For several months, Artie visits his father regularly to hear more of his stories. He arrives one day to find Vladek counting pills; Vladek reveals that he takes 25 or 30 vitamins every day, as well as six pills for his heart and one for diabetes. He tells Artie that doctors will only give him “junk food” – prescription drugs – but that he has devised a regimen of vitamins for himself.
Vladek’s pills are evidence of his age and poor health, and Artie’s surprise at seeing them is a reminder of how distant he has been over the past several years. Vladek is high-strung and controlling: he does not trust his doctor to give him the best treatments, so he concocts treatment plans for himself.
Artie shifts the conversation to his mother. He wants to know whether Anja had boyfriends before Vladek. She never had romances, Vladek says, but she had a male friend from Warsaw who she would rush to see whenever he visited Sosnowiec. This man, Vladek was to learn, was a Communist who relied on Anja to translate messages into German for him. Vladek, who was careful to stay away from Communists, only discovered this after a seamstress living in their apartment building, Miss Stefanska, was arrested for possession of Communist papers. (Anja, warned by friends that the police were planning to search her home, asked Miss Stefanska to hide the papers.) Vladek reports that he was furious with Anja – ready to end their marriage – but that she agreed to stop her Communist activity. He tells Artie that Miss Stefanska was imprisoned for three months, and that his father-in-law paid her legal expenses and gave her a significant sum of money to compensate for what had happened.
Communists – people who belonged to a political group that believed in populist and highly egalitarian government and social systems – were among the non-Jewish groups targeted for imprisonment by the Nazi regime. Communism was considered criminal in many European countries even before the Nazis rose to power, and Anja took a major risk in affiliating with a Communist organization. She clearly had some investment in the group – though it’s unclear whether she believed in their political philosophy, or just wanted to help her friend – and this incident shows her caught in a web of conflicting values. She wants to do something good, but she harms Miss Stefanska in an effort to protect her own interests, and she chooses her life with Vladek over whatever obligations she feels toward the group. This moment exemplifies the ways in which moral reasoning can become tangled when important values come into conflict.
Around the same time as Miss Stefanska’s arrest, Vladek’s father-in-law offers to give Vladek money to open a textile factory. He moves to Bielsko to open the factory, visiting Anja on weekends. That October, 1937, Anja gives birth to a son named Richieu. At the mention of his first child, Vladek saddens. Richieu did not survive the war.
Richieu’s birth highlights his absence from the life Artie and Vladek lead in the present. This is the first shadow of the Holocaust in Vladek’s story: the joyous occasion of his son’s birth is deeply painful in retrospect, because the events of the war would tear Richieu away from him. The Holocaust affected everything that came after it, but it also changed the way survivors related to all their experiences that came before it.
Noticing that there are only seven months between February, when Anja and Vladek were married, and October, when Richieu was born, Artie asks whether Richieu was premature. Vladek confirms that he was, then launches into a story about Artie, who was very premature and whose arm was broken in an emergency delivery. Recalling how Artie’s arm would spasm when he was an infant – and how they would joke that the gesture resembled a Nazi salute – Vladek jerks his own arm into the air and knocks over his pills. His mood sours immediately. He becomes annoyed with Artie, whom he claims distracted him and made him spill the pills.
Vladek has fond memories of his son, and it seems from his story that he was an attentive father, at least during Artie’s infancy. The joke he recalls, which makes a light-hearted reference to the war, suggests that – though the sadness and trauma of the war has lingered – Vladek and Anja allowed themselves to incorporate their memories of into everyday life, perhaps as a way of making them less painful. Vladek’s moods are very volatile, and his intense reaction to spilling his pills shows how exhausting it can be to spend time with him.
Shortly after Richieu is born, Anja begins to experience bouts of severe depression. Vladek returns from Bielsko following an emergency call from the Zylberbergs, and finds Anja inconsolable; she tells him she doesn’t want to live. Vladek’s father-in-law tells him about a sanitarium where Anja can receive treatment, and urges him to take her there, leaving Richieu with a governess.
Many people who do not have mental illnesses experience depression after giving birth (postpartum depression). However, it is clear that mental illness was a significant feature of Anja’s adult life: she was “nervous” (or anxious) as a young woman, and would die by suicide later in life. These stories raise questions about what Anja must have been like as a mother, and what special challenges her illness might have created for her and Artie.
Vladek and Anja travel to Czechoslovakia, to the sanitarium. During their journey, they see a Nazi flag flying in the center of a small town. The sight of the swastika rattles the Jews on the train, and they trade stories about the horrible things happening to Jews in Germany: of businesses seized, synagogues burned, people beaten and carried away in the middle of the night. One panel shows a village street with a large, prominent sign that reads: “This town is Jew Free.” In Artie’s depictions of these abuses, Germans have the heads of cats. One of the Jewish men on the train tells another to pray the Nazis don’t start a war.
The atrocities of the Holocaust are yet to come, but violence and discrimination are facts of life for Jewish people long before the war – and Nazi soldiers are not the only ones perpetuating that violence. Average German people have a hand in the exclusion, abuse, and other injustices inflicted upon their Jewish neighbors. The “This town is Jew Free” sign, in particular, shows how entire communities are joined in their disdain for Jews. This animosity forces Jews to rely on one another for support.
The sanitarium is beautiful and peaceful, and Vladek finds he has a talent for helping Anja through the hardest days of her recovery – he understands her illness, he tells Artie. One night, he takes her dancing in the cafŽ at the sanitarium. The cafŽ is full of people of different nationalities: German, Polish, Jewish, and others. To make her happy, Vladek tells Anja a lighthearted story about his family’s relocation from the Polish border at the beginning of World War I: after packing all their things to flee the danger of the fighting, a pillow fell from their wagon, and his stubborn father rode a bony, saddleless horse for hours to retrieve it. Anja laughs at this story and tells Vladek she loves him. Vladek tells Artie that she was “so happy, so happy” that night, and that she couldn’t stop herself from kissing him over and over again.
Vladek is sometimes brusque and often overbearing in his interactions with Artie and Mala, but these scenes show that he has not always been so difficult to connect with. In the sanitarium, he showers Anja with warmth and positivity. He puts his own needs aside and devotes his full attention to caring for her. It is clear from her behavior toward him in the cafŽ that Anja not only loves Vladek deeply, but also trusts him. He understands her needs and attends to them in ways that inspire that trust. The person Anja sees in the cafŽ is very different from the person Artie sees in Rego Park, a Vladek changed by time and experience.
When they return to Poland, after about three months at the sanitarium, Anja is significantly healthier and happier. However, they are greeted by the unhappy news that Vladek’s textile factory has been robbed. Artie asks whether this robbery was motivated by anti-Semitism. Vladek does not think it was. With his father-in-law’s help, he builds up the factory again, and soon he and Anja are living a comfortable life in Bielsko: the business is thriving, and they have a lovely home with a Polish governess, Janina, to help care for Richieu.
That Vladek is able to recover so quickly and completely from the losses of the robbery shows the power of the Zylberberg family’s wealth. What might have been a disastrous event for another person was inconvenient and unpleasant for Vladek and his father-in-law, but ultimately not devastating. Wealth protects the family from normal vulnerabilities.
Vladek arrives home from work one day with the troubling news that there has been “another riot” in downtown Bielsko, with people yelling for the Jews to leave the city. Janina blames the Nazis for stirring up anti-Semitic feelings. Anja remarks that the Poles are already disposed toward anti-Semitism without the Nazis’ help; Janina is hurt by this, and tells Anja she thinks of the Spiegelmans as part of her own family (she is cradling Richieu in her lap as she speaks).
The riots Vladek witnesses are evidence of rising tensions in Poland. Though the violence does not threaten Vladek and Anja immediately, the riots are a sign of worse things to come. Janina’s presence in the scene shows that, though tensions between Jews and ethnic Poles are high, the Spiegelmans feel secure and integrated into Polish society. Poles are not enemies.
Vladek assures a worried Anja that they can always return to Sosnowiec if Bielsko becomes too violent. When Artie asks why Sosnowiec would be safer than Bielsko, Vladek explains that many people thought Hitler wanted to reclaim the parts of Poland that had belonged to Germany before WWI, but didn’t care about the rest of the country. Bielsko had been part of Germany; Sosnowiec never was.
Though Vladek and Anja – like so many other people – are worried about the Nazis, they can only speculate about what Hitler wants and how to protect themselves. The things that lie ahead for them are more horrible than anyone can imagine, so they are unable to prepare adequately.
In August 1939, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army. This confirms that the war everyone has dreaded for so long has begun in earnest. Anja is terrified. Vladek sends her, Richieu, and Janina to live with Anja’s family in Sosnowiec, and goes himself to the frontier to fight against the Germans. Explaining this story, Vladek spills his pills again. He tells Artie that his eyes have been causing him problems; his left eye was replaced with a glass eye due to glaucoma, and he has begun to get cataracts in his remaining eye. He tells Artie about losing his eye, how he almost died from hemorrhaging. Artie responds to all this with a semi-interested “uh-huh.” Vladek says he is tired and wants to stop talking for the day; Artie agrees and stretches out in his chair while Vladek resumes counting his pills.
Tension escalates and then deescalates very quickly in this scene, as Vladek pauses in his story and turns his attention toward ordinary life in the present. Leaving for war is an intense experience, but the emotions are calmer from a distance of decades. Artie’s bland reaction to the story Vladek tells about losing his eye shows a lack of interest or investment in his father’s present life. Though his reaction is somewhat understandable since he has probably heard this story before – this is not shocking information – Artie’s lack of basic politeness and consideration shows that he is very self-centered.