I get emotional every time I read a Holocaust survivor’s memoir, watch the movie Life is Beautiful, or view Holocaust themed works of art. Beyond the inevitable tears, my immediate reaction to stories about the Holocaust includes anger, disillusionment, and the realization that I can never truly understand the horror that millions of people experienced. Because of this, I was surprised when I did not cry during my 2005 visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Oświęcimiu, Poland. Instead, I remember nervously laughing with my undergraduate classmates as I searched for, and failed to find, an emotional connection to the site.
My experience in Poland made me realize that I feel more emotionally and intellectually connected to the past when reading a poignant Holocaust memoir, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, than I did when I stood among the stark, empty barracks of Auschwitz. A graphic novel that relies heavily on illustration to convey its themes, Maus is one of the most effective Holocaust narratives I have ever read. I attribute that effectiveness to Spiegelman’s unique choice of genre and to his decision to focus the book on the heartbreaking experience of one individual, his father Vladek Spiegelman, and his family.
The success of Maus rests on Spiegelman’s seamless merging of language and illustration. Taken together, they reveal an emotional current that would be impossible to convey with text alone. Words cannot adequately express Vladek’s wife Anja’s emotional and physical collapse when she learns her son had been killed or Anja’s father’s devastated expression when he realizes he is being taken to his death . Spiegelman’s technique of vividly describing and illustrating his characters’ pain rapidly cements the reader’s emotional investment in the story. Once this is accomplished, Spiegelman can easily and effectively convey his chosen themes.
The novel’s combination of illustration and dialogue allows Spiegelman to subtly employ his themes rather than explicitly state them. This encourages a close and dynamic reading of the book, which increases its effectiveness as an educational tool. Without acknowledging it in the text, Spiegelman depicts Jewish people as mice, German Nazis as cats, Polish people as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Occasionally, the Jewish men and women must wear pig masks in public to conceal their identities and blend in with their Polish neighbors. This hoax, blatantly obvious to the reader, goes unnoticed by the Nazis and Poles . Spiegelman’s illustrations allow him to creatively highlight the ridiculousness of Hitler’s discrimination against Jewish people and insistence that Jewish people were a distinct race .
By focusing on the experience of his own family, Spiegelman effectively conveys universal themes of loss, sacrifice, love, memory, and identity. When Vladek’s father climbs a fence to join his daughter and her four children as they are being sent to one of the camps, his sacrifice gives a face and a story to the unnamed men and women who made similar decisions . It may seem contradictory, but I believe that Spiegelman’s narrow scope, which fosters the reader’s connection to the fate of Vladek and his extended family, ultimately reveals more about the Holocaust than a visit to an actual concentration camp. I argue that the public needs an anchor, something to grasp onto, if they are going to try to understand an inhumane and inexplicable event. Spiegelman’s accessible format and intimate portrait of one family provides that anchor. Auschwitz lacked that personal connection and perhaps that is why I did not shed tears or feel strong emotions while I was there.
When I returned from my college trip to Europe, my classmates and I designed a public exhibition to show our fellow students what we had learned about the Holocaust. My group constructed a Lego and wire model of Majdanek, a labor camp in Lublin, Poland that we had also visited. Looking back, I question that decision and wonder what concentration camps and other sites of atrocity can really teach us now. The stories aren’t there anymore. The stories are in autobiographies, oral histories and memoirs/graphic novels like Maus.
 Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. 1: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon, 1973), 122 and 115.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 91.