Study Guide

Maus: A Survivor's Tale Setting

By Art Spiegelman


Central Europe, 1900s-1940s; Auschwitz, 1944-45; New York and Florida, 1970s-1980s

Maus follows Vladek Spiegelman in Poland in the years leading up to World War II. Germany invaded Poland in 1939 at the start of its hostilities against Russia. While Vladek starts the war as a soldier in the Polish army, by the time he is released from the POW camp he enters a Poland under German control, and thus subject to German anti-Semitic laws. Just like the Jews in Germany, Polish Jews were required to wear badges that identified them as Jews. Their businesses were taken over by the government and their property seized. Forced to move into ghettoes, they were subject to a strict curfew and were often the victims of brutality, as many scenes in Maus show.

Maus then follows Vladek to his internment at Auschwitz, a name that for many has become synonymous with the Holocaust. The Holocaust (also called the Shoah) refers to the systematic killing of over six million Jews during World War II. But Auschwitz was only a part of the Nazi plan. The infamous sign over its gates – Arbeit macht frei, or “work will make you free” – is a reference to prisoners who were forced to work in terrible conditions there.

The majority of the killings happened in nearby Birkenau, where Art’s mother was imprisoned. Here, prisoners who were too young or feeble to work were sent to be mass executed. Heinrich Himmler, Nazi Germany's Minister of the Interior, called Birkenau the “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe.” Over one million Jews were ruthlessly executed at Birkenau.

Maus captures life in both Auschwitz and Birkenau, and at Dachau as well, and it reminds us that not only Jews, but political prisoners and Gypsies also perished in the camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945, and the American troops who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau shortly after reported back the stories of horror there (source).

Vladek’s conversations with Art take place in the 1970s and 1980s, at the family home in Rego Park, a suburb of New York City, at vacation spots in the Catskills, and at a home in Florida where Vladek and Mala spend part of their time.