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Coverage of MAUS | by Warren Goldie

Title: MAUS (books I & II)
Submitted by: XX
Author: Art Spiegelman
Submitted to: XX

Material: Hist Biog/139 & 135
Circa: 1935-45
Location: Poland
Genre: Biography
Analyst: Warren Goldie

Log line: Concentration camp prisoner ingeniously stays alive against all odds and reunites with survivor wife after war, yet is permanently damaged.


Handsome Jewish bachelor VLADEK SPIEGELMAN, 29, is a hard working textile merchant living in Czestochowa, Poland in 1935. For four years he’s dated attractive LUCIA GREENBERG — until he meets ANJA ZYBERBERG, a quiet, sweet girl from a wealthy family, while on a trip to neighboring SOSNOWIEC. Vladek and Anja, who both speak English, Polish and German, exchange letters and calls. Soon they are in love. When Vladek meets Anja’s family, who own a hosiery factory, there are good feelings all around. Vladek and Anja marry in Sosnowiec in 1937.

Anja’s father bankrolls Vladek in opening a textile factory. Anja gives birth to a boy, RICHIEU, but suffers post-partum depression and is sent to a sanitarium in Czechoslovakia. On a visit there, Vladek glimpses the Nazi swastika for the first time. The first word of pogroms chill the area’s Jews.

In 1939 Vladek receives an induction notice from the Polish army. To keep him out, his father literally starves Vladek until he’s skeleton-thin. And it works.

The next year another notice arrives, but this time Vladek chooses to join. His unit is quickly captured and Vladek is sent to a German POW camp, where unlike the other inmmates he is not beaten because he speaks German. As a prisoner, he keeps fit by exercising and bathing each morning in an icy river. He writes Anja in German, hoping his letters will clear the censors.

One day, while he’s on a train Vladek bribes a soldier and is set free. He returns home, where he finds his father’s rabbi-like beard has been forcefully cut off by Nazis, and his mother dying of cancer.

He joins Anja and her family in Sosnowiec, where 12 relatives crowd into their apartment. Jewish businesses have been taken over by “Aryan managers.” Food is rationed. Jews must use coupons and wear arm bands. An order is issued that all Jews are to be “relocated” to a designated part of the city. The large Zyberberg clan squeezes into a small apartment.

Vladek trades on the black market for food. He has a nose for business and can smell danger. He always carries gold and jewelry for trades and bribes. When the Nazis execute a friend for dealing goods without coupons — and hang the dead man, leaving the body in the square for a week — Vladek stays inside terrified for days.

A new order decrees people over 70 are to be “transferred” out. The Zyberbergs do their best to hide their grandparents, but must give them up when the Nazis threaten to take the whole family.

Rumors of death camps circulate. All Jews are ordered to Dienst Stadium where a crowd of 30,000 waits in lines, told to go to “the left or the right.” Vladek recalls, “And those on the bad side [left] never came anymore home.” Those sent to the right were released.

Fearing for their son Richieu, Vladek and Anja send him to relatives in another town, and lay low while Nazis snatch Jews off the street, “smashing babies against walls” and gunning people down. Tragically, Richieu is killed by his caretaker who poisons both him and her rather than go to Auschwitz, which has been ordered.

The Zyberbergs leave their apartment and hide out in a filthy coal bin and then in an attic in an abandoned house. A STRANGER discovers the family, however, and reports them. They are soon imprisoned awaiting instructions. Vladek’s cousin HASKELL, a shady schemer who has deals with the Nazis, saves Vladek and Anja. Anja’s parents are sent to Auschwitz, though, to die in the ovens.

Haskell keeps the Germans friendly by intentionally losing money to them in card games. He finds Vladek a job resoling boots. One day Vladek is almost killed on the street by a crazy Nazi, “The Shooter,” but is released when he mentions Haskell’s name.

By 1943, almost all the Jews are gone from the ghetto. Vladek and Anja hide in a bunker, so hungry that they chew wood, which “feels like food.” They leave after a few days, but travelling is hard because Anja looks Jewish.

In rural Poland they meet MRS. MOTONOWA who offers asylum and food — as long as they can pay her. Mrs. Motonowa’s husband comes home only 10 days out of every three months. At great risk Vladek goes out to buy food each day since he doesn’t look Jewish, while Anja waits, terrified. When Ms. Motonowa’s husband comes home they must hide from him in a rat-infested storage locker.

One day Vladek and Anja run into a nephew planning an escape to Hungary. When they receive his letter saying he’s safe, they follow by train, per his instructions. Their “contacts” however turn out to be Gestapo agents who arrest them (the nephew was forced to write the letter at gunpoint). Vladek and Anja are sent to Auschwitz.


Book II opens in the summer of 1944 at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The KAPO (Jewish prisoner-guard) assigned to Vladek’s barracks is desperate to learn English to give him an advantage in case the Allies win the war. Vladek gets the job. For payment, he receives favorable treatment, including good quality clothes, eggs, meat and coffee.

During the appels, or roll calls, the ill and weak are taken away to perish in the gas chambers. When Vladec falls sick for two months, he is fortunate in that he lives in the relative safety of Quarantine.

Soon, however, the Kapo can no longer safely keep him, and Vladek returns to the barracks. But he gets lucky, finding an easy job in the tin shop, even despite his lack of experience.

Meeting through the barbed wire fence that separates the adjoining death camp BIRKENAU, Vladek meets MANCIE, who promises to try to find Anja. She suceeds, and at great risk Mancie passes messages between the lovers.

Anja, badly weakened by the abuse of her sadistic kapo, finds new strength in her contact with Vladek, who meets her through the fence.

Vladek gets a new job as a shoemaker. When he his told he must fix a German officer’s boot perfectly — or die — he cleverly pays a real shoemaker-prisoner to do the job. Vladek is rewarded by the officer incredibly with a sausage.

Vladek’s next job is back-breaking labor or “black work” — lifting rocks and digging holes for long hours with no rest. After two months becomes skeleton-like.

As the war nears an end, and as the Russian army approaches, the Germans try desperately to erase all evidence of the crematoriums. Vladek must assist in the dismantling, working alongside men who tell hair-raising stories of the horrors they have seen and done: pulling bodies apart with hooks, seeing arms stretched several feet from trying to climb the walls of the crematoriums, finding crushed babies at the bottom of the heap… inconceivable, inhuman things.

On the eve of liberation, Vladek and others hide out in the camp’s laundry room to await the Allies. But when the Germans order the camp burned, Vladek and his companions find themslves loaded on cattle trains that are bound for Germany. However, the camp is never actually burned.

The jam-packed, locked train doesn’t budge for a week. Vladek makes a hammock from a blanket and “hangs” above throngs of starving prisoners in the car. No supplies are issued. The men live on snow scooped from the train’s roof, and on smuggled sugar. Dead bodies pile up at the door. Once a day they are removed by the Germans.

The train finally moves and goes to the Dachau camp, where Vladek catches typhus, becoming so weak he must “pay” for help to get to the toilet. When the war ends, Vladek is in a feverish delirium.

Vladek and all the Polish refugees are loaded onto a passenger train for Poland. But the train is halted by Gestapo who threaten to kill everyone. Luckily, the Germans are called away and disappear on a different mission instead.

Vladek and a friend find their way to an abandoned Polish farm. Riding high on their freedom, they guzzle milk, eat chicken and don regular clothes. But when the Americans march in, they are suffering severe stomach problems from their overindulgences.

Vladek is sent to a displaced persons camp, where he suffers a relapse of typhus. Later he reunites with Anja in Sosnowiec.

Not long after the war, Vladek and Anja move to New York where they live until Anja’s suicide in 1968 (she left no note). In 1991, Vladek’s son Art Spiegelman, a cartoonist, publishes the story of Vladek’s survival in Hitler’s Europe as two graphic novels, Maus I and Maus II, sourced from a series of recorded interviews he had with his father. Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats and the Poles as pigs.

According to Art, Vladek was a stubborn, miserly old man. He died of heart failure in 1982.

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