Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is the illustrated true story of Vladek Spiegelman’s experiences during World War II, as told by his son, Artie. It consists of Book One: My Father Bleeds History, and Book Two: And Here My Troubles Began / From Mauschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond.
While the story is primarily focused on Vladek’s life, there is also a frame narrative (or, a story within the story) that shows Artie and his father interacting in the present, with Artie asking questions as Vladek relays his experiences. As Vladek describes the horrors that he faced as a Jewish person in World War II, there are interspersed scenes that reveal some of the challenges that Artie faces as the son of a concentration camp survivor. For example, Vladek is obsessive about money and constantly fusses over Artie’s clothes, decisions, and refusal to eat everything on his plate (even though Artie is an adult).
Except for a brief scene that depicts Artie as a human wearing a mouse mask, all of the people in the story appear as anthropomorphic animals. Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs people, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs.
The story begins around 1978, with Artie visiting his father Vladek in New York City. Vladek looks frail and unhealthy; he’s had two heart attacks, and the suicide of his wife Anja (Artie’s mother) a decade earlier has taken a serious toll on him. Vladek is remarried to a woman named Mala with whom he constantly argues. Artie asks Vladek to tell him stories about life during World War II so that he can create a comic book based on Vladek’s experiences.
Vladek starts his story in 1935, when he was living in Poland. After marrying Anja Zylberberg, Vladek moves to Sosnowiec, Poland, where her wealthy family helps them get established. Vladek and Anja have a son named Richieu, and Anja’s father, a millionaire, gives Vladek money to buy a factory in Bielsko. Vladek runs the factory during the week and returns home to Sosnowiec on the weekends to visit Anja and Richieu. Anja has a breakdown due to severe postpartum depression, and Vladek stays with her in a sanitarium in Czechoslovakia until she recovers. In 1939, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army and sent to the frontlines to fight the Nazis, where he is captured and becomes a prisoner of war. Vladek is eventually released back to Poland, and he returns to Anja and Richieu in Sosnoweic.
As the war continues, the Nazis begin rounding up Jewish people in Sosnowiec and sending them away on trains. Food and resources become scarce, and Vladek begins trading goods on the black market in order to provide for his family. Several of his friends are caught trading goods and executed. The Nazis later order that everyone report to the local stadium to have their papers verified; once there, many Jews are taken away for deportation. Luckily, Vladek’s cousin is working one of the tables at the stadium, and he is able to secure Vladek’s release, as well as Anja’s and her parents’. Vladek’s sister Fela, Fela’s four children, and Vladek’s father are not as fortunate—they are never seen again.
During one of Artie’s visits to help his father and record his stories about World War II, he finds out that his father read a comic he drew years before. The comic, Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History, is included in Maus. It depicts Artie as a prisoner and shows the mental and emotional pain he endured because of his mother’s suicide in 1968.
Continuing on with his story, Vladek says that after leaving the stadium, he and his family were relocated to a ghetto in Srodula. In order to keep Richieu safe, Vladek and Anja send him to live with Anja’s sister Tosha in Zawiercie. They later find out that when Tosha discovered that she and the rest of the Jews in Zawiercie were going to be shipped to Auschwitz, she poisoned Richieu, herself, and her two children in order to spare them a worse fate at the camp.
When Vladek and Anja realize that the Germans are going to send everyone in the ghetto to concentration camps, they go into hiding to avoid capture. Once the ghetto is empty, Vladek and Anja begin to walk back to Sosnowiec. Along the way, they secure passage to Hungary with some smugglers, but the smugglers betray them and hand them over to the Germans. Vladek is sent to Auschwitz, and Anja is taken to Birkenau.
Vladek tells Artie that Anja kept diaries after the war, but Vladek destroyed them in a fit of grief. Artie becomes upset and yells at his father, saying that they would have had valuable information in them. At the beginning of Book Two, while Artie is staying with friends in Vermont, he receives a call from Vladek: Mala has left him and taken some of their shared valuables. Fearing that he will be responsible for taking care of his father, Artie goes to visit him in New York.
Vladek continues his story and describes the terrible conditions in Auschwitz. While working there, he uses his knowledge of trade skills to remain valuable and avoid execution. He learns that Anja is in the secondary camp, Auschwitz Birkenau, and arranges to do some repairs there so that he can see her. After hoarding the few resources available, Vladek bribes some of the Nazi guards to have Anja relocated to his camp to work in the munitions shop.
Vladek continues his story, describing the various ways that he used his skills and resourcefulness to help himself and Anja survive at Auschwitz. As the Russian army closes in on Auschwitz, Vladek is tasked with dismantling the gas chambers. All of the prisoners are eventually evacuated and relocated to Dachau, a camp in Germany. Vladek contracts typhus from the lice at Dachau and becomes very sick. He is sent toward Switzerland by train to be traded as a prisoner of war and is eventually rescued by American soldiers. After traveling back through Germany to Poland, he is reunited with Anja.
When Artie visits his father to hear the last of the story, Vladek is very sick. Mala has returned to help, but is still frustrated by Vladek. When Artie starts to leave, Vladek, confused and tired, calls him Richieu.