The next morning, Vladek announces plans for a trip to the supermarket, to return foods Mala left behind and buy groceries for the week. When Artie reminds Vladek that he and Françoise are only planning to stay for another day or so, Vladek grumbles that it would have been better for them not to come at all, if they were going to leave so soon. He tries to force Artie and Françoise to eat the sugary cereal and cake Mala left, which he can’t have because of his diabetes. After his experience in the camps, Vladek says, he hates to waste any food at all, and he does not relent when Artie and Françoise tell him they do not want the food. Finally, Artie gets frustrated and snaps at him, telling him to save the cereal “in case Hitler ever comes back.”
Artie’s comment about Hitler is the first explicitly insensitive remark he has made about Vladek’s Holocaust experience. He has finally come to understand what Mala tried on multiple occasions to explain: that his father’s time in the camps does not automatically excuse all of his many shortcomings, and that Artie is not obligated to defer to Vladek simply because he invokes Auschwitz. The retort is unnecessary and unkind, but it also marks an important juncture in Artie’s tense, reverent relationship with his parents’ Holocaust narrative.
Driving to the supermarket later, Artie tells Vladek he has been reading about a group of prisoners in Auschwitz who revolted against the guards and blew up one of the crematoriums. Artie has had a hard time trying to understand why prisoners didn’t rebel more often, and though Vladek has explained that the Nazis were much more powerful than their prisoners, with weapons and other resources that the prisoners did not have, Artie has continued to fixate on the question. Vladek remembers the people who bombed the crematorium. They were killed for their actions, and the four young women who supplied them with ammunitions were hanged as a warning to other prisoners. Their bodies were left hanging near Vladek’s workshop for a long time, he says.
Artie does not explicitly criticize the prisoners for their failure to resist the guards, but his incredulity reveals a subtle disdain for what he perceives to be their passivity. His inability to empathize with the prisoners – his implication that defiance was the obvious choice for anyone in their position – exemplifies the bias Pavel cautions him against. Artie wants to believe that the prisoners retained some power over their lives and simply chose not to use it. It is easier to be critical of the prisoners’ passivity than to accept that the camps robbed people of all agency and left them with no choice but to wait for death.
Vladek remembers the evacuation of Auschwitz, a few weeks after the bombing of the crematorium. A young man reports rumors that the Germans plan to abandon the camp before the Russian army arrives. He makes plans to wait out the evacuation in the attic of a bunker, then escape to freedom with forged papers. Vladek intends to join this young man, and helps him smuggle civilian clothes as a disguise, but they are forced to abandon their plan after hearing a rumor that the Germans intend to bomb the camp buildings once the evacuation is complete. Like thousands of others, they march out of Auschwitz into the snowy night, under the eyes of Nazi guards, heading toward an unknown location.
Though the Nazis operated thousands of concentration camps in multiple countries, few of their enemies knew about the mass internment or “extermination” of the Jews until the very end of the war. Aware that their prospects for winning the war were grim, and that there would be disastrous consequences for Nazi guards and government officials if their opponents learned about the camps, the Germans tried to erase the evidence of their crimes by destroying camp infrastructure and killing prisoners as quickly as they could.
The prisoners march about two hundred miles to Gross-Rosen, a camp within the German border. The camp is chaotic and overcrowded, but Vladek stays there only briefly. Within a day or two of his arrival, he is loaded – along with hundreds of others –into a train intended for transporting livestock. The train’s cars are egregiously overcrowded; people are crushed together in the cattle cars until there is barely room to breathe. Vladek, who still has a thin blanket issued to him by the Nazis, manages to make a hammock for himself above the crowd, next to a small window. This saves his life when, shortly after leaving Gross-Rosen, the train stops, leaving the prisoners trapped inside without food or water. People on the ground begin to die, but Vladek is able to survive by eating snow that has gathered on top of the roof, which he can reach out the window.
The cattle cars, where people are left to die in slow agony –from dehydration, starvation, and suffocation–are particularly potent symbols of Nazi disregard for Jewish life. By herding their prisoners onto trains intended to transport animals, they assert their view that Jews are not really human, but they are more like animals. Vladek is remarkably lucky in this situation: that his thin blanket supports his weight, that the hooks were positioned next to the window, and that the train stopped during a snowfall when he would be able to have a stable water supply. To live through such awful conditions requires near-miraculous luck.
After a week, the Nazis open Vladek’s car and allow the passengers to throw out the bodies of the dead. Very few have survived their imprisonment in the cattle car, and once their bodies are gone, those who remain alive have some room to stand and sit. They are relieved. The train goes on its way; more people die, and some lose their minds. The prisoners soon learn that they are going to Dachau, a camp in Germany.
The extremity of the Nazis’ abuse puts Vladek and the others in the train in the horrible position of having to be grateful for the deaths of others. They need more space to survive, and each death is a relief because it leaves the car more livable than before.
Vladek, Artie, and Françoise arrive at the supermarket. Vladek intends to return the half-empty boxes of cereal and other partially used groceries that Mala left when she ran off. Artie and Françoise refuse to go with him into the store, insisting they won’t help him return half-eaten food. From the car, they watch Vladek argue with the store manager. Françoise is still thinking of the cattle cars, and says she would rather kill herself than endure all the suffering Vladek did. She suggests staying with Vladek a few extra days, but Artie dismisses that idea. Vladek returns to the car with an armload of groceries. Once the store manager heard his story – about “my health, how Mala left me, and how it was in the camps” – he was willing to let Vladek exchange the used food. Artie is extremely embarrassed, but Vladek is content.
This scene presents a triangle of reactions to Vladek’s story, which represent the different attitudes younger generations might take toward Holocaust survivors. Françoise is full of reverent sympathy, and wants to show Vladek extra kindness because of what he has lived through. Artie wants to avoid that sense of obligation, and is firm in asserting boundaries between his life and Vladek’s. The manager in the grocery store, whom Vladek knowingly manipulates, capitulates as soon as Vladek begins talking about life in the camps – probably trying to end the conversation and avoid delving into thorny moral issues about what society owes Holocaust survivors.
As they drive back to the bungalow, Vladek tells Artie and Françoise about Dachau – a place he describes as being much more miserable and dangerous than Auschwitz. Prisoners are crammed into barracks with nothing to do but wait for death. The straw they sleep on is infested with lice, which spread typhus. In order to claim the small amount of food allotted to them each day, prisoners have to present the guards with a clean shirt, free of lice. This is nearly impossible given the extent of the infestation, and the prisoners became brutal toward one another as a result of their intense hunger.
The guards have knowingly set the prisoners up for failure, giving them no choice but to sleep on lousy straw, and then punishing them for having lice on their clothing. This is partly an excuse to deny prisoners food, but guards have power to do that unilaterally, and do not need the shirt inspection if that is their only purpose. It seems that the objective of the system is to shift blame onto prisoners – to make people believe, on some level, that they deserve to be punished in this way.
In Dachau, Vladek meets a French man. (He has the head of a frog.) There are few French people in the camp, and the man has not had anyone to talk with since arriving in the camp. He is overjoyed when he learns that Vladek can speak English – which he can also speak, a little – and the two become friends, meeting every day and talking to pass the time. Since the French man is not Jewish, the Nazis allow him to receive packages through the Red Cross. Whenever his family sends food, the French man shares it with Vladek. By bartering with goods from the food parcels, Vladek manages to acquire two extra shirts, which he and the French man keep clean and free of lice, and present to the guards each day when they go to collect their soup.
The French man is the first friend Vladek has had in the camps since Mandelbaum. The French man’s predicament – that he has nobody to talk with, and is going stir-crazy from the isolation –is an interesting parallel to Vladek’s situation. Though Vladek has always been able to communicate with the people around him, he has been very emotionally isolated. The effects of this isolation are not obvious in Vladek’s stories, and may not be obvious to Vladek at all, but the French man is a reminder of the necessity of human connection.
After a few weeks in Dachau, Vladek contracts typhus. Many other prisoners have died of this disease; each night, when he walks through the crowded barracks to the toilet, he is forced to step over the bodies of other typhus victims who have died. Soon, he is admitted to the camp infirmary. His condition begins to improve. One day, while he is still in the infirmary, a guard orders those who are strong enough to travel to line up outside. The Nazis plan to take some of their sick prisoners to the Swiss border, to exchange them for German war prisoners. Vladek, stunned by his good fortune, presents himself at the gate. He is still very weak, and needs people to help him walk, but he presents himself nonetheless. At the gate, prisoners are loaded onto a train –one intended for passengers, not for livestock as the last train was – which is to take them all to Switzerland.
By this point, Vladek is being swept along on the current of events much bigger than himself. As the war comes to a close, things are changing rapidly, and he has no power to anticipate what is coming next or prepare for it like he has (occasionally) before. The image of him stumbling, weak and unable to support himself, toward the train that is supposed to transport him to Switzerland is a potent summary of his situation. He is physically and psychologically exhausted, and able to move – either literally or metaphorically –only by the grace of chance and other people.
Artie asks what happened to the French man after Vladek left Dachau. Vladek says the French man – he can no longer remember his name – survived and is living in Paris. The two of them exchanged letters for years after the war, he says, but he burned those letters at the same time he burned Anja’s diaries. He tried to put all memories of the war out of his mind, Vladek says, until Artie began working on his book.
Vladek’s occasional references to the time shortly after Anja’s death, when he felt burdened by his memories and tried to purge them from his mind, are reminders of a much darker time in the Spiegelman family, when the traumas of the war and Anja’s suicide were much more raw. Though Vladek and Artie don’t have a wonderful relationship, their ability to talk about these events is a testament to the progress they have made since Artie was a young man.
Françoise spots a hitchhiker – a black man – by the side of the road. She pulls over to give the man a ride. He thanks her politely as he climbs into the car. Vladek is horrified to find himself sitting in the same car as a “shvartser” (a black person). He rambles to himself in Polish, cursing and saying Françoise has “lost her head,” from the moment the man climbs into the back seat until Françoise drops him off at a house up the road. As soon as he gets out of the car, Vladek scrambles to check their bag of groceries; he expects the man has stolen something. Françoise, horrified by Vladek’s racism, compares his remarks about the hitchhiker to something a Nazi might say about a Jew. Vladek brushes off this criticism, telling Françoise that Jews and “shvartsers” are not comparable.
Like Artie spraying mosquitoes without any notion of the irony of the situation, Vladek has no sense of the ways in which his remarks perpetuate oppression and the dehumanization of marginalized people. Though Françoise is quick to criticize him, Vladek’s comment shows how oppressive ideologies can perpetuate themselves even after things have improved for one targeted group – most institutional oppression is interconnected. Although circumstances have improved for Jewish people since World War II, especially in the US, other groups (like blacks) continue to face similar oppression and discrimination.