Note: Maus jumps back and forth often between the past and the present. To facilitate these transitions in this summary, the Holocaust narrative is written in normal font, while all other narratives are written in italics.
Book I: My Father Bleeds History
As the book opens, it is 1978, and Art Spiegelman arrives in Rego Park, NY, to dine with his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. It is immediately apparent that the two men are not particularly close. Art's mother, Anja, killed herself in 1968, and Vladek is now remarried to a woman named Mala, herself a survivor. The couple does not get along, and there does not appear to be much love in their relationship. Vladek, constantly fearful that Mala will steal his money, is intensely stingy and treats his wife like little more than a maid. After dinner, Art tells his father that he wants to draw a book about his experiences in the Holocaust, and Vladek starts to tell his son the story of how he met Anja.
It is 1936. Vladek is living in Czestochowa, Poland, and has been dating a girl named Lucia Greenberg for several years. One day he travels to Sosnowiec and is introduced to Anja, the intelligent daughter of a wealthy manufacturer. They are married in 1937, and Anja's father gives Vladek part-ownership in his profitable business. Anja gives birth to the couple's first child, Richieu, soon after the marriage. After the birth, Anja becomes consumed with depression, and Vladek takes her to a sanitarium for the next three months. When they return, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army and sent west to guard the border in anticipation of a German attack.
As the Germans advance, Vladek manages to kill one soldier before he is captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp. One night, Vladek dreams of his grandfather, who tells him that he will be released during the Jewish week of Parshas Truma. Three months later, it is Parshas Truma, and Vladek is indeed released. When he returns to Sosnowiec, there are twelve people living in Anja's father's house. The family's business has been taken over by the Germans, and they are living off of their savings. Vladek meets an old customer, Mr. Ilzecki, and the two begin a dangerous business of black market dealings.
In 1942, the Jews are forced to move to a separate part of town. Soon after, Anja's grandparents are told to report for transport to a new community for the elderly. The family hides them, but soon they are taken away to Auschwitz. Not long after, all remaining Jews are told to report to a nearby stadium for "registration." Here, the elderly, families with many children, and people without work cards are sent to the left, while everyone else is taken to the right. Those on the left are sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. Vladek's father is sent to the right, but when he sees his daughter alone with her four children on the left, he crosses over to be with her. None survive the war.
Art speaks briefly with Mala about her own Holocaust experiences before going to the living room to look for his mother's diaries, in which Vladek said she had recorded all her experiences during the war. He cannot find them.
A few days later, Mala calls Art early in the morning in hysterics. Vladek, it seems, climbed on top of the roof in an attempt to fix a leaky drain and then climbed back down because he felt dizzy. Art does not want to help, and Vladek finally arranges for his neighbor to help him. A week later, Art visits his father, clearly feeling guilty. Vladek is upset, having found a comic Art had drawn years ago about the death of Anja, titled "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case Study." In the comic, Vladek arrives home in 1968 to see his wife dead in the bathtub. Art has just arrived home from a stretch in a state mental institution, and he feels responsible for his mother's suicide due to neglect and a lack of affection.
In 1943, all Jews are forced into a ghetto in the nearby town of Srodula. Uncle Persis, chief of the Jewish council in the nearby ghetto of Zawiercie, tells Vladek that he can keep Richieu in safety until things calm down. Vladek and Anja agree, and Richieu is sent there with Anja's sister, Tosha. Soon afterwards the Zawiercie ghetto is liquidated by the Nazis. Rather than be sent to the Auschwitz, Tosha poisons herself, her daughter, and Richieu.
In Srodula, Vladek constructs a series of bunkers in which the family can hide during the Nazi raids, but they are eventually captured and sent to a compound to await transport to Auschwitz. By bribing his cousin, Haskel, chief of the Jewish Police, Vladek is able to arrange for the release of himself and his wife, but Anja's parents are sent to Auschwitz. Miloch and Pesach, Haskel's brothers, build a bunker behind a pile of shoes in the factory where Vladek and Anja hide for many days without food, until the ghetto is finally evacuated. Unsure of where to go, Anja and Vladek walk back to Sosnowiec.
On his next visit, Art, finds Mala crying at the kitchen table. She is miserable in her marriage and thinks Vladek is both cheap and insensitive. Vladek walks into the room, and the two begin to argue over money. Mala leaves in a huff.
Anja and Vladek return to Sosnowiec. They knock on the door of her father's old janitor, who hides them in his shed. They soon move to a safer place - a farm outside the city owned by a Mrs. Kawka. But it is getting cold, and they need a warmer place to live. Vladek befriends a kindly black market grocer named Mrs. Motonowa, who offers her home to the Spiegelmans. The arrangement is comfortable, but one day Mrs. Motonowa is searched by the Gestapo at the market and returns home in a panic, kicking them out of the house. They live on the streets for the night and eventually return to Mrs. Kawka's, who tells them of smugglers who will take them to safety in Hungary.
A few days later, Mrs. Motonowa apologizes and they hide with her again. But Vladek does not feel safe, and he arranges to meet with the smugglers. An old acquaintance, Mandelbaum, is also at the meeting with his nephew, Abraham. Abraham agrees to travel first and write to them if he arrives safely in Hungary. A few days later, they receive a letter from Abraham and board a train with the smugglers, but they are arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the concentration camps.
Back in Rego Park, Vladek tells Art that he burned his wife's diaries shortly after her death in an attempt to ease his own pain. Art is furious and calls his father a murderer.
Book II: And Here My Troubles Began
Vladek leaves a message saying he has just had a heart attack. When Art calls the number his father left, he learns that Vladek is healthy and staying in a bungalow in the Catskills. He left the message, it appears, to ensure that his son would call him back. Mala has left him, and Art and Francoise immediately depart for the Catskills. On the drive, Art tells Francoise about his complex feelings about the Holocaust, including the guilt he feels for having had an easier life than his parents.
Vladek arrives at Auschwitz with Mandelbaum. All around, there is a terrible smell of burning rubber and fat. They see Abraham, who tells them that he, too, was betrayed and forced at gunpoint to write the letter that sent Vladek and Anja to the camps. Vladek begins teaching English to his guard, who protects him and provides him with extra food and a new uniform. Mandelbaum is soon taken off to work and never heard from again. After a few months, the guard can no longer keep Vladek safe as a tutor, and he arranges for him to take a job as a tinsmith.
It is 1987, a year after the publication of the first book of Maus and five years after Vladek's death. Art is depressed and overwhelmed, and visits his psychiatrist, Pavel, also a Holocaust survivor. The two speak about Art's relationship with his father and with the Holocaust. They focus particularly on issues of guilt. Art leaves the session feeling much better and returns home to listen to tapes of his father's Holocaust story.
During this time, Anja is being held at Birkenau, a larger camp to the south. Unlike Auschwitz, which is a work camp, Birkenau is a waiting room for the gas chambers. Anja is despondent and frail, and her supervisor beats her constantly. Vladek makes contact with her through a kind Jewish supervisor named Mancie, through whom he is able to send additional food to his wife. Vladek also arranges to be sent to work in Birkenau, where he is able to speak briefly with Anja.
Vladek arranges to switch jobs from tinsmith to shoemaker, and by fixing the shoes of Anja's guard at Birkenau, he markedly improves her treatment. He learns that some prisoners at Birkenau will begin working at a munitions factory in Auschwitz and saves tremendous amounts of food and cigarettes for a bribe to ensure that Anja is among them. Soon, though, Vladek loses his job as a shoemaker, and he is forced into manual labor. He begins to get dangerously frail, and he must hide during daily "selections" so that he will not be sent to the gas chamber. As the Russians advance towards the camp, he works again as a tinsmith and is made to deconstruct the gas chambers.
The Russian army is now within earshot of Auschwitz, and the prisoners are evacuated under German guard. They march for miles in the freezing snow and are packed like rats into crowded boxcars, where they stay for days with no food or water. Eventually they arrive at Dachau, another concentration camp. Only one in ten prisoners survive this trip.
Vladek, Francoise, and Art drive to a grocery store, where Vladek attempts to return opened and partially-eaten food items. Art and Francoise wait in the car in embarrassment, but to their surprise, Vladek is successful.
At Dachau, Vladek meets a Frenchman who is able to receive packages through the Red Cross due to his non-Jew status. He shares this extra food, likely saving Vladek's life. Vladek eventually contracts typhus and lies close to death for days, until his fever begins to subside. Just as it does, the sick that are able to walk are boarded onto a train bound for Switzerland to be exchanged as prisoners of war. Vladek is among them.
On the way home from the grocery store, Francoise stops to pick up an African-American hitchhiker. Vladek is profoundly distrustful of blacks, and he is furious.
Vladek is made to leave the train and move on foot towards the Swiss border. The war ends before they reach it, and their guards march them back onto a train that they say will take them to the Americans. But when the train arrives at its destination, there are no Americans, and the prisoners walk off in all directions. Vladek is stopped by a German patrol and made to wait by a lake, where he meets his old friend Shivek. The Jews think that they will be killed, but when morning comes the guards are gone. Vladek and Shivek begin to walk again, but they encounter yet another German patrol, which forces them into a barn with fifty other Jews. Again, they fear for their lives, but when they awaken the next morning, the guards are gone. Vladek and Shivek eventually find an abandoned house, where they stay until the Americans arrive and take the house for military use.
Vladek shows his son a box of old photographs of his family, mostly from before the war. Of his parents and six siblings, only one brother, Pinek, survived.
Art is in his apartment when he receives an urgent and unexpected call from Mala. She is in Florida and back together with Vladek, though she does not seem happy about it. Vladek had just been admitted to the hospital for the third time in a month, and now he has left against the advice of his doctors. He wants to see his doctor in New York. Art flies down to help him get home. Back in New York, Vladek sees his doctor and is cleared to go home. A month goes by before Art visits his father again. When he arrives, Mala tells him that Vladek has been getting confused. Art sits down on the end of his father's bed and asks him about the end of the war.
Vladek and Shivek leave the German farm for a displaced persons camp, where they receive identification papers. Life at the camp is easy, but Vladek soon leaves with Shivek for Hannover, where Shivek has a brother. While in Hannover, Vladek hears word that Anja is still alive, and he departs for Sosnowiec. The trains are largely incapacitated, and the journey takes him over three weeks, but he eventually arrives for a tearful reunion with his wife.
And here Vladek ends his story: "I'm tired of talking, Richieu," he tells Art, calling him by the name of his dead brother, "and it's enough stories for now."