Common Reading 2005 - 2006

What is MAUS?

1. It is a graphic novel or actually a graphic memoir since it is a true story. It is a complex story told in pictures and handwritten captions, as opposed to only typeset print. Therefore, it is a piece of visual as well as literary art.   


2. It is an oral history and memoir. An oral history is an extended interview where a witness to historical events is asked to recall what he experienced. Someone else writes it down. A memoir is the story of a life written by the participant or another person. These are testimonies, and as such they may be partial or not entirely reliable. Yet all history has to be witnessed by someone and dependent on his or her memory.  




It is the story of one concentration camp survivor, a Jewish Polish refugee and his family: Vladek and Anja, and their son Art Spiegelman. Another son Richieu died in the war; so did the other members of Anja’s and Vladek’s families. After Anja Spiegelman’s death, Vladek married Mala, also a survivor. Only a tiny percentage of those Jews deported to concentration camps survived. It is often very difficult for witnesses to genocide to feel comfortable with everyday life because of the horrors they have experienced.

4. It is the story of a historical genocide that is now known as the Holocaust. “The Holocaust” names the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jews from 1933 through 1944 (as well as members of other groups targeted by the Nazi regime such as homosexuals, communists and gypsies).  

Maus is also an oral history of one aspect of World War II. It is difficult to say exactly when major events in history begin since they grow out of earlier events. World War I ended with the Germans and their allies losing in 1918. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party began their activities in Germany the 1920’s but Hitler was also jailed during some of those years.

The Nazi Party rose to prominence in the 1930’s due in great part to the international economic depression that began in the United States. In 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in a power-sharing scheme since the Nazi Party had received a third of the vote. The first major terrorizing action was to burn the Reichstag, which was the German parliament, a representative governing body, though the Nazis denied responsibility and accused the communists. Within two months Hitler had seized dictatorial power and had opened the first concentration camp. He militarized the country in violation of the Versailles Treaty and stripped Jews of all civil rights. On Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) Nazis broke the windows of synagogues, Jewish shops and homes. British, French and Italian heads of state met at Munich on September 29, 1938 to negotiate with Hitler. Afterwards, British Prime Minister Chamberlain famously declared that there would now be “peace in our time.”

After occupying neighboring states and signing a non-aggression pact with Josef Stalin, head of the U.S.S.R., in March of 1939 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. On September 1, Hitler invaded Poland and the Russians also invaded Poland two weeks later. In response, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, and World War II began. The United States declared neutrality, but began to funnel aid and war material to the British allies.  Still, they did not enter the war until Japan, a German ally, bombed Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.

The Axis Powers included the Germans and their allies: Mussolini’s Fascist Italy; Emperor Hirohito’s Japan; and the Occupied French. The Allied Powers were Great Britain and her allies: the Free French; the U.S.; and after Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and invaded Russia, the U.S.S.R.. In the camps, mass exterminations by gassing began in 1942 and escalated as the war went against the Germans.

On June 6, 1944 the Americans landed on the beaches at Normandy in France and began to re-take France from the Germans. The Russians also launched a counter-offensive in Eastern Europe and were defeating the Germans there. In 1944 American troops and Soviet troops began to liberate the extermination camps. On April 28, 1945 Mussolini was captured and hanged by Italian partisans and, realizing defeat, Hitler committed suicide on April 30. On May 7, the Germans surrendered unconditionally. The Japanese kept fighting and on August 6 the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. When the Japanese did not immediately surrender, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Over 100,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed. On August 14, 1945 the Japanese surrendered unconditionally; this is VJ Day.  



6. MAUS is also a study of memory and its effects, good and bad. Many of those who survived the war and particularly those who survived the camps suffered from severe depressions later, sometimes attributed to “survivor’s guilt.” Having lost so many of their friends and families to horrible deaths, they could find no reason that they lived and others died. These people had seen so many unspeakable acts daily that often they lost confidence in humanity – their own as well as other people’s. Another difficulty was that after the war there were social and personal pressures to return to “normal” life or for the refugees to conform to new societies where their neighbors or even their own children could not fully comprehend the enormity of their sufferings. Spiegelman’s mother, who previously experienced depression finally surrendered in middle age. Yet memory serves many purposes in the story: as Art sets out to tell his father’s story so many years after the fact, we see the father and son become closer and begin to resolve their painful conflicts with each other and their histories. As the source for Art Spiegelman’s artistic energy, Vladek Spiegelman’s memories become public -- a vehicle for identification and understanding of this powerful historical period and the people caught up within it.  


MAUS is also the story of generational difference and conflict. It is never easy for immigrants to adapt to their new environments. Since the concentration camp experiences were of such significance to the traumatized survivors, they sometimes found it even more difficult to assimilate to post-war American life. This added to the tension between the parents and their children, who might find themselves carrying part of this burden without fully understanding the source. The 1960s, the period when many of the refugees’ children grew up, was a time of international political conflict and upheaval, cultural transformation and of a widespread “generation gap.” The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the “counterculture” were major sources of social division and they changed the world. p68-4



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