It is winter. Artie is listening to the recordings of his interviews with Vladek – to the part of the story when Tosha poisons herself, Richieu, and the other children – when Françoise comes in to offer him a cup of coffee. Artie remarks on his frustration with the fact that Vladek left to spend the winter in Florida before they could finish their interviews. They have not heard from him since he left. Artie asks, a little helplessly, how he is supposed to take care of Vladek, since he and Françoise cannot and will not move to Rego Park. Françoise asks whether Vladek could move into their apartment. Artie instantly dismisses the idea. Françoise becomes annoyed. Artie complains that she is making him feel guilty, and she leaves the room in a huff.
Françoise is understanding about Vladek’s predicament, and she is doing her best to make the situation easy on Artie by making it clear that she is willing to welcome Vladek into their home and cooperate in other ways if need be. Her open-mindedness, though, makes the situation harder on Artie. He is viscerally against the idea of having Vladek live with them. This opposition is a source of guilt in itself, but Françoise’s flexibility makes Artie seem all the more selfish and unreasonable by contrast.
Artie goes back to his recordings, but the phone rings as soon as he turns on the tape player. It is Mala. She and Vladek have been living together in Florida, she tells him, and Vladek has been spending an unsettling amount of time in the hospital. Though he instructed her not to worry Artie, he has just been admitted to the hospital for the third time in a month because of water in his lungs, and Mala fears the situation is serious. As they talk, Vladek appears in the room with Mala – he has checked himself out of the hospital against the advice of his doctors. He wants to return to New York, he tells her, so he can be near Artie in case something happens. Mala begs Artie to come to Florida and help her.
Vladek has been out of touch with Artie and Françoise since going to Florida, and Artie has apparently been satisfied with that arrangement. Possibly, after spending so much time helping Vladek adjust to life without Mala, he is grateful to have a break from worrying about his father. Mala’s call reminds Artie that such breaks are never really possible when one is caring for somebody as fragile as Vladek. Being a son can be a full-time occupation when a father is nearing the end of his life.
Artie arrives in Florida to find Vladek has exhausted himself with packing. While Vladek rests in bed, Artie asks Mala about their apparent reconciliation. She got a call from the hospital and went to visit him, Mala says. Though she swore she’d never see Vladek again, he somehow talked her into coming back. Mala is obviously unhappy with the situation, but says she feels trapped – Vladek is so sick and dependent, she cannot bring herself to leave him alone.
Artie has allowed Mala to become trapped by refusing to step in and help his father. His resistance to the responsibility of caring for his father has created a need that Mala feels obligated to fill, and for that reason, Artie is just as much to blame as Vladek is for her entrapment.
The next morning, before catching their flight back to New York, Vladek and Artie sit outside Vladek’s Florida condo and watch planes leaving the nearby airport. Spotting a tiny airplane in the sky, Vladek tells Artie that it was a plane very like that one that took him from Poland to Sweden in 1946, after the war had ended. There was nothing left for him and Anja in Poland, but the Americans had imposed quotas for refugees, and it was impossible to immigrate directly to the United States. Herman – Anja’s only surviving sibling, who had been visiting New York with his wife when the war broke out and was still living in the United States after it ended – helped them organize visas to immigrate to Sweden while they waiting for a chance to move to the United States.
At the end of the war, millions of people – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – were displaced from their homes and left with almost nothing. The last weeks of the fighting, especially, left countless homes destroyed, along with infrastructure such as bridges and roads that made daily life possible. In some cases, entire cities were left uninhabitable. The Spiegelmans’ inability to gain entrance into the United States is a testament to the enormous needs of the postwar refugee population around that time. People had to go wherever the local and national government could support them.
In Sweden, Vladek works as a manual laborer, as do most other refugees. Eager to make a better living, he visits a department store – one whose owner has already assured him that there are no jobs available in sales – and asks for a chance to prove himself as a salesman. The store’s owner tasks Vladek with selling out their inventory of knee-length stocking, which have gone out of fashion and have been impossible to sell. When Vladek manages to sell the entire stock, the owner hires him. Eventually, Vladek becomes a partner in the business. He and Anja are well off in Sweden, and he is sorry to leave when their American visas come through.
Vladek would happily have stayed in Sweden and enjoyed the life he and Anja built for themselves there. He goes to the United States because Anja needs to be near her brother. His comment from an earlier conversation with Artie, that a part of Anja died after Herman was killed in a hit-and-run, feels especially significant at this moment. Connections with her family are critical sources of meaning in Anja’s life, and she needs her brother nearby to help her recover from all she has experienced.
After a long, problem-plagued flight from Florida, Vladek, Artie, and Mala arrive at the airport in New York. Françoise takes Mala home, while Artie takes Vladek to the hospital. The doctors run extensive tests to check Vladek’s heart and the water in his lungs, then after several hours release him into Artie’s care.
Vladek’s situation is serious, but the fact that the doctor feels comfortable sending him home shows he isn’t on the brink of death. In some ways, this makes Vladek’s feebleness sadder and more sympathetic. After years of robustness and independence, Vladek now may face a long, difficult decline.
About a month after returning from Florida, Artie goes to Queens to visit Vladek. Upon arriving, he learns from Mala that they are planning to sell the house and move full-time to Florida. Artie is surprised that Vladek would agree to such a thing, but Mala tells him Vladek has been “listless” since returning from Florida – less adamant about having things his way.
Artie and Mala have both complained throughout the novel about Vladek’s stubbornness, but now that sickness and fragility have made him passive, they both seem sad about the change. Vladek is easier to live with, but he is no longer the same man.
Vladek is resting in bed. The photograph of Richieu hangs on the wall above the dresser. Artie comes into the room and sits beside his father. Vladek is pleased to see Artie, but surprised – he has forgotten about their phone conversation the day before, when Artie said he would be visiting. Artie has his tape recorder. If Vladek feels well enough, he says, they can tape the end of his story.
Vladek’s memory is fading along with his health, and the story Artie is trying to collect appears even more precious in the face of that distressing reality. When Vladek dies, or begins to forget the things that have happened to him, his important testimony will be gone as well.
At the end of the war, there are enormous numbers of refugees. Vladek and Shivek, who are still living with the American troops on the abandoned farm where they waited out the end of the war, receive orders to move to a displaced persons camp in another part of Germany. Life in the displaced persons camp is easy and peaceful, but some time after arriving, Vladek suffers a relapse of typhus. American doctors treat him, but warn him that something else is wrong. Vladek will later learn that he has developed diabetes.
Though he is stronger and better nourished than he has been in a long time, Vladek’s body still bears evidence of all he has endured. The relapse of typhus is a meaningful symbol of the way his war experience has become embedded inside him. It is impossible to notice, most of the time, that Vladek has had typhus – but then the illness returns and leaves him just as vulnerable as it did the first time. Memories work in much the same way: they stay buried for years or decades, but are just as alive when one revisits them as they were when they were first formed.
Vladek and Shivek leave the displaced persons camp to visit the German town of Hannover, where Shivek’s brother lives with his wife, a German woman who hid him throughout the war. Their children have their father’s mouse ears and their mother’s cat stripes. Shivek’s sister-in-law asks Vladek whether he has been able to find any of his own family. Vladek has been searching for news of Anja, but assumes she has died – she was so thin and weak in Auschwitz, he tells the German woman, that it seems impossible she should have survived the evacuation.
Shivek’s nieces and nephews are a sign that reconciliation between Jews and the rest of the world – the populations that, by and large, turned their back on the Jews during the Holocaust – is possible. The German woman is a reminder that empathy and generosity were not eradicated in the war. Like Mrs. Motonowa and many others who risked their lives to help Jews survive, she offers hope that Jewish people might find acceptance even in those communities that once ostracized them. These promising omens then contrast with Vladek’s certainty that Anja has died. Though the new generation represents hope for the future, he has no hope of rebuilding his life with Anja.
Shivek’s sister-in-law recommends Vladek visit the displaced persons camp in Belsen, a nearby town. In the camp, Vladek meets two women from Sosnowiec, Jenny and Sonia. Conditions in Sosnowiec are still miserable and dangerous for Jews, the women report. They tell Vladek the story of one Jewish man, Mr. Gelber, who tried to reclaim his family’s bakery. The bakery had been taken over by Poles, and when he arrived they beat him and hanged him in the barn behind his family’s house.
After the war, there is so little left in the way of commerce and resources that the people of Poland are at each other’s throats in the same way they were during the Nazi regime. Poles who have seized Jewish businesses or property are scrambling to hold onto them, knowing there is little else to sustain them if the original owners regain control. All this desperation, coupled with anti-Semitism that has only grown stronger with the war, makes Poland an exceptionally dangerous place for Jews even after the Nazis are gone.
Vladek asks whether the women have heard any news of Anja. He is amazed to learn that she is alive and living in Sosnowiec. The Poles leave her alone, since she never tried to reclaim her family’s property, and she visits the local Jewish organization every day hoping to hear news of Vladek. After their reunion, Vladek says, he would learn that Anja visited a Roma fortuneteller during this time, to ask about her future – a superstitious but comforting exercise. The Roma woman promised Anja that her husband, though he had been very ill, was alive and coming home to her, and that she would have a new life and a second son in a faraway country.
Many people dismiss things like fortune telling and dream visions as mere superstition, but like Vladek’s dream about Parshas Truma, the prophecy Anja hears from the Roma woman turns out to be entirely true. Whether these brushes with supernatural power were authentic is for the reader to judge, but they were certainly important to Vladek and Anja, as they provided a foundation for hope and gave them courage that allowed them to endure in difficult times.
As soon as he learns Anja is alive, Vladek sends her a letter promising to return home immediately. In this letter, he includes a photograph of himself wearing a concentration camp uniform. In his travels through Germany, he tells Artie, he once came across a place that had a clean camp uniform, which people could wear for “souvenir photos.” Anja kept the photograph for the rest of her life, Vladek says. He tells Artie that he still has the photograph in his desk, and Artie runs immediately into the den to find it.
The decision to take a souvenir photo in a camp uniform seems so absurd and strange as to be almost disrespectful – not only to the people who died in those camps, but even to those survivors, like Vladek, who are posing for the photographs. There is no way to make sense of the photograph – to say, for instance, that a certain amount of humor was necessary to go on after the war seems like an inadequate truism – and so it just exists, one of the many impossible-to-explain realities of the Holocaust and the years that followed.
Vladek trades his belongings to buy gifts for Anja: dresses and a fur coat. Shivek decides to return to Poland with him, but they become separated early in the journey. Vladek travels alone for three or four weeks before arriving in Sosnowiec. He arrives in the offices of the local Jewish organization, and someone rushes out to find Anja. The two of them are reunited, amidst a flood of tears and joyful embraces. After that, Vladek says, that is nothing more to tell: he and Anja were very happy, and they lived “happy, happy ever after.”
Vladek’s memories of his reunion with Anja are moving, but they are also dishonest to some extent. Though Artie has not said much about the way their marriage developed over the next twenty-plus years, the fact of her suicide undermines Vladek’s claim that they lived “happy, happy ever after.” As beautiful as this reunion is, it is not the neat resolution that Vladek imagines.
Vladek is reclining in bed. He asks Artie to stop the tape recorder, and rolls over onto his side as though preparing to go to sleep. “I’m tired from talking, Richieu,” he says, “and it’s enough stories for now.”
Vladek is exhausted and, more generally, may be losing some of his mental agility. His confusion at this moment is a sign that Vladek is not as firmly oriented in the present as he has been at other points in his life, but the mistake also shows that Richieu is just as real and important to Vladek as his living son Artie. Richieu has not left his father’s mind even though he has been dead for years. The living give the dead second lives in their memories.
The final image of the book is that of a headstone. The surname “Spiegelman” is engraved at the top, along with a Star of David. Beneath it, side by side, are the names “Vladek” and “Anja,” along with the dates of their respective births and deaths. An eternal flame – a lamp designed to burn day and night without going out – sits at the base of the headstone. Just beneath the image is Artie’s signature and the dates on which he began and completed Maus: 1978-1991.
After decades of separation, Vladek and Anja are finally reunited in death. Like Vladek’s memory of that first reunion with Anja, Artie’s depiction of the peaceful grave site erases the pain and complexity that persists after Vladek’s death. Also like Vladek’s memory, which works to keep the good moments alive while allowing the bad times to fade away, this last tribute to his parents is Artie’s gesture of love and forgiveness. Though Artie and his reader both know that his complicated relationships with his parents are not resolved entirely by death, the gesture itself is a sign that something has moved forward, and that love persists in spite of all the complications and difficulties the family faced in life.