Study Guide

Maus: A Survivor's Tale Morality and Ethics

By Art Spiegelman

Morality and Ethics

Front Matter
Vladek Spiegelman

“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! …” (

The fact that Vladek is saying this to an eleven-year-old who tripped on his skates says <em>something</em> about the gap in their life experiences.

Book I, Chapter 1

“Hmm...your number starts with 17. In Hebrew that’s ‘K’minyan Tov.’ Seventeen is a very good omen. It end with a 13, the age a Jewish boy becomes a man. And look! Added together it totals 18. That’s ‘Chai,’ the Hebrew number of life.” (I.1.18)

In the concentration camp, Vladek meets a Catholic priest who gives him an optimistic reading of his prison number. This encounter gives Vladek, a religious man, some sense that God is still present, even in a concentration camp.

Vladek Spiegelman

“But here God didn’t come. We were all on our own.” (I.1.19)

Vladek’s experiences in the camp make the old proverb that “God helps those who help themselves” seem rather trite.

Book I, Chapter 5
Vladek Spiegelman

“Always Haskel was such a guy: a <em>Kombinator.</em>” “A what?” “A guy what makes <em>Kombinacya</em>, a schemer…a crook.” (I.5.118)

Haskel is one example of a Jewish character who isn’t just an innocent victim. Haskel only aids others when it enriches himself in some way, and he connives and schemes his way into the Germans’ favor.

“No, darling! To die, it’s easy…but you have to <em>struggle</em> for life! Until the last moment we must struggle together! I need you! And you’ll see that together we’ll survive.” (I.5.124)

Friendships and families are falling apart all around them, but Vladek and Anja are able to maintain their relationship and survive the war. Vladek is committed to saving Anja at great risk to himself; she helps him maintain a moral core.

“At that time it <em>wasn’t</em> anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself!” (I.5.116)

The Nazis’ persecution of the Jews created impossible situations where people had to throw their morals aside just to survive. 

Book I, Chapter 6
Art Spiegelman

“You had to <em>pay</em> Mrs. Motonowa to keep you, right?” “Of course I paid…and <em>well</em> I paid…What you think? Someone will risk their life for nothing?” (I.6.144)

Many Poles had to wrestle with the issue of whether to help the Jews escape the Nazis. Mrs. Motonowa is kind to the Spiegelmans, but she does have a price.

Book II, Chapter 1
Vladek Spiegelman

“If the SS would see she is taking <em>food</em> into the camp, right away they will kill her. But <em>always</em> she took.” (II. 1.33)

There are numerous examples of individual acts of heroism in the text. This quote describes Mancie, a <em>Kapo</em> in Birkenau who helps Vladek and Anja keep in touch.

Book II, Chapter 2
Vladek Spiegelman

“It wasn’t so easy like you think. Everyone was so starving and frightened, and tired they couldn’t <em>believe</em> even what’s in front of their lives.” (II.2.63)

Vladek explains why overt resistance seemed impossible to the Jewish prisoners. Constantly living in fear, starving, exhausted, with the spectacle of other prisoners being randomly beaten or killed around them, they were in an exceptional situation that nothing in their previous lives could have prepared them for.

Book II, Chapter 3
Art Spiegelman

“And now I thought: ‘How amazing it is that a human being reacts the same like this neighbor’s dog.'” (II.3.72)

An ironic statement, given the representation of characters as animals in the text.

Vladek Spiegelman

“Like wild animals they would fight until there was blood. You can’t know what it is, to be hungry.” (II.3.81)

Like Quote #9, another ironic statement, given the representation of characters as animals in the text. The conditions in the camp are so brutal that people are reduced to fighting with each other like animals to survive.

Book II, Chapter 5
Vladek Spiegelman

“I got dizzy, so like now, I grabbed to a bush, and I fell…I crawled to the side so people can <em>see</em> me but won’t <em>step</em> on me. <em>Finally</em> someone helped.” (II.5.113)

Now in Florida, Vladek nearly has a heart attack and has to crawl by the sidewalk hoping for help. The stress on “finally” suggests that many people passed him by, a horrifying reminder that human beings may not have changed so much after the Holocaust after all.