Artie is still visiting Vladek often, trying to collect as much information as possible about Vladek’s past. Eating dinner at his father’s house one evening, Artie tells Mala about the extreme lengths to which Vladek went, during Artie’s childhood, to guarantee that Artie never wasted food. He always forced Artie to eat everything Anja cooked, even when he hated it, and never let him leave the table until his plate was clean. As they go into the living room to talk after dinner, Vladek begins to complain about Mala and her cooking, but Artie refuses to listen. He asks Vladek to tell him about 1939, after he was drafted into the Polish army.
Though Vladek and Mala are not happy together, it seems that Artie and Mala get along reasonably well – Artie talks congenially with Mala, and refuses to listen when Vladek tries to speak badly about her. This suggests that Mala isn’t as horrible as Vladek makes her out to be. Artie’s stories about the battles over food waste that raged during his childhood hints at a deeper tension and unhappiness in the family, one that is not so easy to talk about.
Vladek explains that, because he was part of Poland’s reserve forces before the war, he had already received the bulk of his training before being drafted. When his draft letter came in 1939, he received only a few days of training before going into combat against Germans. Vladek explains that his father had tried to keep him and his brothers out of the army, starving them and depriving them of sleep for months before the medical examination to make it look as though they were too unhealthy for military service. Vladek failed his first medical review, but was ordered to return in a year for re-examination. He begged his father not to make him endure that privation again, and joined the army at 22.
Vladek’s father cares more for his sons’ wellbeing than for abstractions about honor and duty – the vague ideas that are often invoked to glamorize military service. As he prepares his sons to live in a hostile, dangerous world – a world where, as Jews, they are not offered the same kinds of protections as other people – he teaches them to place their own safety above anything else, and prepares them to go to extreme lengths to protect themselves.
Artie urges Vladek to focus on 1939. Vladek tells him about fighting in the trenches near the German border. Early one morning, during a bombardment, he tries to avoid firing his gun but is forced to shoot when he sees a German soldier just across the river. After two hours of fighting, Vladek is discovered in his trench by Nazi soldiers. His speaks to them in German – which impresses them and prompts them to refrain from beating him – and promises that he was only shooting into the air, not at the soldiers. Nevertheless, he is taken as a prisoner of war.
Vladek is fast-thinking and has a talent for manipulating other people’s emotions. He uses his knowledge of German to make himself more sympathetic to the German soldiers, and lies to downplay his allegiance to the Polish army. Though he does not get everything he wants – there is nothing he can do to avoid imprisonment – this keen interpersonal intelligence helps him protect himself in a difficult situation.
Vladek, along with other prisoners of war, is made to load the bodies of the dead and wounded into Red Cross trucks. Vladek picks up the body of the man he killed, and feels mild satisfaction at the knowledge that he has done something for the war. He and the other prisoners are taken to a camp near Nuremberg, in Germany. Jews are made to stand separate from other prisoners, and the Nazi soldiers scream at them that the war is entirely their fault.
The Nazi soldiers regurgitate their government’s anti-Semitic propaganda when they blame their Jewish prisoners for causing the war. Nazi leaders blamed Jews for all of Europe’s many problems, and though these claims were not supported by real evidence, many average people believed Jews had conspired against their home countries to create international turmoil.
One of the Nazi soldiers orders Vladek, along with a few other men, to have one of the filthy stables cleaned within the hour. When they can’t finish the job in time, they are denied food for the day. Artie accidentally spills some ash from a cigarette on the living room floor, and Vladek berates him for making a mess.
This moment creates a parallel between the past and present: as the guard shouts at Vladek to clean the stable, Vladek shouts at Artie to clean the floor. This highlights the huge differences between the two men’s life experiences – one situation is obviously more intense than the other – but it also shows how memories of the distant past continue to influence Vladek’s behavior.
After a few weeks working for the Nazis, Vladek and the other prisoners are taken to a bigger camp. Jewish prisoners are made to sleep in unheated tents with insufficient blankets, though winter is coming and the weather is bitterly cold, and they are given very little food. Meanwhile, the Polish prisoners of war sleep in heated cabins and eat two meals a day. Vladek bathes in the freezing river to keep clean. Many of his comrades who refuse to do so get frostbite wounds and develop infections. To pass the time, the prisoners play chess and pray (Vladek is very religious).
The disparities in the German army’s treatment of its Jewish and Polish prisoners illustrates their disdain for Jews and their disregard for Jewish life. When he bathes in the ice-cold river despite the unpleasantness of the experience, Vladek shows that he is forward-thinking and wise about assessing the risks in his environment. He knows an infection could threaten his life, and the unpleasantness of bathing in cold water is a small concern by comparison.
Several weeks after he enters the camp, Vladek learns that the German government is seeking prisoners of war to volunteer as laborers in exchange for better food and housing. Most able-bodied German men have been called to fight in the war, and there are not enough left to perform manual labor for the military. Many of Vladek’s comrades believe the offer is a trap, and say they would rather die in the prisoner of war camp. Vladek, determined not only to live, but to live under better conditions than those in the camp, signs up. Many of his comrades sign up as well, once they learn that Vladek has decided to do so.
In the harsh conditions of the camp, some prisoners are resigned to the idea that they will die in German custody. Vladek has an unusual will to survive, it seems. He is not only willing to endure pain and privation, but also struggles for something better when others feel passive and hopeless. The fact that so many people follow Vladek to the labor camp shows that he commands the respect and trust of those around him.
Vladek and the other volunteers are sent to work for a large German company. Their work, leveling hilly terrain, is extremely difficult, but they have a warm place to sleep and plenty of food, and are much better off than in the prisoner of war camp. One night, Vladek dreams of his dead grandfather. The old man appears to him wearing traditional Jewish yarmulke, tefillin, and tallit, and promises Vladek he will be freed on the day of Parshas Truma.
Vladek’s grandfather appears to him wearing garments that emphasize his Jewishness: the tefillin on his head and arms are traditionally worn during prayer, as is the tallit around his shoulders. The yarmulke is a distinctive and recognizable marker of an observant Jewish man. Vladek’s vision invokes an ethnic and religious history, as well as a personal one.
Artie asks what Parshas Truma is. Vladek explains: each Saturday of the year, Jews read a section of the Torah, their holy book. They follow a predetermined calendar, reading each section on a designated day. Parshas Truma is one of these sections – so, when Vladek’s grandfather promises he will be free on the day of Parshas Truma, he refers to the day designated for reading that portion of the Torah.
Studying the Torah is a foundational part of Judaism, and Artie’s ignorance about Parshas Truma highlights his distance from the religion and culture of his family. Vladek has already stated that he was very religious as a young man, so Artie’s lack of knowledge is particularly surprising, and suggests that Vladek may have lost his sense of connection with Judaism over time.
Following his dream, Vladek asks one of the other prisoners, a rabbi, when they will read Parshas Truma. The rabbi answers that they will not read it until February, almost three months away. Miraculously, his grandfather’s prophecy comes true: three months later, on the Saturday designated for Parshas Truma, Vladek and many of the other prisoners are released without warning and permitted to return home. Artie is amazed to hear this news, and Vladek reveals to him that Parshas Truma has been important for him throughout his life: it was Parshas Truma when he married Anja, when Artie was born, and the Saturday of Artie’s Bar Mitzvah. During the train ride back to Poland, the rabbi tells Vladek that he is a “roh-eh hanoled” – someone who sees what the future holds.
The Jewish calendar does not follow the same cycles as the Gregorian calendar, which is the common calendar used by most Western countries. As a result, a parsha assigned to a certain week in the Jewish calendar might be read at different points in the common calendar. That so many of the most important moments in Vladek’s life aligned with this particular parsha suggest that he is somehow special – that he is attuned to things other people cannot see, or has some predetermined purpose in life that is not yet clear.
To Vladek’s dismay, the train designated to take him home passes through Sosnowiec without stopping. As the war has escalated, it turns out, Germany has split Poland into two sections: the Reich, which was seized as German territory and is now considered part of the German nation, and the Protectorate, which is still technically Poland though its government is under German control. Sosnowiec is now part of the Reich, but the Germans are only releasing prisoners from the Protectorate.
The division of Poland into the Protectorate and the Reich has significant consequences for Poles, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Though war often seems abstract for those who study it – as though the actions of armies and governments have no bearing on the lives of ordinary people – this moment shows the broad impact of military action and government policy.
Vladek is finally shepherded off the train in a town called Lublin, where he learns from another man that the Nazis have been herding released prisoners into the forest and shooting them. Artie can’t believe that the Nazis would be permitted to do such a thing to their prisoners. Vladek explains that, as a citizen of the territory that had been annexed to Germany, he no longer enjoyed the protections of international law. In their dealings with people from the Reich, Nazi soldiers were bound only by German law, which permitted Jews to be murdered with impunity.
Artie knows horrible things are ahead for European Jews in Vladek’s story, but he is still na•ve about many aspects of his father’s experience. The abject lack of concern for Jewish life – and for human rights more broadly – is hard for Artie to imagine, even though he understands intellectually that the German soldiers had been conditioned to despise Jews.
Another man tells Vladek that it may be possible to get him out of the camp, if someone in Lublin will claim him as a relative. Vladek sends a message to his family friend, a man named Orbach, asking for his help. The next day, Orbach arrives to claim Vladek as his cousin. He wears a large Star of David badge on his coat – the Nazis have begun to force all Jews to wear these badges, which make them easily identifiable targets for persecution. Vladek goes home with Orbach and stays at his house a few days to recuperate. He is grateful for Orbach’s help, but is eager to sneak across the border, back to Sosnowiec and his family.
Orbach’s sudden, saving appearance exemplifies the interdependence of the Jewish community. Though he shares no special connection with Vladek, Orbach goes out of his way to help Vladek through a difficult time. Their shared status as outsiders means that Jews must rely on one another for support and assistance in difficult times, and draw on networks of loose connections to survive.
Vladek cannot legally cross into the Reich without paperwork, which he does not have. Regardless, he boards a train going toward Sosnowiec. On the train, he approaches the Polish conductor, pretending to be ethnically Polish himself – the panel shows Vladek wearing a pig mask over his mouse head – and asking for help sneaking over the border. Poles felt great animosity toward Germans, Vladek tells Artie, and the conductor was happy to hide him when Nazi soldiers began inspecting passengers’ papers. Vladek hides in a closet, his pig mask in his hand, while the conductor ushers a Nazi soldier in the other direction.
Though ethnic Poles are not scapegoats and targets for German persecution to the same extent as Jews, German occupation has clearly been damaging and dangerous for them as well. Vladek must hide his Jewishness to make himself more sympathetic to the Polish conductor, but their successful collaboration shows that the interests of the Jews and Poles are aligned at this point. Bigotry hurts both Poles and Jews by preventing them from building solidarity against the German invaders.
Back in Sosnowiec, Vladek goes immediately to his parents’ house. They are elated to see him, but it is clear that things are not well. His mother looks sick and weak – though he does not yet know it, she will die of cancer within a month or two – and his father reports that German soldiers have been harassing him and other Jews in the streets, and that Germans have seized his seltzer factory. He also learns that a curfew has been imposed on the Jews of Sosnowiec: they must be home by 7 p.m. each night. For this reason, his parents hurry him home to be with Anja.
The Polish army was defeated within weeks of the German invasion that forced Vladek to go to the front. Though he has been gone only a few months, Sosnowiec has changed dramatically in the wake of that defeat. German soldiers and officials now hold positions of authority in cities throughout Poland, and the government is now explicitly hostile toward Jews.
Despite all the distressing news, Vladek’s reunion with Anja and Richieu is filled with joy. Although it is a difficult time, they are happy simply to be together. Wrapping up the interview for the evening and preparing to head home, Artie goes to collect his coat from the closet and finds it isn’t there. Vladek reveals that he threw the coat in the trash. It was too shabby, he tells Artie, and he was embarrassed to have his son wear such a thing. Artie is furious at the intrusion, and tells Vladek that, as a grown man, he will decide how he is going to dress. Still, he accepts Vladek’s gift of another (hand-me-down) coat. He makes his way home in the puffy garment, muttering to himself that he “just can’t believe” his father would do such an intrusive thing.
Vladek is presumptuous and controlling when he decides to throw away Artie’s coat. He believes his judgment is better than Artie’s, and that Artie lacks the capacity to make his own decisions – which is why he acts without consulting him. Like many parents, Vladek continues to think of Artie as a child long after he has grown up, and he treats him as such. Artie tries to assert himself by berating Vladek, but when he is forced to accept the hand-me-down coat, he is relegated to the role of the child – Artie has to do what Vladek wants, even when it frustrates him.