Given the level of barbarity that characterized the treatment of much of Europe’s Jewish population during the late 1930s through the post-World War II period, the concept of “heroism” can certainly be applied to any Jewish individual who survived the German death camps. Art Spiegelman’s animated biographical history of his father’s life before, during, and after the war, Maus, is not a particularly flattering portrait. In some ways, Vladek personified the pernicious stereotypes of Jews that have persisted through much of human history. At one point in the first volume of Maus, Spiegelman is discussing his father with his father's second wife, Mala, another Holocaust survivor. Mala is complaining about Vladek’s unwillingness to spend any of his money on himself, let alone on Mala. Art, the son, suggests that his father’s miserly ways can be attributed to the unimaginable struggle to survive the concentration camps in which Vladek had been held. When Mala rejects such a connection, noting that she was also a survivor, Art depicts himself in responding, “In some ways, he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.”
Maus, then, is not Spiegelman’s attempt at rewriting family history to fit a more idealistic narrative. Vladek is not a particularly admirable individual. As the son continues to interview the father, however, the heroism that did exist within Vladek begins to appear. The struggle to survive in the concentration camps—and to do so with a modicum of dignity—compelled acts of questionable proprietary. Food was so scarce, the labor so physically and mentally difficult, and the brutality of the German (as well as German-allied nationalities like the Lithuanians) guards was so inhumane that prisoners were forced to engage in the most dehumanizing acts to survive. Vladek, though, did survive. He survived the German prisoner-of-war camp after being captured while serving in the Polish army, and he survived the Holocaust—an ordeal that resulted in the deaths of six million of his fellow Jews and millions more homosexuals, disabled Germans, Roms, and myriad others who ran afoul of Hitler’s legions. Additionally, he survived the post-war pogrom perpetrated by the newly-liberated Poles against what few Jews remained in that country. He struggled to ensure the survival of his first wife, Anja, and he displayed a willingness to die for his wife. He also displayed his willingness to die, if he had to, with dignity.
Vladek did not meet conventional definitions of heroism. He did not throw himself on a grenade or rush a German machine gun position. He survived the most traumatic period in human history—the systematic murder of millions of Jewish people—and, after emigrating to the United States, he started a new life. That is sufficiently heroic to some of us, and that is why Spiegelman included in the final pages of Maus a photograph of Vladek dressed in the clothes of a concentration camp prisoner. The photograph shows a young, strong (he had had time to recover from the long ordeal in the concentration camps), and proud man. The inclusion of the photograph is the author’s way of paying homage to his father in a way that certainly denotes a degree of heroism.