Vladek’s Experiences During the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Graphic Novel Series Maus
In Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel series Maus the author allegorizes his father, Vladek’s experiences during the Holocaust in order to provide a new perspective on the horrific events that occurred during this genocide. Spiegelman exploits racial stereotypes in his character depiction, and represents the various ethnicities involved in the Holocaust with animals that possess similar characteristics. In the allegorical world of Spiegelman’s text Jews are depicted as frail mice, Germans are shown as dominant felines, and Poles are ambivalently illustrated as innocuous pigs. This allegory crumbles once Spiegelman introduces masks into the graphical scheme of Maus I and Maus II to delve into the theme of identity as it relates to Vladek’s quest to survive, and Art’s difficulties in relating to the Jewish plight.
Masks materialize into the graphic during the closing chapter of Maus I as Vladek tells Art of his journey with his former wife, Anja, to seek a hiding place in Sosnowiec. Spiegelman alters the silhouettes of Anja and Vladek by flattening the natural sharp contour of their natural mouse faces, reducing it to a soft, round structure (Maus I 136). In a latter panel, the seemingly contorted faces of the characters were revealed to be pig masks (Maus I 136). The author uses the masks to illustrate the struggle Jews had accepting their identity during the Holocaust.
Vladek and Anja were forced to wear these pig masks, despite the unnatural appearance it gave them, because it was their only chance of survival. In a world where mice, or Jews, were being exterminated on a wide scale by their feline, or German, oppressors, masks were seen as an evasion. The mice used these masks to repress their natural features in hopes of resembling pigs, or Poles, since they were targeted less severely. In this excerpt, Spiegelman uses the masks to symbolize a form of self-loathing Jews espoused because their will to survive outweighed their pride in their Jewish identity.
Spigelman further develops the theme of identity in the following panels. After a former friend denies that she will help the Spiegelman’s, Anja removes her mask and tells Vladek “I’m frightened,” (Maus I 136). The next panel shows the two walking side by side, trying desperately to pass for Poles (Maus I 136). Vladek has minimal difficulty passing for a Pole since he was dressed like a Gestapo, but Anja’s Jewish features were easily detectable (Maus I 136). Spiegelman draws Anja with an excessively long rat tail, depicting her inability to completely do away with her identity. In this excerpt Spigelman shows the frivolousness in trying to pass for another ethnicity. He suggests that one’s identity is intrinsic and ineradicable, and encapsulates these traits within Anja’s rat tail. Spiegelman changes the connotation of the mask symbol in these panels, and uses the symbol to convey a sense of desperation that the Jews had in their attempts to survive.
In Maus II Spigelman redefines the mask symbol and uses it to depict the struggles he faces with his own identity. The author illustrates himself staring aimlessly at his desk, recalling arbitrary statistics about his other book, Maus I (Maus II 41). Although the information Artie spews seems random, the facts share a sentiment of Artie’s role as a spokesperson for the Holocaust. In the following panel he illustrates himself with human characteristics and a mouse mask, hunched over his desk which is positioned next to a pile of rotting mice (Maus II 41).
Spiegelman’s refusal to illustrate himself with mouse characteristics shows that he does not view himself as a Jew, but an imposter, and this is exemplified by the mouse mask. The pile of rotting mouse corpses encapsulate the hardships the Jews overcame during the Holocaust, which plague Art with guilt because he attempts to illustrate their struggle without having experienced it himself. In this context, Art’s mask symbolizes an insecurity with one’s own identity.
The author identifies as a Jew, but does not feel Jewish because he has not experienced the inherent struggles of being Jewish. He depicts this concept with his human characteristics that do not resemble the mouse features of Jews, suggesting that he is not actually Jewish. Spiegelman’s usage of the mask conveys his attempts to relate to his Jewish culture, but an ultimate lack of connection between himself and other Jews.
Throughout Maus I and Maus II, Spiegelman uses the mask symbol to advance the theme of identity. He initially uses it with Jews of the Holocaust to illustrate a refusal to accept one’s identity in attempt to survive. But, when placed on contemporary Jews, the mask shows an inability to relate to one’s identity. Ultimately, the masks in the Maus series unveil the controversial theme of identity in relation to the Holocaust.