The first panel of the chapter shows Artie bent over a drawing table. The panel shows him in profile, and only his head and shoulders are visible. Two flies buzz next to his head. Though he has the face of a mouse, it is clear that this face is only a mask. Human ears and hair are visible in the picture, as are the strings holding the mask in place. He turns to face the audience and begins to list a series of dates: Vladek died of congestive heart failure in August 1982. He visited him in the Catskills in August 1979. Vladek began working as a tinsmith in Auschwitz in 1944. He began drawing the page the reader is now reading in February 1987. In May 1987 – some time in the near future – Françoise is expected to give birth to their child. Over the course of nine days in May 1944, the Nazis gassed over 100,000 Hungarian Jews in the chambers at Auschwitz.
The human face beneath the mouse mask is a symbol both of Artie’s sense of fraudulence – he does not feel entitled to his Jewish identity, and senses that his work about the Jewish experience is not authentic – and of the inescapability of his book’s imagery and message. He cannot separate himself from his now-famous project, and so his identity has become fused, in some ways, with the comic book version of himself. The dates he lists mark the passage of time, but also note the recurrence of important themes throughout his history, and history in general. Birth and death are inextricably intertwined, and the landscape of a family’s life changes with both.
As Artie recites his list of dates, the panels zoom out to capture more of his body and surroundings. He says another date – the first volume of Maus, which met with great success, was published in September 1986. A final image shows that his drawing table is perched atop a pile of dead bodies. The bodies are naked and emaciated, and each one has the head of a mouse. The silhouette of a guard tower is visible through the window. From atop this pile of bodies, Artie tells his reader that he has received four different offers to turn Maus into a television special or a movie. He remarks on the date of his mother’s suicide – May 1968 – and reminds the audience that Anja left no note when she took her life. An unseen person calls to Artie: “Alright Mr. Spiegelman É We’re ready to shoot!”
The image of Artie perched atop the pile of dead bodies illustrates his sense of having exploited the suffering of those who died during the Holocaust for his own personal gain. He believes he has built his career, metaphorically, on the bodies of murdered Jews. The comment from the unseen speaker, coupled with the silhouette of the guard tower outside the window and the double meaning of the word “shoot” – with a camera and with a gun – speaks to Artie’s sense of being oppressed and held captive, both by thoughts about the Holocaust and by media attention.
A hoard of reporters and camera operators, all wearing animal masks over human faces, climb the pile of dead bodies and surround Artie at his drawing table. As they bombard him with questions, Artie begins to shrink in his chair, literally getting smaller with every question. By the time a leering man in a dog mask pushes his way to the front with promises to make him a millionaire, Artie is the size of a very young child. “I want absolution É I want my mommy!” he cries. He begins to sob.
Though Maus deals primarily with Artie’s relationship with Vladek, the stress that comes with professional success forces Artie to revisit his relationship to Anja. Overwhelmed, he longs for the sense of safety and comfort his mother once offered him. What anger and resentment he still feels toward her coexists here with his need to feel loved and accepted – something she, as a person for whose death he feels partially responsible, is uniquely suited to provide.
The reporters vanish, and Artie – still as small as a toddler – sits alone in his chair. He tells the reader he finds it hard to believe that he is going to be a father soon. Though Vladek has been dead for years, he still struggles to make sense of their relationship. Artie wiggles out of his too-big chair and begins to walk down a street lined with dead bodies and barbed-wire fences. It is time for his appointment with Pavel, he says. Pavel, a Czech Jew and Holocaust survivor, is Artie’s therapist. He sees patients at night, in a home overrun with rescued dogs and cats. (Artie notes that this fact creates problems for his mask metaphor.)
Holocaust imagery follows Artie out of his studio and into his ordinary life, showing how his anxieties follow him through each day. Pavel is an interesting choice for a therapist. Artie has spent his entire life surrounded by Holocaust survivors, and has struggled to understand the Holocaust as a context for his most difficult relationships. Pavel is well-positioned to help with that process, but the fact that Artie chose him of all the qualified therapists in New York suggests that Artie also craves the approval of people who survived the Holocaust as a replacement for the approval he never received from Vladek.
Pavel opens the door in a mouse mask – as with Artie and the reporters, his human head is visible in profile. Artie, still tiny, sits in a large armchair and tells Pavel that he has been feeling awful with no apparent cause. His career is taking off, and his home life is happy, but he feels depressed and lethargic, unable to do real work amidst business propositions and interviews. He tells Pavel that the idea of writing about Auschwitz is so “scary” as to be paralyzing, and that none of his professional accomplishments seem very impressive compared to Vladek’s survival story. Pavel suggests that Vladek may have felt guilty about surviving the camps, and that his insistence that he was always right came from his need to believe that he had deserved to survive.
Though Vladek has expressed sadness during his interviews with Artie – about Richieu, the hanged Jews in Sosnowiec, and plenty of others – overall he has been remarkably reserved and matter-of-fact as he chronicles the horrors of those years. It is hard to believe that Vladek, who never seems to waver (as Anja does) in his desire to survive, could ever feel guilty or sorry that he came out of the war alive. Still, Pavel makes sense, and it is possible Vladek may have adjusted his story to disguise moments of doubt and despair – making it seem like his single-minded commitment to staying alive never wavered, and so avoiding confrontations with his own guilt.
Pavel asks whether Artie admires Vladek for surviving. Artie admits that he does – though Vladek was luckier than most people, he was also resourceful, resilient, and brave. Pavel points out the problem inherent in this admiration: if Artie thinks surviving is admirable, that implies that dying is not admirable, that the dead did something wrong. The living are always biased toward life, Pavel says – they assume, when talking about the Holocaust, that the people who lived somehow deserved life more than those who died. But life and death were random in the camps, he says. Some of the best people lived, and some died. He wonders whether people should give up on telling Holocaust stories at all, since they inevitably exclude the people who died.
This evocation of the unnamed, speechless dead harkens back to the pile of dead bodies at the beginning of the chapter. Just as Artie sensed that his success was built on an exploitation of their pain, so Pavel suggests that his success might also rely on their silence and marginalization in dialogues about the Holocaust. People want to believe there was some sense or order to the destruction that happened in the camps, and the triumph of intelligent, able Vladek allows that belief to persist even in people who know intellectually that such order did not exist.
Artie tells Pavel he has been struggling to imagine Auschwitz. He does not know what it felt like, but on a more basic level, he does not even know what it looked like. He has no idea what kinds of tools Vladek might have used in the camp tin shop – no documents exist to say. Pavel has an answer for this, it turns out; he worked in a tin shop in Czechoslovakia when he was young, and tells Artie about the cutters and the electric drill presses he used. Artie is amazed. As he walks home after the end of the session, he tells his reader that talking with Pavel makes him feel better, though he doesn’t understand why. His tiny body grows gradually back to its normal size.
Formal history has lost track of the tiny details that made up daily life for so many people in Auschwitz and other camps. Though there is no shortage of scholarship on the Holocaust, it is impossible for Artie to recreate his father’s experience except through his memories and the memories of other survivors. This moment emphasizes the importance of testimonies like Vladek and Pavel’s. Any true narrative of the Holocaust would be an amalgamation of millions of individual stories, with unique points of emphasis. Scholars cannot synthesize those stories without losing the sense of the individuals behind them.
Back at his drawing table, Artie turns on the tape of his interview with Vladek. The tape begins with the two of them bickering – Vladek wants to talk about Mala, but Artie wants to talk about Auschwitz. As he listens to his own exasperated shouting, Artie’s body begins to shrink. Once again, he becomes a tiny child in his chair. Still, Vladek’s voice plays through the tape recorder, talking about the tin shop in Auschwitz.
Though Artie’s conversation with Pavel helps him feel more confident in his ability to tell his father’s story, he has not addressed the deepest problem still plaguing him: the guilt he feels about never repairing their troubled relationship. Vladek has been dead for five years at this point, but Artie cannot move past the burden of unresolved conflict.
The head of the tin shop is a Russian Jew named Yidl. Yidl is a Communist, and hates Vladek immediately because he has heard Vladek owned a factory before the war. Because Vladek never really worked in the tin shop in Sosnowiec – he had working papers from the shop, but his job there was only nominal, a way to ensure his safety while the Germans were sending the unemployed to camps – his situation is a precarious one, and he is afraid that Yidl might cause serious problems for him. On the advice of other tinsmiths, Vladek gifts Yidl some smuggled cheese – Polish workers who come from nearby villages are often willing to smuggle food to prisoners – and through this gift earns a little of Yidl’s goodwill. Everyone was profoundly hungry in the camp, he tells Artie. They had nothing to eat but thin soup and small amounts of bread, and those who couldn’t find other food to eat would die slowly of malnutrition.
Survival is the only commodity in the concentration camps: Vladek trades cheese, which Yidl needs to survive, for goodwill, which Vladek needs to survive. Future trades will reveal that small luxuries – like vodka and cigarettes – are still part of the economy of the camps, as are favors that improve life rather than simply preserving it, but the foundation of all these trades is recognition of the interdependence of all the camp’s prisoners. The situation is too desperate to allow for many deep bonds of loyalty or friendship, but the prisoners can and must cooperate with one another.
Each morning and evening, the prisoners stand for an appel, a roll call of sorts when guards ensure that every prisoner is accounted for. He remembers one man who, during every appel, would insist to the German soldiers that he was one of them: a German, with medals from the government and a son in the military. Two panels, side by side, show the same man with two different animal heads: first a mouse, then a cat. Nobody could say whether this man was really a German, Vladek tells Artie – regardless of his nationality, though, the Germans considered him a Jew and treated him accordingly.
The two different animals heads Artie uses to depict the German Jew highlight the arbitrary, constructed nature of racial division. The Jewish “race” – not the religion, but the ethnic group – is the object of the Nazis’ disdain, but this Jewish man is culturally, and perhaps even ethnically, German. The racist ideology of the Nazis is partly an instrument of social control – as in the camps, they divide people into imagined groups to create conflict and secure their own power.
Artie asks about Anja. Vladek explains that Anja was sent to Birkenau, a much bigger camp about two miles from Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, prisoners worked and were expected to live at least a little while. People in Birkenau, on the other hand, were simply waiting to be put to death. He tells Artie that he was able to get in touch with Anja through a Hungarian woman named Mancie, who sometimes worked in Auschwitz though she was imprisoned in Birkenau. Mancie is the mistress of a Nazi guard, who uses his influence to protect her. Vladek offers to pay Mancie for her help, but she tells him she does not want his food – she helps him without expecting anything in return.
Mancie is one of the only people in the desperate world of Auschwitz who is willing to help another person without expecting anything for herself. Her relationship with the Nazi guard, which likely allows her access to better food and more humane treatment than other prisoners, positions Mancie to help the people around her without regard for what they can give her in return. While her generosity is moving, it is also important to remember the unusual circumstances that allow her to act so kindly.
A few days after they meet, Mancie brings Vladek news of Anja. She tells him Anja is surviving but is very frail, and that she starting “sobbing with joy” when she learned he was alive. A few days later, she brings a letter from Anja. In the letter, Anja tells him that she often thinks of throwing herself against the electric fence to end her suffering, but that knowing he is alive gives her hope. Mancie reports that the kapo in Anja’s barrack is very cruel to her, and assigns her to chores that are too strenuous for her small body. Passing letters and news between them is dangerous for Mancie – she is risking her life – but she is moved by the love Anja and Vladek share, and helps them regardless.
Anja is living under much worse conditions than Vladek, but she continues to struggle for life, just as he urged her to in the Srodula bunker. Knowing that Vladek is alive gives Anja hope, but it also gives her a sense of purpose. She fights to survive because she knows how important she is to Vladek, and though she does not share his ferocious commitment to her own survival, she is willing to care for herself as a way of caring for him. Mancie seems to need the comfort of the relationship as well – in a world full of people who are desperately protecting their own interests, the selfless love Vladek and Anja share is rare and encouraging.
Nazi guards occasionally ask Yidl to send workers to other parts of the camp for other jobs. Vladek is desperate to see Anja, and when the guards order Yidl to send a crew of roofers into Birkenau, he asks to go with them. This was a horrible time in Birkenau – 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being transported to the camp. As he walks through the camp, he calls out Anja’s name. Someone brings her to the site where he is working. They speak without looking at each other, afraid the guards may see them talking. Anja tells Vladek that Mancie has been getting her jobs in the kitchen, and that she has been slipping scraps of food to her friends. Vladek urges her to save the scraps for herself. “Don’t worry about your friends,” he tells her. “Believe me, they don’t worry about you.” He begs her to keep herself strong for his sake, and before they part ways he tells her, “I think about you É always.”
“I think about you É always” becomes a refrain that follows Vladek through Auschwitz and into his old age. Talking with Artie for the book, he claims several times that he is “always” thinking about Anja. Though the significance of the statement changes over time, the sense that Vladek’s identity is tied up in Anja remains constant as decades pass. Anja’s lack of appetite, a possible sign of clinical depression, hints that her emotional strength is flagging. She survives, but to do so is a struggle on multiple levels. Her decision to sneak food scraps to her starving friends despite the risks shows Anja’s compassionate nature. She craves connections with others, and finds meaning in her ability to care for people.
Occasionally, prisoners must submit themselves for “selektions,” in which camp doctors inspect their naked bodies for sores and other signs of illness. If a man looks sufficiently healthy, he returns to work. The ones who look ill are sent to the gas chambers. Vladek remembers one young man, a Belgian named Felix, who presented himself for a selektion and saw the guards take down his serial number. Realizing he might be sent to his death at any moment, Felix wailed and screamed throughout the night. Vladek could not comfort him – it seemed inevitable that the Germans would come for Felix eventually, and indeed they took him away the next day. Vladek could only tell him to be brave in facing his death.
Felix knows well in advance that the guards intend to execute him, but he has no power to change his situation even with that foreknowledge. In Auschwitz, he is completely at the mercy of the guards. Vladek tries to empower Felix, but the situation is clear-cut. There is little for him to say in the way of comfort – he cannot do for Felix what the Polish priest, for instance, did for him. Even the small luxury of being able to care for others is taken away from Vladek in Auschwitz.
Next door to the tin shop where Vladek works is a shoe shop where guards take their boots for repair. One day, Vladek arrives at the tin shop and discovers that the shoemaker who worked there has been sent to another camp. Sensing an opportunity to escape Yidl and his hostility, Vladek offers himself to the kapo as a shoemaker. He bluffs about his experience level, claiming to have been a shoemaker since childhood. When asked to prove his skills by repairing a shoe, he recalls the few techniques he learned while “working” in Miloch’s shoe shop in Srodula. The kapo is pleased with the repair, and takes Vladek on as a shoemaker.
Vladek exaggerates his skills and experience over and over in Auschwitz, claiming to have been an English tutor, a tinsmith, and a shoemaker. Though none of these things is true, he manages to thrive in every job, earning the respect of supervisors wherever he goes. Vladek has prepared himself for desperate times by collecting knowledge wherever he can. He has taken nothing for granted since he returned from the prisoner of war camp; vigilance and rapt attention to the world around him have left him with a store of information, and his social intelligence helps him identify the best ways to use it.
Vladek knows the basics of repairing shoes, but when a Nazi guard brings in a badly torn boot, he is forced to smuggle it out of the workshop to a trained shoemaker working in a different part of the camp. The shoemaker fixes the boot – Vladek watches intently while he does – in exchange for a day’s ration of bread. When the Nazi guard returns the next day, he is so pleased with the repair that he brings Vladek a sausage as payment. Other guards begin to bring their shoes to Vladek, and to pay him for good work with gifts of food. He shares this food with the kapo in charge of the shops – “If you want to live, it’s good to be friendly,” he tells Artie.
Vladek differentiates between being friendly with the kapo and being his friend. He needs the kapo’s goodwill to survive, but he cannot allow himself to trust a person who has such close ties to the Nazis. The kapo’s allegiances must be to himself, and to the people who provide for him – the camp guards. Vladek knows this, and never believes the kapo is his friend. In fact, he has not had a friend in the camp since Mandelbaum. All this calls back to the first scene of the book, where Vladek comments bitterly on Artie’s “friends” after his bike accident.
One day, in conversation with the kapo, Vladek learns that the Germans are building new barracks and plan to move some women to Auschwitz from Birkenau to work in the munitions factory. He writes to Anja with news of these barracks, and begins working to bring her over as a munitions worker. For weeks, he trades his daily ration of bread for cigarettes, then uses these cigarettes to “buy” a bottle of vodka as a bribe for the people who have the power to transfer Anja. After “starv[ing] a little” to save for the bribe, he pays for Anja’s transfer. The day he saw her marching into camp with the other workers, Vladek tells Artie, was the only time he was ever happy in Auschwitz.
Even when Anja moves to Auschwitz, she and Vladek are not permitted to interact with one another. They cannot even allow the guards to see that they know one another. Vladek starves and sacrifices simply for the chance to look at Anja as she walks to and from work every day, and to sneak a few words or parcels to her when the guards aren’t looking. It is such a small change in the scheme of things, but to Vladek and Anja, who have nothing in the world but one another, it is a source of deep comfort in an incredibly bleak time.
For a time after Anja’s transfer, Vladek is able to toss her packages of food through the barbed wire fence that separates the munitions factory from the shops where he works. He is forced to stop sending these packages after a kapo spots Anja smuggling one and chases her through the barracks, threatening to kill her. Soon, they are separated again. Vladek is transferred from the shoe shop near Anja’s munitions factory and taken back into the main camp for “black work” – taxing manual labor, which consists mainly of moving stones and digging holes. Black work wears out his body, leaving him skinnier than ever before. By the time the next selektion comes, he is afraid to present himself; if he looks too weak to work, which he fears he does, he will be sent to his death. He manages to save himself by hiding in the barrack bathrooms during the selektion.
Vladek’s transfer undermines all the sacrifices he made to bring Anja to Auschwitz, as well as all the work he has done to build good rapport with guards and kapos to keep his place as a skilled laborer. Vladek has used his charisma and intelligence to build a bearable life for himself in the camp, but his fortunes turn on a dime just like anyone else’s. Though he is healthy when he enters Auschwitz, and keeps himself in relatively good conditions as a skilled laborer, black work wears out his body just the same as it does any other prisoner. As his fortunes change, Vladek finds he is just as vulnerable as anyone else.
As Artie and Vladek return home, Artie tries to sketch a timeline of Vladek’s imprisonment. Vladek says he spent ten months in Auschwitz: two teaching English, five or six in the shops, about a month doing black work, and two more as a tinsmith just before leaving the camp. Françoise greets Artie and Vladek in the front yard, telling them she has finished with the bank papers and made lunch. Vladek praises Françoise and complains about Mala as they all sit down to eat, but Artie doesn’t pause in their interview – he presses Vladek on the question of his last two months in Auschwitz, wanting to know how he came to work as a tinsmith again.
This is the first moment when Françoise becomes involved in the interview process. In fact, Artie has never interviewed his father in another person’s presence. Though it can be assumed that Artie has shared some of Vladek’s stories with Françoise, the integration of these interviews into ordinary life – allowing the interview to become a conversation over lunch – speaks to how Artie’s work and his life have become impossible to separate. Artie is seeking self-knowledge and reconciliation with the past in the act of writing, and these stories inform every aspect of his life. In relaxing the distinctions between the professional and the personal, Artie now admits that fact.
As the Russian army was closing in on Auschwitz, Vladek says, tinsmiths were sent to disassemble the gas chambers and crematoriums. The Germans planned to transport their remaining prisoners Germany, rebuild the chambers, and finish killing the Jews they had imprisoned. He saw the inside of the gas chambers himself, Vladek says. One of the prisoners who had worked in the chambers while they were operational told him, in gruesome detail, about the process by which people were killed, and the work of taking their bodies to the ovens for cremation. This was horrifying information for Vladek, as he knew that many of his family members had died in the gas chambers. During this time, Vladek says, he also learned about the mass killings of the Hungarian Jews who were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. There were too many to send them through the crematorium, so their bodies were burned in outdoor pits. Some were killed in the gas chambers first, but some were forced to jump into the pits alive, where they were burned along with the dead. Artie cannot understand why nobody tried to resist the Nazis; Vladek tries to explain how overwhelming and disempowering the camps were, but it is hard for Artie to grasp.
Even within the camp, Vladek has been sheltered from some of the most horrifying details of its operations. Pavel’s point – that the dead have stories the living can never know – becomes especially painful and potent as Vladek confronts the terrible circumstances in which so many beloved people were murdered. The chambers and ovens and the vivid stories he hears from the crematorium worker all force Vladek to imagine the fear and suffering his father, sisters, and other loved ones endured during the last minutes of their lives, and the indignity with which their bodies were handled. Just as Artie feels guilt and sadness about his inability to empathize with his parents’ experience in Auschwitz, so Vladek feels similarly about his inability to empathize with the experiences of those people who died in the gas chambers.
That night, after Vladek is asleep, Artie and Françoise sit on the porch and talk. Staying with Vladek has left them exhausted, and Artie hopes that Mala will come back soon, to relieve them of the burden of caring for him. Inside the house, Vladek is moaning in his sleep. This is normal, Artie assures Françoise. Observing the peaceful night around them, Françoise says it’s hard to believe Auschwitz ever happened. Artie slaps at a mosquito on his arm, then sprays pesticide at the bugs hovering around them. He and Françoise go inside as the mosquitos fall to the ground, dead.
In killing the mosquitoes with pesticide, Artie recreates in miniature the Nazis’ systemic murder of the Jews. Zyklon B, the chemical used in the gas chambers, was used originally as a pesticide – so, when Artie sprays the cloud of mosquitoes, he unwittingly evokes the spray from the shower nozzles in the chambers. The thoughtlessness with which he knocks out the tiny creatures around him is a sign that Artie is not any more sensitive to violence despite his exposure to Vladek’s stories. Though killing insects and killing people seem completely different, disregard for the lives of beings they considered to be “lesser” than themselves was the foundation of the Nazis’ “extermination” project. The small, everyday cruelties perpetrated by people who have been educated about the horrors of the past are evidence that human beings are still capable of great harm, despite all we have attempted to learn from the example of the Holocaust.