Artie, now a grown man, is visiting his father in Rego Park. They greet each other warmly, though Artie writes that they are not very close. He confesses that it has been “a long time” since he last saw Vladek, and notices that Vladek has aged during that time. “My mother’s suicide and his two heart attacks had taken their toll,” Artie observes. Inside the house, Artie greets Mala, his father’s second wife. Like Artie’s parents and most of their friends, Mala is a Polish Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust (she has the head of a mouse). She takes Artie’s coat to hang in the closet, and Vladek berates her when she tries to use a wire hanger instead of a wood one.
The first lines of Artie’s story introduce several enormous traumas: suicide, estrangement, medical issues, an unhappy marriage, and the shadow of the Holocaust hanging over the whole thing. Artie’s childhood home is a museum of tragedies, and it is no surprise that he has kept some distance from the place as an adult. Still, it is very clear that Vladek loves his son. His fuss over the wood hanger, though inconsiderate of Mala, betrays his desire to make the visit perfect for Artie.
After dinner, Vladek leads Artie into a bedroom, so he can pedal on a stationary bicycle while they talk – this is good for his heart, he says. Artie tells Vladek he has been thinking about drawing a comic book about Vladek’s life in Poland during World War II. Vladek tells Artie nobody wants to hear his stories. The serial number tattooed on Vladek’s left forearm, a remnant of his imprisonment in Auschwitz, is visible as he grips the handle of the stationary bike. Artie assures Vladek that he wants to hear the stories, and asks him to tell how he met Artie’s mother, Anja.
Vladek’s tattoo is a sign that he has endured something of monumental historical importance. The serial number tattoos given to Auschwitz prisoners are among the most recognizable symbols of the Holocaust, and color the middle-class normalcy of the stationary bike with unspoken sadness. Artie’s first question reveals that he knows very little about his father – basic facts about how his parents met are unknown to him.
With some trepidation, Vladek begins to tell his story. When he met Anja, he says, he was living in a small city in Poland called Czestochowa, earning a modest living in the textile industry. He was young and very handsome, and many women were interested in him. Vladek remembers one, Lucia Greenberg, who asked their mutual friend, Yulek, to introduce them. Vladek takes Lucia dancing. One panel shows her flirting audaciously with him, clearly angling for an invitation to his apartment. After this date, Vladek says, Lucia seemed to appear wherever he went, and was always trying to convince him to invite her home.
Since so much has already been made of Vladek’s status as a Holocaust survivor – Artie’s story in the prologue, his close-up drawing of the serial number tattoo – it is surprising that Vladek should start his story with memories of ordinary life in Poland. These memories remind Artie that Vladek is more than the violence he has experienced. Still, the reader knows that the world he describes is on the brink of destruction, and this colors everything with sadness.
Vladek tells Artie he had no particular interest in Lucia, but that she insisted on their being together. A panel shows Lucia stretched out on Vladek’s bed in a slip, while Vladek sits beside her adjusting his tie. They have clearly been having sex – Artie confirms whether this was the nature of their relationship, to his father’s embarrassment. She tells Vladek she wants them to get engaged. Vladek ignores her comment. Lucia’s family was “nice,” Vladek tells Artie, but they had no money for a dowry.
Though Lucia is clearly scheming to win Vladek as her husband, which does nothing to endear her to the reader, Vladek seems equally callous and calculating. He is not forthcoming with Lucia about his intentions, though he has clearly dismissed the idea of marrying her because she has no money to bring to the relationship. He sees marriage as a way to bring himself up.
The next panel shows Vladek disembarking from a train, while a woman on the platform – his cousin – waves to him. He has come to spend a holiday with his family in Sosnowiec, a town about 40 miles from Czestochowa. It is 1935. The crowd on the platform includes Jews, with their characteristic mouse heads, and Polish Christians, who have the heads of pigs. His cousin tells Vladek that she wants him to meet her friend Anja, who she says is an intelligent girl from a rich family.
Vladek is clearly close to his family. That his cousin meets him at the train station, rather than a parent or sibling, shows that this closeness goes beyond his immediate family – extended family members are also an important part of his life in Sosnowiec.
The next day, Vladek goes with his cousin to meet Anja in town. The two women talk in English, neither knowing Vladek understands them; Anja admits that she finds Vladek handsome and very nice. The cousin contrives to leave Vladek and Anja alone together, at which point Vladek teases Anja, revealing that he speaks English – he taught himself the language, despite having to leave school and begin working when he was 14 – and understood her comments about him. Anja is embarrassed, but she recovers quickly. The two soon sit down in a cafŽ, talking comfortably.
Vladek and Anja both appear at their best in this exchange. Vladek shows himself to be hard-working and intelligent, striving to better himself by learning English, despite the hardship that forced to him leave school. Anja shows herself to be graceful and self-possessed, moving on from her embarrassment with ease, and she is obviously well-educated and very intelligent herself.
Anja and Vladek make plans to talk on the telephone after he returns to Czestochowa. Vladek tells Artie that they began to talk every day, and that Anja wrote him beautiful letters. When she sent him a photograph of herself – Artie imagines the picture in a sketch, with Anja posing in a fur coat and hat – he bought a nice frame for it. Soon after, Lucia sees the photograph and gets upset. She insults Anja’s looks. When Vladek tells her that he plans to marry Anja, Lucia throws herself at him and begs him to reconsider. Vladek admits (with some prompting from Artie) that Anja wasn’t as attractive as Lucia, but claims she had a wonderful mind and that it was easy to fall in love with her once he began talking to her.
Though Vladek seems shallow and self-interested in his relationship with Lucia, he is obviously sincere in his feelings for Anja. His decision to buy a special frame for her picture, though a small gesture, is a very tender one, and his warm descriptions of her writing and brilliant mind show that Vladek was honestly in love with Anja – he was not just an opportunist in search of a wealthy wife. The photograph Anja sends, which shows her bundled modestly in an expensive coat, conveys her wealth and her conventionally good breeding. Unlike Lucia, Anja shows the demur manners expected of women at this time.
Vladek remembers visiting Anja’s family for the first time. The Zylberbergs owned one of Poland’s biggest hosiery factories, and were extremely wealthy. Before dinner, he snoops in Anja’s closet to see whether she will be a tidy housekeeper. He finds several bottles of pills among her neatly folded clothes. Vladek does not want to marry Anja if she is sickly, and he writes down the names of the pills. He tells Artie that he later showed this list to a friend who worked in a pharmacy, and learned that the pills had only been prescribed because Anja was “skinny and nervous.”
Vladek clearly loves Anja, but he is careful to safeguard his own interests nevertheless. He does not want to become entangled with a woman who can’t keep a clean house, or who will demand lots of extra care due to illness. Vladek is an ambitious, self-made man who is pragmatic in all things – including his dealings with the woman he loves.
At the end of 1936, Vladek and Anja are engaged. Vladek is preparing to move to Sosnowiec when, one night, Lucia appears at his door. She throws herself on the ground and clings to his leg, begging him to take her back. Vladek runs away and calls Yulek to take Lucia home. Shortly thereafter, Anja receives a letter from a “secret friend,” warning her that Vladek has a reputation in Czestochowa as a womanizer, and that he is only marrying Anja for her money. Vladek, who knows the letter must be from Lucia, visits Sosnowiec to sooth Anja’s worries. She is tearful when he arrives, but believes him when he says Lucia means nothing to him. Vladek tells Artie soberly that he “went too far” with Lucia. The damage corrected, he and Anja are married in February 1937. Vladek moves to Sosnowiec to live with her. In one panel, the family toasts the newlyweds with vodka.
Lucia’s vindictive letter is the punishment due to Vladek for his selfishness. He was happy to keep Lucia as a girlfriend while it was convenient for him, but he never valued her as a real human being. It seems that the near-disaster Lucia created with her letter was a sobering experience for Vladek – he sees that it was a mistake to let Lucia develop such strong feelings for him while never intending to follow through in their relationship. With this error corrected and learned from, however, he and Anja are able to enter into a happy marriage. The toast with their families shows that this was a festive, joyful moment in their lives.
Vladek pauses in his cycling. He tells Artie he does not want these stories included in Artie’s book. They have nothing to do with the Holocaust, he says. Artie protests that the stories are “great material” that make the war narrative “more human.” Vladek insists Artie should not mention these details of his private life – to do so wouldn’t be “proper” or “respectful,” he says. Finally, Artie promises to do as Vladek wishes.
The fact that these stories appear in the book shows that Artie did not keep his promise to Vladek, though it cannot be known whether Artie included them secretly or convinced Vladek to change his mind. It is clear that the two have very different ideas about what responsible representation of the Holocaust entails. Vladek wants Artie to present a clear, focused message about what happened, and to honor those who died by treating the subject with utmost reverence. Artie wants to present human lives in all their complexity: to show the people whose lives were thrown into chaos by the Holocaust as real people, full of love and neuroticism and kindness and selfishness just like anyone else.