Illustrations and words are both mediums of expressing and telling the stories of the past, but when combined, the result can be more powerful than either on their own. Maus: Part I: My Father Bleeds History is a gripping graphic novel telling the story of the survival of a Polish Jew, Vladek Spiegelman, through World War II and the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Art Spiegelman, Vladek’s son, used not only his father’s narrative as a means of communicating harrowing details of survival, but he also used illustrations throughout the story just as effectively to emphasize details of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. At points, the images in the graphic novel are more crucial for the reader to understand the challenges Vladek faced than the narrative itself.
In Maus, Spiegelman does not portray the main characters as people; instead, the Jews were portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Poles as pigs. The simple metaphor of cat and mouse to the predatory attitude the Nazis had towards the Jews. Just as determined as the cat is to catch and kill the mouse, the Nazis and Nazi collaborators went to great lengths to catch and exterminate the Jews. Spiegelman explained his reasoning for using mice in a different way. He stated in an interview that he divided the characters in his novel into species because the Nazis did the same when moving toward the Final Solution by dividing humanity into species.  Jews were also commonly portrayed as rats by Nazi propaganda and sadly, even the pesticide used in the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Zyklon-B, was originally created for rats and mice.  In itself, the metaphor of Jews as mice is an illustrative concept that speaks louder than the words on the page.
A rather striking scene in the novel is when Spiegelman initially asks his father to begin to tell his story. At this point, the reader is aware of the fact that Spiegelman’s father was somehow involved with the war and originally from Poland, but the extent of his identity and history is not clear. In the panel before Vladek begins to tell the story of how he and his wife met and where his troubles began, the drawing zooms in on Vladek’s forearms and focuses on his concentration camp tattoo, the identification number he was identified by during his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  This particular panel also includes Spiegelman in the background, waiting for his father to tell his story. For a reader with any type of World War II or Holocaust knowledge, one can infer that Vladek is a concentration-camp survivor, something that is not written outright until later in the novel but this image is the first introduction readers have to Vladek as a Holocaust survivor. As the novel progresses, Spiegelman continues to use images to convey a story untold by words.
Vladek’s identity as a Polish man and a Jew is further examined through illustration. If Vladek or other Jews revealed their religious identity, it would have spelled certain imprisonment or death. The reader is presented with Vladek wearing a pig mask, signifying he is masking his Jewish identity and presenting himself purely as a Pole. One specific example of Vladek using his Polish identity to shield his Jewish identity occurs after he is released from the prisoner of war camp and trying to make his way back to his hometown in Sosnowiec from Lublin. Lacking the correct legal documentation to safely travel by train, he puts on his Polish mask and asks a fellow Pole for help, cloaking his Jewish identity.  Spiegelman creatively uses his illustrations to show when Vladek is putting on his Polish mask, which becomes increasingly more common as the novel continues.
Spiegelman’s skill of dropping subtle, yet profound illustrative hints through Maus creates a window into the struggles Vladek faced while doing his best to survive in a place where all hope seemed to be lost. Vladek Spiegelman’s life is shown from a unique perspective when illustrations combine with narrative to create a compelling, gut-wrenching, and inspirational graphic novel.
 Alisa Solomon, “The Haus of Maus: Art Spiegelman’s Twitchy Irreverence.” http://www.thenation.com/article/haus-maus/
 “Art Spigelman and the Making of Maus.” http://www.pbs.org/pov/inheritance/photo-gallery-art-spiegelman-maus/
 Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I. My Father Bleeds History (New York, Pantheon Books, 1986), 12.
 Spiegelman, My Father Bleeds History, 64.