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Maus | Summary

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Summary

Maus tells two separate but entangled stories: that of concentration camp survivor Vladek Spiegelman's experiences during World War II and that of the relationship between him and his son Artie. Artie, who is interviewing his father about his experiences for a prospective graphic novel about the Holocaust, narrates the scenes in the present (roughly 1978–87), while Vladek narrates the scenes in the past. Vladek's war stories are told in parallel to what is currently happening in the tenuous relationship between father and son.

Book 1: My Father Bleeds History

Artie Spiegelman has always wanted to write about his father's experiences during World War II, but Vladek isn't sure anyone would want to read such a horrible story. Artie insists Vladek at least tell him what happened during the war, and Vladek capitulates, mostly to get the chance to spend more time with his son. The interviews are productive but often punctuated by misunderstandings and hurt feelings. As a child, Artie was never close to his father, and his mother's suicide seemed to deepen the gulf between them. As an adult, he still finds Vladek overbearing and controlling, but he also can't help but notice the unmistakable signs of Vladek's decline—his illnesses, his multiple medications, and his inability to maintain his house on his own. Torn between guilt and resentment, Artie does the least amount of work necessary to appease his father so they can continue the interviews.

Vladek's story begins in 1935, shortly before he meets Anja Zylberberg. They marry in 1937 and set up a home in Sosnowiec, Poland, Anja's hometown. Their first son, Richieu, is born that same year. As the Spiegelman family grows, so does Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitism in Poland's neighboring Germany. Vladek is called up for the Polish army reserves in August 1939; World War II begins the following month. After a brief stint on the front lines, Vladek is taken as a prisoner of war.

The Jewish prisoners are treated so badly in the German POW camp that Vladek volunteers for the hard labor work camp. The living conditions are much better, but the work is debilitatingly difficult. In February 1940 Vladek and the other prisoners are released. Instead of being taken home to Sosnowiec, however, Vladek and the other men who live in areas directly controlled by the Germans are taken to Lublin, another city in central Poland, where the Germans intend to execute them. The local Jewish authorities negotiate for the prisoners' release, however, and Vladek sneaks back into Sosnowiec days later.

Life in Sosnowiec has changed since Vladek's departure six months earlier. Worried about the family finances, Vladek turns to buying and selling goods on the black market. His income keeps the extended Zylberberg family, with whom the Spiegelmans are living, afloat. At the end of 1941 they are forced to give up their house and move to Stara Sosnowiec, a marginal section of the city designated for Jews. The Nazis keep a tight hold on the area, arresting and killing Jews who do not have the proper work permits and identity papers. The elderly are targeted, and Anja's grandparents are forcibly removed from the home to go to what is described as a retirement community in another city. The family later learns they were taken to Auschwitz, an extermination camp. A few months later, all the Jews in the area report at the local stadium. Two-thirds are sent away to extermination camps, including Vladek's father and sister.

In 1943 the remaining Jews in Sosnowiec are sent to Srodula, the Jewish ghetto. Anja and Vladek send Richieu to live with family in another, supposedly safer, ghetto. He dies months later, they eventually discover. Meanwhile, the Spiegelmans and Anja's parents hide from the Nazis in bunkers inside their assigned homes. A fellow Jew turns them in, and they are taken to a holding area before being transported to Auschwitz. A cousin helps Vladek and Anja escape, but Anja's parents are left behind. They are taken to Auschwitz the next day.

Anja and Vladek hide in various barns and homes for the next year in the Polish countryside. Tired of hiding all the time, Vladek decides they would be safer in Hungary. The Polish smugglers he hires to transport them across the border turn out to work for the Gestapo, and Vladek and Anja are taken to Auschwitz instead, and likely to their deaths.

In the present Artie presses his father about the whereabouts of the journals Anja kept as a record of her life. She meant for Artie to have them, but Vladek was so distraught after her death that he burned all of her prized possessions, including the journals. Vladek's confession drives Artie into a blind rage, and he calls his father a murderer.

Book 2: And Here My Troubles Began

Book 2 finds Artie and his wife, Françoise, on vacation in Vermont. They receive a call from Vladek, who is at his summer home in the Catskill Mountains. His second wife, Mala, has left him. Artie and Françoise abandon their vacation to comfort Vladek in person. He wants them to stay with him for the rest of the summer and then move in with him back home in New York. Françoise isn't completely opposed to the idea, but Artie won't hear of it. While they are together, Vladek continues his story where it left off: at the gates of Auschwitz.

Vladek and Anja are separated upon entering Auschwitz. Vladek survives by making himself invaluable to his captors in the camp hierarchy. He teaches English to one, smuggles in food for another, and earns the respect of many Gestapo officers by skillfully repairing their shoes. He makes contact with Anja, who is in nearby Birkenau, another part of the camp two miles away, and even arranges to see her during work assignments, before arranging for her to be transferred to Auschwitz. They do not get to speak much, and Vladek is severely punished when he's caught giving her food, but he is glad to have her nearby.

Auschwitz is shut at the end of 1944 as the Russians close in, eventually taking over in January 1945, and those left in the camp are forcibly marched to Dachau, far away in southern Germany. The Dachau camp is riddled with lice and typhus, and Vladek comes down with the disease. As he begins to recover in the infirmary, he is released as part of a prisoner exchange. He and the other sick inmates are to be taken to the Swiss border for the exchange, but the war ends before they can get there. They are instead put on an unguarded freight train. They walk aimlessly when it stops but are soon herded together by a local Nazi patrol unit that threatens to kill them before disappearing in the night. This happens a second time before Vladek and a friend escape to an abandoned farm. They are soon joined by American forces, who allow them to stay and work until they are forced to go to a displacement camp for the surviving inmates and others.

Vladek can't fathom that Anja survived the war, but he searches for news of her anyway. He runs into two girls from Sosnowiec at the largest displacement camp in Poland, and they tell him Anja is alive and safe. Vladek travels by train and foot for weeks to get back to her. They are reunited in the summer of 1945.

Vladek's health is rapidly failing by the time he finishes telling Artie about the aftermath of the war. Mala has grudgingly agreed to move back in, and even she says Vladek seems to be fading. During the last interview, Vladek tells Artie he's tired and done talking for awhile, then mistakenly calls Artie "Richieu." The book ends somewhat abruptly with an illustration of Anja's and Vladek's shared headstone.

Maus Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Vladek and Anja Spiegelman meet, marry, and have a son.

Rising Action

2 World War II begins; Vladek is on the front lines.

3 Vladek is taken prisoner by the Germans.

4 Vladek sneaks back into Sosnowiec after his release.

5 Zylberberg and Spiegelman families move to Stara Sosnowiec.

6 Anja's grandparents are taken to Auschwitz.

7 Spiegelmans send their first son away for safety; he dies.

8 Another Jew turns in the Spiegelmans to the Gestapo.

9 Anja's parents are sent to Auschwitz; Spiegelmans escape.

10 Spiegelmans hide in various houses and barns.

Climax

11 Spiegelmans sent to Auschwitz for trying to escape Poland.

Falling Action

12 Auschwitz closes; Vladek marches to Dachau.

13 World War II ends; prisoners are released.

14 Vladek walks across Poland to get back to Anja.

Resolution

15 Vladek and Anja are reunited in Sosnowiec.

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