It is summer. Artie and Françoise are vacationing with friends in Vermont. Artie is doodling outside, trying to decide how to draw Françoise in his book. On his sketchpad, he tries out different animal heads: a moose, a poodle, a frog, a rabbit. Françoise is French, and he wants to find an animal that both represents her and seems compatible with that nation’s history of anti-Semitism. Françoise comes outside to sit beside him. When Artie tells her what he is working on, she insists that, if Artie is going to be a mouse, she should be a mouse too. Besides, she reminds him, she converted to Judaism when they got married, if only to please Vladek.
The question of Françoise’s animal head raises interesting questions about the nature of Jewishness. The Nazis treated Jews as an ethnic group, and claimed that even a Jew who converted to Christianity was still a Jew – the religion was just a signifier of the race. Artie struggles to determine how much he agrees with this perspective. He is unsure whether Françoise can be a Jew without sharing the culture and history of Jewish-Americans in the intimate, lifelong way he has. In arguing that she should be a mouse as long as Artie is, Françoise argues for an idea of identity as something that can be shared and adopted. She is a mouse because she loves her husband, and has committed to being his partner in all things, including his compulsion to live out and pass on his Jewish heritage.
Artie and Françoise’s friends run out of the house in a panic. Vladek just called, one of them tells Artie –he had a heart attack, and needs Artie to call him back. The four of them hurry into the house, and Artie calls Vladek immediately. A one-sided conversation ensures. Artie looks shocked. When he hangs up, he reports that Vladek didn’t really have a heart attack; he made that up to ensure Artie would call him back. The real crisis, Artie tells them, is that Mala has left Vladek – taken money from their bank account and disappeared with their car. Vladek is spending the summer in a bungalow in the Catskill Mountains, and wants Artie and Françoise to come and stay with him.
Vladek’s trick is manipulative, but it speaks to his lack of confidence in Artie. He senses that Artie would avoid calling him without an urgent reason to do so. Mala’s abandonment comes as a surprise to both Vladek and Artie, but given the unhappiness of their marriage, it seems her thinning patience should have been obvious. That neither of them saw what was coming speaks to their mutual lack of sensitivity and interpersonal awareness – they both failed to respond to clear signals from Mala.
Reluctantly, Artie and Françoise get into their car and head for the Catskills. As they drive, Artie begins to tell Françoise about his anxieties over his book. He knows it is presumptuous to believe he can create a clear, comprehensible narrative around something as intense as the Holocaust, when he barely understands something as simple as his own relationship with his father. He remembers how, as a child, he would imagine that the Nazis were about to take his parents to their deaths, and that he could only save one of them and had to choose which one of them would survive. (He usually chose Anja.)
Though Artie never experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, he feels connected to the tragedy through Vladek and Anja. Their suffering is of paramount importance to him, because it impacted them as parents and people – and, by extension, it impacted him in countless profound ways. For Artie, understanding the Holocaust and understanding his relationship with Vladek are linked projects; he cannot grasp one without the other.
Artie wonders aloud whether he and Richieu would get along, if Richieu had survived the war. Vladek and Anja always kept a photograph of Richieu in their bedroom, he says, and as he grew older, he came to feel a sense of competition with this photograph. He felt that he could never compare to Richieu in the eyes of his parents, because Richieu had died before ever doing anything to disappoint them. He survived in memory as a perfect child, while Artie was a real person who often fell short of expectations.
Artie’s childhood insecurities about Richieu are reflections of more general uncertainties about his relationship with his parents and his ability to make them proud. On another level, it also raises questions about the tendency of the living to inaccurately valorize the dead, remembering those who have died as being heroes or angels rather than ordinary people. Artie understands that his parents’ reverence for Richieu is a way of coping with his loss, but his memories from childhood also illustrate how that reverence can create tension among those who are living with the memory of the lost loved one.
Artie remembers a few more details of his childhood obsession with the Holocaust: his nightmares about Nazi soldiers arriving in his classroom, about Zyklon B (the deadly chemical used in gas chambers) coming out of the shower. He tells Françoise that he wishes he had been in Auschwitz with his parents, so he could understand what they went through – that he feels guilty about having an easier life than they did. Trying to depict their suffering in his book, while knowing he has no way to understand it, makes him feel hopeless and inadequate.
The childhood nightmares and macabre fantasies that defined Artie’s relationship with the Holocaust represent his effort to imagine himself into his parents’ experience – to know the horror of standing in a gas chamber, for instance – and so build a connection with them using only his mind. This, in some ways, is what he wants to accomplish with his book. By drawing the cartoons, he is imagining himself into his father’s experience once again.
It is late when Artie and Françoise arrive at Vladek’s bungalow in the Catskills. Vladek has been waiting up for them. He embraces Artie, and leads the two “kids” (Vladek calls them both “kids” and “darlings”) to the bedroom he has made up for them. He implies that Artie and Françoise will be spending the rest of the summer with him in the Catskills; Artie is quick to correct him, saying he and Françoise are only there for a few days. Vladek brushes off this comment and goes to bed, leaving Art and Françoise to speculate about his expectations.
Artie wants to do right by his father in this situation, but Vladek demands significant sacrifices from both his son and daughter-in-law. Going to the Catskills is a gesture of familial solidarity and a sign that Artie wants to improve his relationship with Vladek. However, Vladek’s inflexible and unrealistic expectations impede this effort just as much as Artie’s self-centeredness and neuroticism do.
The next morning, a little before 8 a.m., Vladek bursts into the bedroom where Françoise and Artie are sleeping. He opens the curtains and rouses Artie, who fumbles to get dressed as Vladek begins to list all the things on their agenda for the day. Artie makes coffee (Françoise has brought their coffee and pot in her bag) while Vladek tells him about the drama that led to Mala leaving. Back in Rego Park, they went to the bank together to renew some bonds Vladek had taken out. He intended to put one bond in trust for Mala, one for Artie, and one for Pinek, his brother who lives in Israel. Mala, who wanted Vladek to leave his whole estate to her, became furious and left Vladek at the bank. By the time he returned home, she had left – taking money, jewelry, and their car with her. Vladek says his lawyer has encouraged him to press charges.
Though it has already been established that Mala is protective of the inheritance she expects to receive from Vladek, the extreme reaction Vladek describes seems incongruous with the cordial attitude she has always had toward Artie. Vladek may be misrepresenting the nature of their argument, emphasizing Mala’s greed and erasing his own role in the conflict, but it’s also possible that Mala has been disingenuous in her interactions with Artie, treating him kindly in person but doing her best to undermine him to Vladek. In either case, the disintegration of their marriage illustrates how difficult it can be to know the truth about other people.
Françoise appears in the kitchen, yawning. Artie lights a cigarette, and Vladek berates him for using a wood match. He gets free paper matches from a nearby hotel, he says, and saves the wood matches, which he has to buy himself, to light the bungalow’s oven. Artie, frustrated with Vladek’s tightfistedness, goes out for a walk. He meets Vladek’s neighbor, Mrs. Karp, who ushers him into her house to meet her husband, Edgar. The Karps are eager to know whether Artie will be taking Vladek to live with him, and distressed when Artie says he has no plans to do so. Mr. Karp badgers Artie, asking how a sick old man like Vladek can be expected to manage on his own. They have been looking after Vladek since Mala disappeared (a decision for which Mrs. Karp expresses sympathy) but insist that Vladek needs full-time attention.
Artie’s conversation with the Karps highlights how difficult and urgent the situation really is. Artie has trouble facing the reality of his father’s health, and helping Vladek after his separation from Mala means confronting Vladek’s failing health and making accommodations for further decline. The tension between Artie and Vladek is the most obvious reason for Artie’s reluctance to take Vladek into his home, or involve himself in Vladek’s life in a similarly intense way – but his fear of confronting Vladek’s mortality also informs his behavior at this moment of transition.
Artie hears Françoise calling his name, and leaves Mr. and Mrs. Karp’s house as quickly as he can. Outside, Françoise tells him that being around Vladek makes her tense; he follows her around, straightening things as soon as she touches them. Artie says Vladek has always been uptight. Françoise wonders whether it is a product of his time in Auschwitz, but Artie points out that many people – including the Karps – lived through the Holocaust, and don’t share his neuroses. If these people have been altered by their time in the camps, they have been altered in different ways than Vladek.
Attributing all Vladek’s personal shortcomings to the trauma he experienced during the Holocaust is unrealistic, but it is equally unrealistic to assume that Vladek’s neuroses are not trauma-related simply because other survivors don’t exhibit similar behaviors, or to assume other survivors aren’t traumatized simply because their reactions are different. This conversation highlights the importance of acknowledging different experiences of the Holocaust and respecting different people’s way of coping with those experiences.
Vladek appears in the yard outside the bungalow, and asks Artie to come inside and help him organize his bank papers. A few hours later (they have been “tense hours,” Artie notes) Vladek is haranguing Artie about a mistake in his calculations. Artie insists that the error is unimportant, which prompts Vladek to accuse him of laziness. Françoise urges Vladek and Artie to take a walk and let her fix the mistake.
Spending time with Vladek is challenging for Françoise, but her ability to intervene and keep the peace between Artie and Vladek is a testament to the specific intensity of family relationships. The tensions between Artie and Vladek are rooted in a shared personal history of love and resentment, and this makes it hard to resolve even minor issues.
As they walk, Artie asks Vladek what he plans to do now that Mala is gone. Vladek says he will go home when Artie and Françoise do – he has no reason to stay in the Catskills alone – and suggests that Artie might want to move into his house in Queens. To have Artie with him is “always a pleasure,” Vladek says. Very kindly, Artie tells Vladek that he and Françoise have their own home, and aren’t likely to move to Queens. Vladek insists that Artie doesn’t have to give him an answer right away.
Though they have just been fighting, Artie is trying to be gentle with his father and turn down his offer in a respectful way. This is atypical, as Artie tends to be melodramatic and react strongly against Vladek in moments like this. His moderation is a sign that Artie has compassion for his father’s situation, and that he sincerely feels sorry that he cannot give Vladek what he wants.
Artie has brought his tape recorder on the walk, and asks Vladek whether they can talk about Auschwitz. He asks what happened after Vladek and Anja were separated upon first arriving. The men were sent to a big hall, Vladek says. Mandelbaum is still with him at this point. They are afraid, but a veteran prisoner tells them that the Nazis do not intend to kill them right away; they have come to the hall so they can be processed and put to work. The men are stripped naked and their heads are shaved. New clothing – striped prison uniforms – is distributed to all the new arrivals, without regard for size. Some prisoners receive clothes and shoes that do not fit at all, but guards punish anyone who tries to replace them. The prisoners then receive their serial number tattoos. Many of the people administrating the intake process (including one who beats another man for asking to replace his too-small shoes) are prisoners themselves – Poles and Jews wearing striped uniforms.
The Nazis’ intake process denies their new prisoners any signifier of an independent self or a life before the camp. They are not permitted to have their own clothes or belongings, and they are even robbed of their hair. Especially for religious Jews who grow their hair and beards in accordance with traditional laws, this is an assault on their religious identity and cultural customs. The serial numbers, which are used in the bureaucracy of the camp to replace prisoners’ names, further undermine the prisoners’ humanity, reducing their existence to a number and erasing family history and connections. Even the disregard for size during the process of distributing clothes shows the Nazis’ refusal to differentiate between prisoners.
As they enter the camp, Vladek and Mandelbaum see Abraham, Mandelbaum’s nephew who wrote to say he was safe in Hungary. Abraham reveals that the Polish smugglers understood Yiddish, and so knew Vladek and Mandelbaum were waiting for a letter to confirm Abraham’s safe arrival. When he was arrested, the Gestapo held a gun to Abraham’s head and forced him to write the letter Mandelbaum received. Vladek tells Artie that he never saw Abraham after that day – he thinks Abraham “came out through the chimney,” gassed and cremated like so many others.
Abraham could have allowed the Nazis to murder him rather than participate in the entrapment of his uncle, aunt, and the Spiegelmans. His decision to cooperate instead shows how powerful a person’s will to survive can be. Though Abraham may have known he was heading to the camps, and not likely to make it out alive, fear of death made him betray people who trusted him. It is difficult to hold oneself to high moral standards, or to reason clearly, when the threat of death is so immediate.
Throughout Vladek’s first day in Auschwitz, he hears the same thing again and again: that the only way out of the camp is through the chimney, dead. He sits in a room with other new prisoners, crying to himself. Most prisoners ignore him, but one man sits besides him. The man is not Jewish – in fact, he is a Polish priest – but he is knowledgeable about Jewish numerology, and when he inspects the serial number tattooed on Vladek’s arm, he points out that many of the numbers are good omens in the Jewish tradition. When added together, the six digits in Vladek’s serial number make 18, “the Hebrew number of life.” The priest tells Vladek that, though he cannot predict his own fate, he feels sure Vladek will survive the horror of the camps. Their conversation gives Vladek new hope and courage. Though he never saw the priest again, Vladek remembered their conversation and drew strength from it whenever things were especially bad.
The Polish priest gives Vladek strength not only because he offers an optimistic vision for Vladek’s future at a time of intense despair, but also because he renews Vladek’s sense of connection with his Jewish identity. Like the vision of his grandfather that helped Vladek endure the prisoner of war camp, the priest’s reading of his serial number reminds Vladek that he is a person with a history, someone who has connections to the past and to a culture that has survived and flourished despite centuries of persecution. The priest reminds him that Jewishness is not defined by the Holocaust, but by faith, knowledge, and ties to a rich and resilient community.
Vladek struggles in the camp, but things are even more difficult for Mandelbaum. His clothes are far too big for him, so he must always hold up his pants with one hand. One of his shoes is too small for his feet, so he walks through the snow with one bare foot, always holding his shoe in case he finds someone who will exchange it with him. He fumbles through his days in the camp, overwhelmed by the frustration and hardship these two problems create. One day, he drops his spoon – each prisoner is issued only one – and another person snatches it.
Mandlebaum’s situation might seem comical in different circumstances, but his poorly fitted clothes and shoes create urgent problems for him in the camp. He needs to conserve mental and physical energy to survive the harsh conditions, and the nuisance of holding his clothes in place keeps him from having a single moment’s peace throughout the day. Even seemingly small missteps – like dropping a spoon or getting distracted at the wrong time – could have dire consequences in Auschwitz
Vladek and Mandelbaum live in an overcrowded barrack under the supervision of a kapo: a prisoner who has been designated as a camp administrator by the Nazi guards. The kapo in charge of Vladek’s barrack is a cruel man, who forces the prisoners to participate in exhausting physical exercises and beats anyone who does not comply. One day, this kapo asks all prisoners who speak both English and Polish to come to the front of the room. He is trying to learn English, and wants a teacher. Of the hundreds in their barrack, only a few – including Vladek – come forward. Vladek’s English is better than most, and the kapo chooses him as a tutor.
The kapo is both a victim of Nazi abuse and a perpetrator of that same abuse. The Nazis appoint prisoners to positions of supervisory power not only to ensure that prisoners feel outnumbered and surrounded by guards at all times, but because they need to sow conflict and animosity between prisoners to ensure the success of their operation. Prisoners are responsible for managing many of the camp’s resources – food, munitions, clothes – and any cooperation or solidarity between them could be dangerous to the Nazis.
The next day, while other prisoners are made to clean the barrack, the kapo takes Vladek into a private room for an English lesson. In the room is a lavish spread of food – rolls, coffee, sausage, eggs. It has been ages since Vladek has seen so much food. The kapo invites him to each as much as he wants. After their lesson, he takes Vladek to the room where shoes and clothing are kept, and invites him to choose clothes and shoes that fit him better. When Vladek explains Mandelbaum’s situation – his too-big pants and too-small shoes – the kapo lets him take a belt and a new pair of shoes for his friend, as well as a spoon to replace the one Mandelbaum had stolen from him. When Vladek brings these things to Mandelbaum, he is so happy that he throws his arms around Vladek and weeps.
This scene addresses the economy of Auschwitz. There are resources available, and prisoners have to use whatever skills or connections they have to ensure that they can get what they need to live. True to form, Vladek tries to use his connection to the kapo to help his friend – though, notably, he does not ask after Mandlebaum’s interests until his own are taken care of. Vladek is not given to self-sacrifice, except where Anja is concerned, but he is loyal and generous, and tries to help his friends wherever he can.
Vladek tries to use his influence with the kapo to keep Mandelbaum safe. Eventually, though, the Nazis take Mandelbaum away for a work detail. Vladek does not know what happened to his friend – he may have been shot by a guard, or beaten to death for working too slowly, or he may have collapsed from starvation or disease – but he does not see Mandelbaum again, and knows he must have died in the camp.
Neither Vladek nor the kapo has true power in the camp. as the Nazi guards are the ones who dole out death sentences. Though the prisoners can make small differences in one another’s lives, they are all essentially helpless before the overwhelming power of the guards.
Vladek remains under the kapo’s protection for more than two months, with better living conditions than most other prisoners. After several weeks, though, the kapo realizes he will have to send Vladek out into the camp as a worker – he can no longer keep him in the barrack all day. He is happy to learn about Vladek’s work in the tin shop in Sosnowiec; skilled workers are treated better than common laborers, and the Nazis need good tinsmiths. He tells Vladek he will try to get him a job in the camp’s tin shop.
Vladek takes a significant risk in presenting himself as an experienced tinsmith. His work in the Sosnowiec tin shop was minimal, and he faces serious consequences if he does something wrong. Vladek is willing to take that calculated risk for the chance of having a better, safer life in the camp. He trusts his own intelligence, competence, and adaptability.
Vladek and Artie come to a hotel called The Pines. There is a “No Trespassing” sign, but Vladek sneaks them around the back to sit on the patio. He tells Artie that he often comes to The Pines to play bingo, take dancing lessons, and use their gym – pretending all the time to be a guest. He remembers one occasion when he won a bingo game: prizes were delivered to the winner’s room, but since he had no room number, he gave his card to the woman sitting next to him to make her happy.
Vladek clearly takes pleasure in things like dancing lessons and bingo, but he refuses to do these things at home because he does not want to spend money on them. His stinginess appears sad more than frustrating here, as Vladek denies himself even small pleasures for the sake of frugality. He has little, except his relationship with Artie, to bring him happiness.