate of World War II, and reveal the dehumanization of individuals during the time of the Holocaust.

As the saying goes, life is not black and white; it is made up of many shades of grey. To Hitler and his Nazi forces, however, this was not so. One either belonged to or did not belong to his so-called superior race. All Jews were the same in Hitler’s eyes, and all were deserving of punishment. Likewise, all the mice in Spiegelman’s work are virtually identical, a subtle irony that reveals the rationalization of the Nazis and their supporters. This point is driven home when the kommandant who chases after Anja after she intercepts a food package from Vladek is unable to recognize her in the line of Jews during roll call later that night. The Polish pig, so markedly different from the starving Jewish mice, looks all of the Jews in the eyes but cannot tell which of them is her victim; all of the mice depicted look exactly the same.

Vladek narrates to his son, “She came back and forth, looking in each face, but with the stripes everyone looked all the same” (Spiegelman, Maus II, 66). By illustrating the Jews as mice, Spiegelman marks them as different from everyone else in the same way that the armbands that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear branded them. In an era where racial purity was valued, one’s background set them apart, and Spiegelman strives to convey this through animal imagery: the Jews are mice, persecuted by the Nazi cats, who are eventually chased away by dogs, or the Americans. The Poles, on the other hand, are pigs, animals traditionally viewed as filthy in the Jewish faith.

This is an unfortunately fitting correlation given the turncoat behavior of many of the Poles during World War II. Vladek finds that people whom he once considered friends, such as Janina, his son’s governess, are liable to turn their backs on him even in times of greatest need and claim, “You’ll bring trouble! Go away! Quickly!” (Spiegelman, Maus I, 136). In breaking down the different races into suitable animals, Art Spiegelman reveals the racist attitudes rife during World War II while also highlighting the varying aspects of each race as a whole.

Spiegelman’s decision to portray the different races as mice, cats, pigs, and dogs has less literal implications as well. Many testimonies about the Holocaust, such as Paul Steinberg’s Speak You Also, depict the concentration camps as part of a “dehumanization machine” designed to strip the Jews of any and all remaining shreds of humanity, and this is also true of Spiegelman’s work. As Vladek tells Artie during one of their walks, “We were below their dignity. We were not even men” (Spiegelman, Maus II, 54).

They are not even human, but mice, rats, mere vermin. If they were considered to be human before becoming oppressed by the Germans, they were soon stripped of any human-like qualities. They are hunted down and eaten alive by the Nazis who seek to murder them, making their depiction as cats, the natural enemy of mice, all the more apt. And yet, the Jews were not the only inhuman creatures; the sadistic, brutal behavior of the Germans renders them equally animalistic and savage. As pigs and dogs, the Poles and Americans are also at fault for letting these beastly crimes go unpunished for so long and remaining silent during Hitler’s regime. War has a way of bringing out the worst in humankind, and the Holocaust of World War II is one of the most extreme cases, as it effectively dehumanized everyone involved in such atrocities.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Maus is the fact that in scenes depicted in the present, as in the opening of the second chapter of Maus II, we see characters depicted as entirely human but wearing false animal-shaped masks. This is in direct contradiction to the remainder of the story, where everyone is clearly the animal that their race represents. This is largely because of the shift in ideals as time goes on. It is true that one’s race is still an important part of whom he or she is, hence the inclusion of the animal masks, but it is no longer the sole thing that defines them as it was during the time of the Holocaust. Ultimately, Art Spiegelman’s use of animal imagery is a remarkably complex device that reveals many significant details about the nature of humankind in both past and present settings.

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