The next time Artie visits Vladek, Vladek berates him for being late. He wanted Artie to climb to the roof and fix a leaky drainpipe, but now there isn’t enough time. Artie tells Vladek he should hire someone to fix the drainpipe. Vladek, annoyed, says Artie is just like Mala – a spendthrift – and that he will fix the drainpipe himself if Artie won’t help him. When they sit down to talk, Vladek on his stationary bike, Artie takes out a new tape recorder; taking notes by hand is too hard, he tells Vladek. Vladek asks how much Artie paid for the recorder. Artie tells him, cheerfully, that it was only $75. Vladek scoffs and tells Artie he could have found it for half that price. Artie, clearly exasperated, ignores the comment and asks Vladek to tell him what happened after he returned to Sosnowiec after leaving the prisoner of war camp.
Vladek’s obsessive thriftiness is one of his defining character traits, and Artie’s total lack of concern about saving money seems to be a reaction against those miserly tendencies. Even though their personalities are completely opposite in certain important ways, Artie bears signs of his father’s influence, and he still seems to want to please Vladek. Despite his laissez-faire attitude about money, Artie is proud of the (in his opinion) low price he paid for the tape recorder –but Vladek’s standards are impossibly high.
Vladek has returned to Sosnowiec to find that life in his father-in-law’s house is very much the same as it was before he left. He, Anja, and Richieu are living in the house with Anja’s parents and grandparents, as well as her sister, Tosha; Tosha’s husband, Wolfe; their daughter, Bibi; and Anja’s niece and nephew, Lonia and Lolek, whose parents, Herman and Helen, were in New York visiting the World’s Fair when the war broke out. Food is very short – each person gets coupons for eight ounces of bread each day and a small amount of margarine, sugar, and jam each week – but the family has enough money to buy goods on the black market, which they do despite the fact that breaking even minor laws is very dangerous for Jews.
The Zylberberg family is large and close – all twelve people live together in the house and share familial responsibilities like childrearing, cooking and cleaning, and caring for older generations. It is not clear whether the whole family lived together before the war, but it seems that living together is a source of comfort and stability. Though Jews have been pushed to the margins of society, the family’s accumulated wealth still has the power to protect them from some of the hardships others face.
After their first dinner with the now-reunited family, Mr. Zylberberg tells Vladek that all Jewish-owned businesses have been confiscated by the Germans. His hosiery factory and Vladek’s textile factory have been taken over by German managers, and the family has no money coming in. Wolfe calls all the men together to play cards. He is lighthearted about the war, and assures Vladek that there is no need to worry, or even to think about saving money in anticipation of hard times. The war will be over before they know it, he says. Vladek and Mr. Zylberberg are both skeptical and nervous.
Like Vladek, Mr. Zylberberg is pragmatic. He anticipates bad times ahead, and has intelligent, clear-headed ideas about what the family must do to ensure its long-term safety. Wolfe, by comparison, has no sense of the urgency of the situation. In hindsight, Wolfe’s optimism looks foolish, but in the early days of the war, when nobody could anticipate all the horrors to come, such opinions seemed more reasonable. It is hard to judge anyone fairly in hindsight, since the Holocaust was essentially unprecedented.
Shortly after he returns home, Vladek goes out into the city, determined to find a way to earn some money for the family. He wears an armband emblazoned with the Star of David, identifying him as a Jew. He meets Mr. Ilzecki, a tailor to whom he sold textiles before the war. Mr. Ilzecki now makes uniforms for German officers, but he tells Vladek that he still makes suits when he can get cloth. Vladek manages to get some cloth illegally, from a shop owner who owes him money but cannot pay. He sells the cloth to Mr. Ilzecki that same day. When Vladek brings home the money from the sale, Mr. Zylberberg is pleased to see that someone in his family is forward-thinking and industrious.
The Star of David badge, which did not exist in Poland before Vladek went into the army, is now an omnipresent feature in the day-to-day lives of Sosnowiec’s Jews. Though things are changing rapidly, Vladek is resourceful – he is an excellent businessman, but even more importantly, he has the ability to identify and leverage personal connections that might be helpful to him. It is also clear that, unlike Wolfe, Vladek feels a need to prepare for the worst case scenario. He needs to feel productive in order to feel secure.
Some time later, Vladek is out on Modrzejowska Street – the area of Sosnowiec where people go to do business on the black market – when Nazi soldiers close off the street and begin inspecting everybody’s working papers. Vladek hides in a building until the inspection is over, since he has no working papers and would certainly be taken away if the Nazis discovered this. When he returns home, he tells his father-in-law about the incident. Mr. Zylberberg arranges working papers for Vladek through a friend, the owner of a local tin shop who has been producing goods for the Germans. In case of another inspection, the shop owner says, Vladek should run into the building and pretend to be working. Vladek mentions to Artie that the skills he learned in the tin shop would become useful to him later, when he was in Auschwitz.
Working papers confirm that the person who holds them is employed by a legitimate business. Jews without papers are not productive members of society (according to standards set by the German army), and though Jews may be deported for any number of reasons – or for no reason at all – it is especially dangerous to move through public spaces without working papers. Vladek makes a passing reference to his time in Auschwitz, disrupting the chronological narrative to remark on things yet to come. In doing this, he reminds Artie that this is not a war story, but a genocide story – that he was an average man caught in an incomprehensible and horrible historical moment.
Over the course of the next year, Vladek says, life in Sosnowiec became steadily worse for Jews. One afternoon, walking past the train station, Vladek sees German soldiers grabbing Jews at random, beating them and shooting them. He fears for his life, but is saved when he spots Mr. Ilzecki, who lives nearby and pulls Vladek into the safety of his home. For hours, he sits with Ilzecki and his wife, listening to the screams and gunshots outside.
Hiding to escape violence has now become a prominent part of Vladek’s daily life. He hides to escape deportation when he is caught without working papers, makes plans to hide in the tin shop during raids, and now is forced to hide from random threats on Jewish lives as he goes about his daily business.
Vladek tells Artie that Mr. Ilzecki had a son about the same age as Richieu. One afternoon, while the two children play together, Ilzecki tells Vladek that he has plans to hide his son with a Polish friend until the situation in Sosnowiec improves. Ilzecki believes his friend will hide Richieu as well. Vladek agrees to talk with his family. When he brings up the subject later, though, he finds that Anja and her parents are violently opposed to the idea of surrendering Richieu into the care of strangers. Anja clutches Richieu to her chest and swears, wild-eyed, that she will never give up her baby.
For a family as close as the Zylberbergs, the idea of being apart during dangerous times –and especially of separating parents from their children – is both frightening and painful. It shocks Mr. and Mrs. Zylberberg that Vladek would trust a stranger to care for his son’s best interest, but Anja is more distressed, it seems, by the thought of what separation from Richieu would mean for her: the loss of a child who brings light and purpose to her unhappy world.
Vladek slowly stops pedaling his stationary bicycle. A defeated look passes over his face. Mr. Ilzecki gave his son to his Polish friend, he says, and the little boy survived the war even after his parents were killed. Richieu was not so lucky. In the end, Vladek says, he and Anja had to send Richieu away to hide anyway. He begins to tell the story – how, in 1943, Tosha took all the children into hiding – but Artie stops him. Vladek needs to tell his story in chronological order, Artie insists, or he’ll never be able to make sense of it while writing his book.
Vladek’s memories of Richieu, and of this crossroads moment in particular, are enormously painful. His sorrow is obvious, and yet Artie does nothing to comfort his father. It is clear that Artie does not know how to handle his father’s emotions. Artie is uncomfortable seeing Vladek vulnerable and sad, so he steers him toward less difficult subjects with his insensitive insistence on keeping the story in chronological order.
Grudgingly, Vladek resumes his story in 1941, as the situation in Sosnowiec was escalating. At the end of that year, Germans post an order stating that all Jews are to be relocated into a segregated neighborhood, and that non-Jews will be moved into their vacated homes. Shortly thereafter, all twelve members of the Zylberberg household move into a small apartment in a part of town called Stara Sosnowiec.
The segregated neighborhoods – also called ghettos –mark the end of Jewish membership in ordinary society. In ghettos, Jews are forced to depend on the Germans to survive. Food and shelter are under German control, and Jews have limited power to influence their circumstances.
Vladek continues trading goods on the black market for a few months after moving to Stara Sosnowiec. That winter, four Jewish men are hanged by German soldiers as punishment for dealing goods on the black market. Among these men are Nahum Cohn, a friend of Mr. Zylberberg with whom Vladek has often done business, and Cohn’s son, Pfefer. The Germans leave the four men’s bodies hanging in Modrzejowska Street for a week, as a warning against dealing on the black market. As he remembers these men to Artie, Vladek starts to cry.
On the surface, it may seem odd that Vladek should be so moved by this memory. He knew Cohn primarily as a business associate, and since he would lose so many relatives and dear friends in coming years, one might assume that he wouldn’t have the emotional energy to grieve for people he barely knew. But Vladek’s tears speak to his sense of kinship with Nahum and Pfefer Cohn. He could easily have been hanged in their place, just as he could have died with so many other Jews in Poland. These deaths are community wounds, and Vladek still feels that intensely.
Artie asks what Anja was doing during this time. She spent a lot of time writing in her diaries, Vladek tells him. Artie remembers seeing Polish notebooks in the house when he was young, and asks whether these were Anja’s diaries. Vladek tells him that the original diaries didn’t survive the war, but that later in her life, Anja recorded her memories of the war in new diaries. Artie becomes excited – he needs Anja’s diaries for his book, he says, and asks Vladek where they are. Before he can answer, Vladek begins to cough on the smoke from Artie’s cigarette, and urges him to put it out in deference to his weak lungs.
Vladek has already talked at length about Anja’s sensitivity and intelligence, and her extensive diaries of her war experience further emphasize those traits. That Anja spent so much time writing in her diary highlights her introspective nature as well. Nobody knows what she was writing, but the fact itself illustrates a desire to understand all that was happening around her by documenting and reflecting on it.
As Artie grudgingly stamps out his cigarette, Vladek resumes his story. After the hanging, he looks for less dangerous work. Gold and jewelry are easier to hide than cloth, so he begins to trade those on the black market. He also sells groceries under the counter, but is almost arrested by Nazi soldiers while delivering a bag of sugar –he escapes punishment by pretending to be the owner of the grocery store where he is taking the sugar. As black market business becomes more and more dangerous in Stara Sosnowiec, he seeks more legitimate work, in a carpentry shop managed by the Germans. Lolek and Mr. Zylberberg work in the shop as well. None of the men are paid for this work. Jewish men need working papers to move freely through the city, so they work simply to have the protection of a legitimate, German-approved business.
Vladek is frightened by the execution of the Cohns –he knows the Germans intend to maintain order by any means necessary, and aren’t afraid to make an example of someone who steps out of line. Still, he continues with his illegal work because there is nothing else he can do to support himself. Severe restrictions placed on Jewish economic activity make it impossible for him to earn a living legitimately. Though he is not a risk-taker by nature, Vladek has no choice except to put his life on the line. This shows how tense circumstances can push people to do things they would never have imagined before.
In May 1942, the Germans announce a plan to send all Polish Jews older than seventy to Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia. Anja’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Karmio, are in their nineties and still living with the Zylberberg family. They desperately want to stay with their family. Though most Polish Jews don’t yet know about the atrocities being committed at Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, Mr. and Mrs. Karmio know enough to be fearful of what may await them if they agree to go to Theresienstadt. The family hides them for more than a month, but soon see that doing so endangers every other member of the family. They are forced to surrender Mr. and Mrs. Karmio to the Gemeinde – the local Jewish government who have begun to cooperate with the Germans in hopes of winning some security for themselves and others in their community. Though they believed Mr. and Mrs. Karmio were going to Czechoslovakia, Vladek says, they later found out that they were sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed in the gas chambers.
The deportation of Mr. and Mrs. Karmio illustrates how the Germans forced the very people they persecuted to assist them in their work. The Zylberbergs are forced to give their beloved grandparents to the Germans because they fear the consequences of not doing so. Likewise, members of the Gemeinde collaborate with the Germans out of desperation, hoping their cooperation will protect them from the worst persecution. None of these people can know what lies in store for them, or whether the cooperation will pay off in the long run. Everyone is making choices blindly, struggling to do what is right for them and the people they love without any real information to guide them.
A few months after Anja’s grandparents are taken away, a member of the Gemeinde announces that all Jews will be required to present themselves at the town stadium the following Wednesday to have their legal documents inspected and stamped. Many fear that this is a trap, but Jews without valid legal documents are extremely vulnerable, and most feel that they have no choice but to present themselves at the stadium. Vladek’s father tells Vladek that their cousin Mordecai will be working at one of the tables, inspecting documents. If they take their documents to Mordecai, Mr. Spiegelman suggests, he might be able to ensure the family’s safety. Since the death of his wife from cancer, Mr. Spiegelman has been living with his daughter – Vladek’s sister Fela – and her four children. Though he doesn’t know whether presenting himself will be dangerous, Mr. Spiegelman says he will accompany Fela if she chooses to go.
The Jewish people of Sosnowiec are not fools – they know presenting themselves at the stadium could lead to disaster. Still, there are very few alternatives. In the ghetto they cannot hope to evade German power for very long, and those who choose to hide during the registration will be in an precarious position afterward regardless of what happens. Mr. Spiegelman’s commitment to protecting his daughter, regardless of what she chooses or what happens, highlights one way in which Jews do still hold power over their own lives even in such circumstances: they can make choices about their priorities.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of Jews arrive at the stadium. Each person, after the Gemeinde check their documents, is ordered to go either to the right or to the left. People in the crowd quickly realize that old people, families with lots of young children, and people without work papers are being sent to the left. Though nobody knows what, everybody is sure something horrible is going to happen to these people.
The people being sent to the left are those who are not able to work, who might be seen as burdening the community with their needs. The Nazis keep Jews alive to work as laborers for the German war effort. Those who cannot serve that purpose are discarded like broken machinery.
Vladek, Anja, and Richieu are sent to the right – the good side of the stadium, for people who are able to work. Everyone from Anja’s family is sent to the good side as well, but Vladek cannot find his father or sister. It is not until later that he learns what has happened: Mordecai approved Mr. Spiegelman’s documents and sent him to the good side of the stadium, but Fela and her family were sent to the bad side –a mother with four children was considered a drain on the community’s resources. Mr. Spiegelman, fearful that Fela would never be able to manage on her own, snuck onto the bad side of the stadium to be with her. Everyone sent to the bad side was killed, Vladek says –about ten thousand people, a third of the Jews in Sosnowiec, were sent to their deaths that day, and his father was among them.
Mr. Spiegelman and Fela disappear from Vladek’s life in the span of just a few moments. He has no time to say goodbye to them, or even to notice them. If he had not met the unnamed person who tells him about Mr. Spiegelman’s decision, he may never have known exactly what happened to his father and sister. This scene highlights the tenuous nature of relationships under the Nazi regime. Bonds that have defined Vladek’s life are broken suddenly, and the landscape of his family is completely altered without any real warning. Though love and loyalty can and do endure, those defining connections are no longer stable.
Vladek sags on his stationary bike. He puts his head in his hands, and tells Artie he is too tired to talk more. He overexerted himself with his pedaling, he says. Artie suggests that Vladek take a nap, then goes out into the kitchen where Mala is drinking coffee and playing Solitaire. He tells Mala that he has just been talking with Vladek about the document inspection in Sosnowiec.
Vladek has been able to share very painful stories – of the POW camp, the massacre outside the train station, and even the hanging of the Cohns –in a surprisingly measured way. This moment, though, shows how exhausting it has been for him to talk about all this. Though he blames his pedaling for his sudden need to stop the interview, it seems memories have tired him out more than exercise.
Mala, who knew Vladek and Anja before the war and lived in Sosnowiec herself, says the Nazis took her mother away during this registration. She tells Artie about the fate of people those sent to the bad side as she pours him a cup of coffee and lights a cigarette for herself. The thousands of people kept at the stadium were imprisoned in a few empty apartment buildings, which were much too small to hold them all. Without food, toilets, or room to move around, people died of suffocation, or jumped out the window to end their misery. Those who survived were sent to death camps – though Mala was able to smuggle her mother out with the help of an uncle who worked for the Jewish council.
Artie has not expressed any interest in hearing about Mala’s Holocaust experience – the project of his book is to understand his parents –but her remarks here serve as a reminder of how widespread and multifaceted the violence of the Holocaust really was. Vladek is just one of millions affected by the war, and each survivor has a unique experience. Even in places (like Auschwitz) and events (like the registration in Sosnowiec) that gathered thousands or millions of people together, everyone involved experienced something different.
Artie listens to Mala’s story, smoking a cigarette. As soon as she finishes speaking –telling him that her parents both died in Auschwitz eventually –he gets up from the table and hurries into Vladek’s den. Mala, confused, follows him. He tells her that he remembers seeing Anja’s diaries on one of the shelves in the den, and begins sorting through piles of hoarded junk –hotel stationary, outdated calendars – in search of them. Mala, looking frustrated and sad, complains that this hoarding makes her crazy, and says she doesn’t know how much longer she can stand to live with Vladek. Artie doesn’t answer, just stands up and says he should start heading toward home. As he prepares to leave, Mala screams at him to put everything back just as he found it, or Vladek will give her a hard time about the mess.
Artie acts with characteristic insensitivity when he springs up from the table without acknowledging Mala’s story, and he ignores her emotions again when she confesses her frustration and exhaustion in the den. He may be too self-absorbed to notice these things or simply too awkward about the emotions of other people to react to them appropriately. Vladek’s stockpile of junk is a testament to his frustrating thriftiness – he would rather hoard hotel stationary than spend money on paper –but the garbage also suggests a reluctance to let go of the past. Vladek has a hard time parting with anything, even things that are no longer useful to him (like the outdated calendars).