A few months later, back in the house in Rego Park, Vladek is despondent. He cannot live by himself, he tells Artie – he is too sick, with diabetes and a weak heart – but does not want to go to a retirement home, or hire a live-in nurse. He still wants Françoise and Artie to move in with him, but Artie insists, as he has from the beginning, that this is out of the question. Mala has offered to come back to Vladek in exchange for $100,000. Vladek does not know whether to take her up on this offer, but the prospect distresses him.
After years of refusing to accept the limitations of old age and poor health, Vladek is now becoming acutely aware of his own impending mortality. At this frightening moment, Vladek clings to shared history and personal connections. He rejects the idea of accepting care from a professional who has no special attachment to him, and would prefer even his unhappy arrangement with Mala over such impersonal attention.
Vladek wants Artie’s help installing storm windows. Artie promises to help, but asks Vladek to tell him about Anja first. He wants to know what happened to Anja while Vladek was in Dachau. Anja went through Gross-Rosen and through Ravensbrück, another camp, Vladek says. Mancie kept her close and protected her. She was freed before Vladek and went to Sosnowiec, but Vladek knows very little about her life during the time they spent apart.
It seems that Vladek and Anja spoke very little about their experience in the camps after their reunion. This is striking, since Anja, at least, seems to have felt a need to process her experiences – her postwar diaries are testaments to that need. Vladek, who has gone decades without sharing these memories, seems to be the one who enforced silence around the subject, perhaps also suppressing Anja by doing so.
Vladek and the other prisoners on the train – the ones designated for exchange – never reached the Swiss border. They disembark the train and march for hours through the German countryside. After marching for a long time, they are made to stand still and wait. It is during this period of waiting that they learn the news: the war is over. The prisoners rejoice, embracing one another and shouting their happiness. Shortly after the news arrives, the Germans herd the prisoners onto another train – a freight train, whose car is open on the top – and tell them the Americans will be waiting for them in the next town.
The war is over, but the prisoners are still at the mercy of their German captors. They can expect significant changes soon, but they will remain prisoners as long as they are surrounded by armed German soldiers. The end of the war is a joyous event, not because it solves everything, but because it means the Nazi regime cannot last forever – a better future for individuals and for the Jewish people in general now seems possible in a way it has not for years.
When the train arrives in the next town, there are no American troops in sight. The prisoners climb out of the freight car anyway, eager to seize their freedom. They walk in all different directions, many (including Vladek) without a clear idea of where to go. It is not long before German soldiers – different ones than those who put them on the train – begin to round them up again. The soldiers force the prisoners to wait together by the shore of a big lake, and surround them with machine guns to prevent escape. Rumors begin to circulate that the soldiers plan to shoot the prisoners during the night. As he waits, Vladek is surprised to meet Shivek, a man he knew in Sosnowiec before the war. They both feel defeated – after everything they have survived, they are trapped, with nothing to do but wait for the Germans to shoot them. They make plans to stay by the shore of the lake throughout the night, hoping they can swim to safety when the shooting starts. As night falls, people begin to cry and pray as they wait for death.
Vladek and Shivek have not given up on life. Though it may seem as though living is not worth the pain and effort that come with trying to survive in such conditions, their plan to jump into the lake shows that Vladek and Shivek are still willing to struggle for life. Vladek once told Anja that they had to fight to survive until the very last moment – implying that they could not allow their lives to be swallowed up in grief or hopelessness. Victory, for the Nazis, comes only when Jews are not longer willing to resist their own destruction – when they cease to see their lives as being worth the struggle of survival. Though the situation seems hopeless, Vladek and Shivek refuse to concede that point.
When morning comes, the prisoners find that they are all alive – not only that, but the Germans have fled, leaving their guns behind. One man reports that he was lying beside the head officer’s tent and heard the man’s girlfriend begging him to let the prisoners go, insisting the officer would be punished if he allowed the prisoners to be killed. Vladek is free.
This woman – the officer’s girlfriend – saves the lives of dozens of people without ever making an explicit effort to do so. The argument by which she convinces her lover to leave is an appeal to his sense of self-preservation – she might be just as prejudiced against Jews as any Nazi. The lives of all these people are intertwined, and the actions of any one person can have great consequences for others.
Vladek and Shivek head out together, hoping to find food at a nearby farm. Soon, they are captured again. The cycle from the night before repeats itself: they are held in a barn, waiting for death, but find when day breaks that all the German soldiers have fled. Vladek and Shivek decide to find somewhere to hide until the chaos dies down and things are safer. They find an abandoned farmhouse, and the sound of explosions in the distance confirms that the Germans are retreating, blowing up bridges in their wake to prevent enemy troops from following them.
The absurd cycle of capture and release is a testament to the chaos that reigned during the last days of the war. The German army, famous for its discipline, has become totally disorganized and anarchical. Soldiers are not able to follow through on the things they start, because the larger and better-supplied Allied forces are constantly closing in on them.
Exploring the farm, Vladek and Shivek find milk – which they immediately drink in excessive amounts – as well as cows and chickens. Shivek, who grew up on a farm, kills chickens for them to eat. In the house, they exchange their camp uniforms for civilian clothes left behind by the people who abandoned the house. After months of near-starvation, the rich food makes Vladek and Shivek very sick, and they huddle in the house for several days, “in bad shape.”
Even after the Germans have retreated, Vladek and Shivek’s fates are not certain. Privation, sickness, and hard labor have left their bodies weak and very vulnerable. Though the most obvious threat is gone, the two men are still in a precarious situation.
After a few days, American troops arrive at the farm. The German troops – Americans use the derogatory term “Krauts” – have been defeated and driven out of the area. Americans plan to use the farm as part of their base camp, but agree to let Vladek and Shivek stay in the house as long as they help with cleaning and upkeep. The soldiers like Vladek especially, since he speaks English. They nickname him “Willie” (an Anglicization of his full name, Wladyslaw) and give him gifts of chocolate and other luxuries.
The American troops are healthy and hearty, seemingly more carefree than anyone Vladek has met in a long time. The sight of so many relaxed people – Vladek among them, to some extent – highlights just how exhaustingly tense the war has been. Along with their lives and their freedom, Nazis robbed their victims of peace of mind.
Vladek insists it is time to install the storm windows, but tells Artie he wants to give him something before he forgets about it. From a shelf in the living room, he takes a box filled with photographs left over from Poland. The two of them sit on the couch and sort through the photographs, Vladek describing the fate of each person pictured. They look at photographs of Herman, Anja’s oldest brother, who survived the war but was killed in a hit-and-run car accident in 1964 – his death left Anja distraught, Vladek says, and her suicide followed a few years later. There are pictures of Lolek, who survived Auschwitz and became “an engineer and a big-shot college professor.” Vladek tells Artie about Josef, Anja’s brother who died by suicide shortly after the beginning of the war; and about Levek, another of Anja’s brothers, who escaped to Russia at the start of the war, then returned to Poland and died in Warsaw.
These photographs evoke both the time before the war and the time after. Vladek’s stories about Herman, Lolek, Josef, and Levek focus on aspects of the family history that have no relationship to the Holocaust, including significant tragedies that happened outside the camps and ghettos. The history of the Zylberberg family is not completely circumscribed by the Holocaust. The family experienced losses that had nothing to do with Hitler, and they bore witness to triumphs – like Lolek’s professional success – as well. Though the Holocaust was a paradigm-shifting event and changed the lives of its victims in countless ways, history did not stop with the end of the war.
Artie asks Vladek about the Spiegelman side of the family – his own parents and siblings. Vladek names them, one by one: his father and Fela were taken in the stadium selection in Sosnowiec; his sisters Zosha and Yadja were with him in the ghetto, but were later killed in Auschwitz with their children; his brothers Marcus and Moses were taken to a camp called Blechamer near the beginning of the war, and the man who told Vladek that they had died refused to tell him how it happened; his brothers Leon and Pinek spent the war hiding with a family of Russian Jews, but Leon died of appendicitis. Pinek survived, married one of the women who helped keep him safe during the war, and lives in Israel. There are no photographs of his dead family members, Vladek says – he has nothing whatsoever to remember them by.
Vladek has spoken very little about his own family, but this moment illuminates a whole other aspect of his experience that Artie has not even begun to explore. It is not clear what role any of these newly-introduced people played in Vladek’s life, either during the Holocaust or before it, and his omission of these people from his narrative may have been a deliberate misrepresentation or a reflection of some rift in the Spiegelman family. Whatever the reason behind them, these revelations make it clear that Vladek’s story is far from complete – that the real narrative is more sprawling and complex than could ever be captured in a single story.
As they talk, Vladek’s chest begins to pain him. He takes a nitroglycerin pill and lies down on the couch. He tells Artie that he is too tired to install the storm windows, and asks whether Artie can come back to Queens tomorrow to help him. This is impossible, Artie says – he’s too busy to make the trip to Queens twice in two days. Vladek will have to wait a few more days for his storm windows, Artie tells him. Vladek groans. Artie looks suddenly contrite, and apologizes to Vladek for making him talk so much. Vladek tells Artie not to worry, calling him “darling” and insisting it is always a pleasure when he visits.
Artie and Vladek have gotten much better at resolving their conflicts since they began the long process of conducting interviews. Artie’s willingness to apologize, and Vladek’s warm, loving reply are both signs that their relationship has improved, even though the many problems and unspoken tensions between them have not necessarily been resolved. Their dozens of hours together have brought Artie and Vladek closer – and though they may have too much emotional baggage to become truly close, that process seems to have made them both better people.