Artie is lying in bed with his wife, Françoise, when the telephone rings. Mala is on the other line, yelling in frustration. Vladek climbed onto the roof to fix the leaky drainpipe, she says, and she had to rescue him when he got dizzy. Artie is exasperated. Vladek takes over the phone and begins insisting that Artie come to Queens to help him fix the drainpipe. Artie, still groggy – it is 7:30 in the morning – says he’ll call Vladek after he’s had coffee.
This exchange sets up a sharp contrast between the life Artie lives with Françoise – a slow, peaceful existence in which he set his own schedule and determines his own priorities – and the chaotic world of his father’s house, where he is tangled up in obligations and idiosyncrasies.
As he makes their coffee, Artie tells Françoise he has always hated helping Vladek around the house – he was overbearing and critical of everything Artie did. Françoise asks whether Artie is going to help Vladek with the drainpipe, and Artie scoffs that he would “rather feel guilty.” He calls Vladek back, and learns that a neighbor named Frank has offered to help with the drainpipe. “At least somebody will help me,” Vladek says, in a jab at Artie.
Vladek implies that Artie is lazy and selfish for refusing to help him, but Artie’s remarks to Françoise make it clear that it is Vladek – not the work – that he wants to avoid. Being with his father is stressful and frustrating for Artie, and though he seems to want to be a good son, he is not willing to endure the criticism and tension that helping Vladek with housework involves.
About a week later, Artie arrives at Vladek’s house to find him sorting nails in the garage. Vladek refuses to make eye contact and seems extremely grim. He tells Artie to wait for him inside while he finishes sorting. In the house, Artie asks Mala the reason for Vladek’s mood – he describes Vladek as seeming “upset” and “depressed.” Mala reveals that Vladek has discovered a comic strip Artie published years earlier, about Anja’s suicide. The comic strip, called “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” was published in an obscure, underground magazine; Artie says he never imagined Vladek would read it. Mala tells him that she found the comic through a friend whose son was an avid reader of the genre, and that she hid the magazine from Vladek for years because she knew it would upset him to see what Artie had written.
Mala has known about “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” for years, but has never said a word to Artie about the comic. Her silence is likely a product of her environment, in which people do not talk much about their feelings, but it also shows a certain amount of restraint and respect. She understands that drawing the comic is a way for Artie to explore grief, and does not call his process or his experience of the event into question. Hiding the magazine from Vladek protects him from the sadness of seeing Artie’s anger at Anja, but also protects Artie from having that grief and anger interrogated.
Artie thumbs through “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” Unlike Maus, the comic depicts human faces rather than animal heads. Harsh lines and exaggerated features make those faces frightening and grotesque, and Artie appears wearing a prison jumpsuit in every panel. The comic describes Anja’s suicide and the days that followed. Vladek found her in the bathtub, Artie writes, with her wrists slashed and a bottle of pills nearby. She had not left a suicide note. Artie, then a very young man, had just been released from a state mental hospital. Friends of his parents, who would appear to comfort him over the following days, were hostile toward him even as they offered condolences – it was clear that many people blamed him for his mother’s death. He remembers his last conversation with Anja: how she came into his bedroom one night, and woke him from sleep to ask if he still loved her. Resentful of the manipulative question, he turned his back to her and grunted, “Sure, Ma!” in reply. The last panels of the comic show Artie in a prison cell, cursing his mother. By killing herself, he shouts, she has “murdered” him.
“Prisoner on the Hell Planet” is raw and honest, and it is almost impossible to imagine Artie ever expressing such powerful feelings of grief and resentment out loud, especially to his father. The facts of Anja’s death – especially the absence of a note, which might have explained her actions – are painful in themselves, but Artie’s sense of isolation is the most difficult aspect of the story. Overwhelmed by guilt, Artie feels disconnected from his father and the other people around him. Their twisted, inhuman faces express the bad intentions and hostility Artie now perceives in everyone he meets. He and Vladek are not able to support one another during this horrible time, and the comic expresses not only Artie’s anger at Anja, but his pain at being left alone to deal with the overwhelming loss.
Mala tells Artie that the comic shocked her when she read it, but that it seemed “accurate” and “objective” – she remembers the days after Anja’s death, and agrees with Artie’s descriptions of that time. Vladek comes inside, and Artie brings up the comic, holding it out for Vladek to see. Vladek says he discovered the magazine while looking for Anja’s diaries. There is a photograph of Artie and Anja printed at the top of the first page, next to the title – this photograph caught his attention, he says, and the comic made him cry when he read it.
This is the first time since beginning their interviews that Artie has initiated – or even expressed willingness to have – a personal conversation with his father. Though he did not believe Vladek would ever see the comic, it has now provided a foundation for some honest dialogue between them, which has not been possible before.
Artie apologizes for upsetting him, but Vladek says it was good for Artie to express his feelings. The comic brought up painful memories of Anja, he says – but, of course, he is always thinking of Anja anyway. Mala points out that Vladek’s desk is covered with photographs of Anja; she compares these, bitterly, to a shrine. Vladek asks whether she would have him throw the pictures away. Mala walks away grumbling.
While Artie’s memories of his mother are colored by anger and guilt, Vladek relates to Anja’s memory in more loving, reverent ways. He thinks about her constantly, he says, but the “shrine” on his desk suggests that he is more in touch with his feelings of loss – sadness that Artie, overwhelmed by the guilt he writes about in his comic, has little emotional space to acknowledge. Vladek might feel guilty or angry about Anja’s death, but sadness is clearly an easier emotion for him to confront.
Vladek and Artie go for a walk. Vladek resumes his story in 1943, when all the Jews who remain in Sosnowiec after the events at the stadium are relocated to the village of Srodula, a ghetto where they’re more cramped and restricted than ever before. Each day, they are marched into Sosnowiec to work in German shops: Anja and Tosha in a clothing factory, he and Lolek in a carpentry shop. By this time, the Germans have installed Jews as guards and police in the ghetto – they act just the same as the German soldiers, Vladek says.
As the situation intensifies, bonds of solidarity between the Jews of Sosnowiec are starting to disintegrate. Jews appointed to positions of power as guards and police are just as brutal as their German counterparts – fears about the precariousness of their own situation manifest as hostility toward others in their community, with whom they know they could easily change positions at any time, because of their own vulnerability.
One evening, Wolfe gets a visit from his uncle, Persis. Persis is the head of the Jewish Council in Zawiercie, a town some twenty-five miles from Sosnowiec. His position gives him some influence with the Germans in Zawiercie, and he wants to bring Wolfe, Tosha, and the three small children – Bibi, Lonia, and Richieu – home with him, so he can protect them. Mrs. Zylberberg protests, saying the family must fight to stay together, but she soon concedes that the children must go where they will be safe.
Near the beginning of the war, Anja insisted she would never part with her son. Now, forced to give him over to Persis, she and the rest of the family have to confront their loss of power over their own lives. Like Mrs. Zylberberg, whose desire to keep her family together became impossible in the ghetto, Anja has no power to stay with and care for her child. Their circumstances force the family to do exactly those things they swore they would never do.
Vladek remembers the horrible violence that came to Srodula in the months after Persis took the children. During a roundup in which more than a thousand people –most of whom were children – were sent to Auschwitz, German soldiers beat crying toddlers to death in the streets, throwing them against brick walls with horrible force. Amidst all this violence, Vladek says, he and his family thanked God that their own children were safe in Zawiercie with Persis.
The gratitude Vladek and the rest of the family feel knowing their children are with Persis is an example of dramatic irony: Vladek and Artie both know that the children were not safe at all, and this makes the family’s relief painful to remember.
Artie asks what happened to Richieu after Persis took him to Zawiercie. Vladek explains: a few months after the family separated, the Germans decided to clear out Zawiercie. New soldiers – people who could not be bribed – were sent into the ghetto. They murdered Persis and other members of the Jewish Council, then ordered all Jews to present themselves for transport to Auschwitz. Tosha refused to allow herself – or her children – to die in the gas chambers. It was her habit to wear a vial of poison around her neck at all times, Vladek says, and when she found out that they were to be sent to Auschwitz, she immediately killed herself, Bibi, Lonia, and Richieu.
For Tosha, suicide is an act of resistance against the Nazis. Knowing that horrors await her and her daughter, niece, and nephew in the camps, she decides to die on her own terms rather than submit to the pain, fear, and disrespect Jews face in Auschwitz. The loss of their beloved son is the great tragedy of Vladek and Anja’s lives, but it still easy to understand Tosha’s decision, and Vladek remembers the incident with sorrow, not anger.
It was a long time before the family learned what had happened to Tosha and the children, Vladek says – but when they found out, it was the greatest of all the tragedies they had endured. He mentions staying in “bunkers,” and Artie stops him to ask what he means. Vladek explains that, in the months after the children moved to Zawiercie, Germans had begun to snatch people at random off the streets in Srodula. To avoid capture, he built a secret room in the Zylberbergs’ house, hidden behind a false wall in the coal cellar. He draws Artie a diagram of this bunker, telling him it is good to know exactly how such hiding spaces can be constructed, “just in case.”
Vladek draws Artie a diagram, not only so that he can better understand the bunker, but so he will know how to stay safe in a dangerous situation. Decades after the end of the war, Vladek is still tense. After watching his comfortable and happy life turn suddenly to chaos during the war, Vladek has lost his peace of mind. No longer confident in his own safety, he must be constantly on guard to protect himself and those he loves – and he wants Artie to practice the same vigilance.
In the summer of 1943, Vladek and the Zylberberg family move houses. He and Anja, Mr. and Mrs. Zylberberg, and Lolek are the only ones left. They build another bunker, this time in the attic. That summer, the Nazis evacuate the ghetto completely – more than ten thousand Jews are taken away in a single week. The family hides in their bunker, sneaking out at night to scavenge food. One night, another Jewish man discovers their hiding place. He insists that he means them no harm, and is only out looking for food. The family considers killing him to ensure that he doesn’t reveal their hiding spot, but they let him go. The same day, the man comes back with Nazi soldiers, who arrest the family and take them to a detention center to await transport to Auschwitz.
The family’s betrayal at the hands of a Jewish stranger – a man they considered killing but decided to show mercy to – shows how the most basic tenets of decent behavior have been corrupted by life in the ghetto. There is no moral code to unite the people of Srodula, and fundamental beliefs about the good or right thing to do in any given situation no longer make sense as foundations for decision-making.
Vladek has two cousins working for the Germans: Jakov, who does manual labor, and Haskel, who is the chief of the Jewish police in Srodula. While awaiting transport to Auschwitz, Vladek spots Jakov and offers to pay him for help escaping the ghetto. Artie asks whether Jakov wouldn’t have helped Vladek without payment, since they were from the same family, but Vladek says the concept of family loyalty had broken down amidst the chaos of the ghettos – every person had to look out for himself.
Vladek’s remark emphasizes the disintegration of the moral structures that defined Jewish life before the war. It also implies that the Zylberberg family was exceptional in their loyalty to one another – that few other families were able to maintain such strong multigenerational bonds.
Jakov brings Haskel to the detention center. Vladek bribes Haskel with a diamond ring. Haskel says he can get Vladek, Anja, and Lolek out of the ghetto, but that it will be too conspicuous if he tries to sneak out the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Zylberberg. Mr. Zylberberg is desperate to escape, and gives all his valuables to Vladek to use as bribes. Haskel takes the bribes, and begins to sneak the family, one by one, out of the detention center. In the end, though, he does not help Anja’s parents. The day the vans arrive to take the detained to Auschwitz, Vladek and Anja see Mr. Zylberberg at the window, crying. All his wealth has not been able to save his life. The Zylberbergs go directly to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Unlike Vladek, whose father disappears without warning amid the stadium crowds, Anja is forced to watch from afar as her own parents are deported to Auschwitz and their deaths. The image of Mr. Zylberberg crying at the window captures the disempowerment of the entire family – he knows exactly what lies ahead, is in a position to communicate his need for help, and is seen by people who want nothing more than to save him, but the barrier between the inside and outside is still impenetrable. Information, connections, and wealth cannot keep him safe.
Vladek pauses in his story to pick up a piece of wire from the ground near a trash can. He pockets it, to Artie’s mild disgust, for use in household chores. He goes on with his story: after Haskel smuggles them out of the detention center, he takes them to a shoe shop where his brother, Miloch, is working. Haskel was a crook, Vladek tells Artie, but Miloch was a good man. The two of them had another brother, Pesach, who was a crook like Haskel – a member of the Jewish police. Vladek begins to work in the shop with Miloch, repairing German boots.
Though foundational morality has fallen by the wayside, Vladek is still willing and able to identify people in moral terms – he knows that Haskel is a crook and Miloch is a good man, and he makes such judgments even after acknowledging the moral chaos of the times. Though Vladek places his own interest and Anja’s above that of any other person, and accepts the same self-serving behaviors in others, he doesn’t compromise his essential moral principles.
As he tells his part of the story, Vladek’s heart begins to cause him severe pain. He carries a nitroglycerin pill in his pocket, and swallows it immediately to help regulate his heartbeat. He sits on a stoop to catch his breath, and tells Artie that Miloch survived the war and moved to Australia with his wife. He reveals that Miloch died only recently, after years of heart trouble, when he was caught during a seizure without his nitroglycerin pills.
Miloch’s death is not nearly so dramatic as most of those described in Vladek’s stories. Still, the combination of Vladek’s chest pain and Miloch’s sudden end captures the randomness and absurdity of death. People die because of bad luck and small mistakes – the same end waits for all of us, and those who survived the worst years of the war are just as vulnerable as anyone else.
Vladek and Artie resume walking. Vladek describes the last months of 1943: the Germans are clearing out Srodula, and sending the few remaining Jews to Auschwitz in weekly transports. Miloch and Pesach build a bunker in the shoe shop (Haskel has made escape plans of his own) and invite Vladek, Anja, and Lolek to hide with them when the time comes. Lolek refuses to hide. He is fifteen years old, and is tired of living in bunkers. His skills as an electrician, he believes, will make him useful to the Nazis and help him survive wherever he goes. Anja weeps and begs him to reconsider, but Lolek refuses to enter the bunker. Soon after, he is taken to Auschwitz.
Like his Aunt Tosha, Lolek is committed to dictating the terms of his own life. He has his own priorities – different from Tosha’s – but he shares her insistence on making his own choices. His disdain for hiding is also a subtle challenge to Artie’s mouse-head metaphor. Mice are typically depicted as timid, passive creatures who survive by hiding rather than confronting danger, but Lolek is bold and forthcoming, the opposite of a fearful “mouse.”
With Lolek gone, Anja becomes hysterical. They have recently heard the news about Richieu’s death – and the deaths of Anja’s sister, brother-in-law, and nieces – and with the loss of Lolek, her family is broken apart completely. Anja tells Vladek she wants to die, but Vladek begs her to keep struggling for life. He needs her, he says – together, they will survive.
Here Vladek reveals his own priorities: he wants to survive, no matter how hard he has to fight to do so. His love for Anja gives him something to live for, but there is also a sense that Vladek believes in life and in a future after the war. He will keep struggling to live, no matter what.
Anja and Vladek hide in the bunker with several others. There is almost no food, and everyone is on the brink of starvation. Several of those hiding in the bunker try to escape by bribing the guards to look the other way while they walk out of the ghetto; the guards take their bribes, but shoot them as soon as they hand over the money. One man, Avram, says he will not leave the bunker until Vladek does – Vladek has good judgment, and Avram trusts that he will not leave the bunker until it is safe. Finally, after almost everyone in Srodula has been killed or deported, the Germans leave and the handful of people hiding in the bunker walk out of the ghetto. They part ways, all going in different directions. Vladek and Anja have nowhere to go, so they walk toward Sosnowiec.
Vladek has learned to work within a new moral code, and now knows better than to trust the guards. Avram, like the prisoners of war who followed Vladek to the labor camp, has confidence in Vladek’s wisdom. More important, though, is the fact that Avram believes Vladek to be trustworthy, not likely to betray him to guards or otherwise lead him astray. Given the harrowing situation in which they met – starving and fearful in the bunker – it is noteworthy and even a little surprising that Vladek could make such an impression.
Vladek and Artie have walked to the local bank. Vladek asks the teller – an American woman, with the head of a dog – to make Artie a key to his safe deposit box. The two go into the back room, to look through Vladek’s things. He wants Artie to have access to his valuables, Vladek says, because otherwise Mala will snatch them as soon as Vladek dies. Artie is uncomfortable talking about the prospect of his father’s death, but Vladek ignores his protests. He shows Artie a diamond ring, which Anja saved for him from the time he was very young, with the intention that it should be given to his wife one day.
Designating the diamond ring for Artie’s wife was a way for Anja to express confidence in the future. She believed (or wanted to believe) that Artie would find love and happiness with a woman, and also that he would live in a world where the ring – which, throughout the war, was kept as insurance, something Anja and Vladek could trade when they needed help – could serve its intended purpose, not just as a bribe.
Mala would be furious if Artie inherited the diamond ring, Vladek says – she is constantly badgering him to change his will and leave everything to her, with nothing for his one surviving brother (who lives in Israel) or for Artie. Vladek slumps over his safe deposit box and covers his head with his hands. He moans that he never should have remarried, then wails Anja’s name three times. Artie pats his father’s back, and tells him gently that they should go home.
In her earlier conversations with Artie, Mala has seemed blameless: the long-suffering wife trapped with a neurotic and controlling husband. Vladek’s stories then cast her, and their relationship, in a new light. Though Vladek is not a perfect partner to Mala, it seems she may have things to answer for herself.