maus: an easy understanding of the holocaust through cartoon

Holocaust: a genocide in which some six million European Jews were killed by Adolf Hitler‘s Nazi Germany (source: Wikipedia)

Attempting to tell his father’s stories during the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman decided to draw 2 series of cartoon with only animals as the characters. The cartoon depicts the Jews as mice (hence the title Maus, which means ‘mouse’), Germans as cats, Americans as dogs, Polish as pigs,  and so on. All of this really do make sense, since cats usually kill mice while dogs constantly fight with cats. These animals perfectly illustrate the chaos happening under Hitler’s dictatorship, when Germans killed the Jews and fought the Allies (Americans). Maus (you can read: here) is solely based on both Spiegelman and his father’s narratives, jumping reversibly from the past to the present. Most of you might find the comic to be poorly drawn, but Maus was published way back in 1980s to 1992. In other words, this comic-slash-cartoon is kinda old (way older than my 19-year-old dumb ass).

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Personally, I think the characters look adorable – the eyes are cute, although they are all just a simple drawing of two dots..

The cartoon begins with Spiegelman visiting his irate father, Vladek, who lives in New York City. “Father, tell me how did you end up in Nazi’s concentration camp?” — the answer to that question practically sums up the first series of the cartoon.

Vladek was originally from Czestochowa, a small city near the border of Germany. Before the reign of Hitler, he lived comfortably as an average-waged textile maker. Due to his charm, Vladek could marry the daughter of a millionaire, Anja. Her father provided Vladek with money to start off his own business. For a period of time, Vladek, Anja, and their other Jewish relatives were surrounded with convenience and affluence. However, Anja got mentally sick all of a sudden, probably because she was anxious about her past job of translating communist passage. Since the fragile Anja almost went insane, Vladek decided to bring her to a sanitarium (a health-oriented resort). During their trip to the sanitarium, they saw a Swastika symbol hanging as a flag (Swastika was, and still is, an anti-semitic symbol chosen by Adolf Hitler). The other Jews in the train told Vladek about Jewish people living in Germany, “we heard those Jews in German got beaten up by police and suddenly disappeared out of nowhere! Be very careful with your business, Vladek. The German is now out there hunting us Jews!”. All Vladek hoped was for Germany to stay far away from Czestochowa and the sanitarium.

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The mice (Jewish people) seeing Swastika symbol by Nazi Germany, for the very first time

Nonetheless, Vladek’s worst nightmare happened as the Germans invaded Poland; his business got taken down, along with his rights as an individual. Before that, he was even taken as a war prisoner by the Germans. During his time in prison camp, Vladek could not even take a pee — just when he began to release his bladder, a German guard began shooting at random Jews. When he came back to Czestochowa, Vladek could not even go back to his own property. On the streets, he could see many Jews got sadistically killed by the Germans. The bodies were hanged on trees, as a warning to the other Jews.

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The hanging of Jews

Even a millionaire like Anja’s father could not help himself — due to his old age, he had to be moved into a house built specifically for elders. Those who were in that particular house would be sent directly into gas chambers. Vladek’s first son, Richeu, ate poisonous pills so that he wouldn’t have to die in Nazi’s concentration camps. Both Vladek and Anja kept searching for refuge to avoid being sent to different concentration camps, to the point that they chewed wood to fulfill their hunger. Their Jewish friends suffered more, as they had to hid in a garbage (imagine living in a garbage with fear of being found out and suddenly killed). In the end of the first series, Vladek and Anja decided to just join the other prisoners to the concentration camps.

The second series generally tells about the Vladek’s experience in the camp. As Vladek was a knowledgeable man, his life as a prisoner was somewhat better than those of his fellow Jews’. Vladek used his skills of teaching English to prisoner guards, repairing shoes, and doing meticulous calculations to save himself from the acrimony given by Nazi Germany. For a short period of time, he was able to enjoy fulfilling food and warm sanctuary — however, those cozy situations did not last long. Vladek was sent again to another different concentration camp in Birkenau, where he had to work as a tinman for the crematorium (a place where they burned down Jews to the bone). The crematorium used by Nazi Germany was in the form of a huge bakery, but obviously they did not burn bread or pizza. Vladek had to see sons burning their own deteriorating fathers, in the command of German guards. He was one of the prisoners who had to pour gasoline and fats over the bodies of Jews, so that they could burn better.

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All Vladek could eat as a Holocaust prisoner was stale bread that felt crunchy like glass. In addition to that, he could eat soup which tasted just like water. Even being deprived of food, Vladek still saved some of his daily bread to be exchange for cigarette, which could be used as a bribe for German guards. Once, Vladek lost all of his stale bread that he had been saving for days, thus making him start all over again. He did this just so that Anja, who was in a different camp, could be moved closer to him in Birkenau. When the Allies were approaching Germany, the Germans forced the Jews to march them into the woods. Those who could not march anymore were shot exactly right on the spot. In the end, after escaping various massacre by the Germans, Vladek was saved by American troops. And to sweeten the story, he also met Anja again. They later had a child, Art Spiegelman (the writer of this cartoon), and moved to New York. All was well until Anja’s sudden suicide. Heart-broken and depressed, Vladek burned everything relating to Anja, even her journals that told her stories as a Holocaust prisoner.

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Vladek died to several health complications in the 1980s. It is portrayed in the cartoon that the Holocaust has made Vladek into a different being with his own antics. After surviving Nazi Germany, Vladek became much more stubborn, cantankerous, stingy, and egoistic, until his own son couldn’t even stand him. Vladek’s obstinacy almost ended his marriage with Mala Spiegelman, his second wife. It’s such an irony to see Vladek, who had survived Nazi Germany, to only be abandoned by his wife and son — “I survive the Holocaust….. for this??!”. It’s such an irony to see Vladek, a survivor of one of the worst genocide, being prejudiced and racist towards African-Americans (he stereotyped them as stealers).

When you read books about the tragedy of Jewish people under Hitler’s dictatorship, you can only imagine those horrifying situations in your head. But when you read this cartoon, everything just seems more realistic. For those who can’t bear seeing actual people being burned alive or hanged on trees, this is the perfect read for you — it’s only cartoon with animal illustrations! On a lighter note, Maus pictures the way Nazi Germany stripped down every individual’s human rights with the help of adorable animal characters.  Honestly, Maus is not really a cartoon — it has more complicated storylines than the usual cartoons. It’s actually an educative graphic novel. After reading a lot of stories about the Holocaust, you may realize that Jews living in concentration camps were just ordinary people with human rights, like you and me. They had properties (houses, lands), big families, businesses — some of them were millionaires, who could throw huge parties in ShangriLa hotel. Since Adolf Hitler was prejudiced and anti-semitic (thought the Aryan race as superior), the Jews got annihilated as if they were nothing at all. As I have said before: everything was stripped down, right to the core.


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