After seeing Maus on the syllabus I wondered why it was there. I had read the story twice beforehand and appreciated it, but could not understand why we had been assigned a book mostly focused on European history. The Holocaust is very important, but what does it mean for a class on American history? Then I thought about how Art Spiegelman used Maus to explore his own identity as an American Jew and son of Holocaust survivors. He is not religiously observant, but his parents’ suffering in the Holocaust is important for him.
Maus begins with a story from Art’s childhood. After being left behind by his friends, Art comes crying to his father and is told, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week….THEN you could see what it is, FRIENDS!…”  Art struggles to know what the Holocaust meant for his parents Vladek and Anja, but can never understand because he was not there. He grew up in the United States after war, but is still a victim of the Nazis. In Maus II he tells his wife Francoise that growing up he had nightmares of SS soldiers dragging him out of school, imagined Zyklon B coming out of his shower in place of water, and had a sibling rivalry with a photo of his brother Richieu, who did not survive the war. Not having these experiences makes him feel “some kind of guilt about having an easier life than they did” . These feelings are similar to those felt by other children of Holocaust survivors who struggle to understand what their parents went through and are a unique kind of survivor’s guilt.
Art’s parents’ Holocaust experience gives Art a Jewish identity. Even if he is not religiously observant, his Maus shows the importance of his Jewish heritage. Drawing Jews as mice expresses a strong sense of vulnerability. As mice the Jews are the most powerless characters in Maus. Given the Nazis’ portrayal of Jews as rodents, this portrayal attracted controversy, but it’s crucial for the book. The Jews have a single role in Maus; they are victims. The German cats in the camp have the power of life or death. Art’s parents attempt to hide their Jewishness by symbolically wearing pig masks so as to appear like the other Poles in the story, but cannot escape their fate end up at Auschwitz anyway .
Art’s portrayal of Jewish victimization reinforces Jewish stereotypes. The Jews in Maus are the eternal victim. Despite the Spiegelmans’ safe lives in the United States, they are never truly safe. Anja, who had suffered from depression before, the war kills herself in 1968. Vladek and Art are alive, but still bear scars that play into Jewish stereotypes. Vladek represents the “miserly Jew” and Art is the “neurotic Jew,” and each corresponds in some way to the Holocaust. Vladek is compelled to save everything because this saved his life during the Holocaust, and Art suffers depression because of his difficulty coping with his parents’ experience. In the comic Prisoner on Hell Planet, written before Maus, Art draws himself as a human, but one wearing a striped prisoner uniform that resembles those given to prisoners at Auschwitz . He felt imprisoned by his parents’ suffering.
Interviewing Vladek and creating Maus gave Art an opportunity to understand his parents. After a long separation he returns to Rego Park to interview Vladek and start Maus . He wants to understand them and only them. Vladek’s second wife Mala was a survivor who went through Auschwitz, but this means less because she is not his mother . He is by all means sympathetic, but it is not part of his story. By contrast, once Art discovers that Vladek had destroyed Anja’s diaries, he calls him a murderer . Art wants Maus to tell his family’s story.
 Art Spiegelman, Maus A Survivor’s Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 5-6.
 Spiegelman, Maus II A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (New York: Pantheon Books, 1991), 14-16.
 Spiegelman, Maus I, 155-157.
 Spiegelman, Maus I, 100-104.
 Spiegelman, Maus I, 11-12.
 Spiegelman, Maus I, 92-93.
 Spiegelman, Maus I, 159.