Survival for the fittest, this commonly quoted phrase by Charles Darwin best describes Vladek’s and his remarkable ability to survive in Poland during the horrific Holocaust era. By and large, Vladek’s ingenuity, resourcefulness, creativity, and luck enabled him to endure the dehumanizing conditions that the Nazi’s government put the Jews. With the invasion of Poland by the German’s, Vladek’s life was tremendously changed. This regime marked the deterioration in the rights and freedoms of the Jews. Specifically, the Vladek’s family were pushed from luxurious and noble status to severe poverty. Essentially, their business empire was taken over by the Germans. Within a short time, they were displaced from their family home to the Jewish ghettos. Worse still, these actions were followed by indiscriminate assault and execution of Jewish men, women, and children in detention camps. “It was many, many such stories – synagogues burned, Jews beaten with no reason, whole towns pushing out all Jews – each story worse than the other” (Maus, Vol. i 33).
In order to survive through this tumultuous period, Vladek’s became very creative and he constantly developed new tactics that suited every situation that he faced. In the beginning, he successfully managed to fake his identity as a Polish man. Generally, he took this action so that he could be released from the German prison and be reunited with his family. Once the war broke out in 1939, Vladek was drafted to fight against Germany. Unfortunately, he was captured on the first day of the war and he became a prisoner of war. It is while working under the grueling conditions in prison that he realized he must find ways to leave the prison. Consequently, he became a dutiful prisoner who strictly followed all the instructions that his supervisors gave him. Eventually, he was promised he would be released. Unfortunately, this ended up being only a transfer to Lublin. Upon transfer to a prison in Lublin, he decided to bribe the Germans to release him to a friend of his uncle, Orbach. The corrupt officials accepted the offer and soon he was released. In order to cross the border separating Lublin and Sosnowiec where his family lived, Vladek posed as a non-Jewish Pole. Due to his wide knowledge of many languages include Polish, he successfully managed to fake his identity and cross the border. Effectively, he managed to reunite with his family and they enjoy a normal life for a couple of years.
In Srodula, his cousin, Haskel, introduced him to a cobbler job in a shoe factory. Noteworthy, Haskel had earlier rescued Valdek and his wife Anja from a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp when they were found hiding in a “chandelier” bunker. Luckily, Miloch, Valdek’s cousin was the supervisor in the shoe factory. By working in the German shoe factory, Valdek was able to buy some time and avoid the eventual deportation to a concentration camp. In addition to this, Miloch also provided him with a chance to hide in a bunker that he had made behind a pile of shoes in the factory. Eventually, Vladek, his wife Anja, and fifteen other individuals hid in the bunker when the Germans decide to evacuate the Srodula ghetto. After the evacuation of Srodula, Valdek attempted to escape to Hungary since he was tired of hiding and bribing German officials. Unfortunately, this mission failed and both him and his wife were arrested at Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Lessons in English
Once in Auschwitz, Vladek was quick to learn that his survival in this prison was dependent on his creativity and ingenuity. Given the difficult situation in the prison, Vladek began to teach English to a Polish kapo-guard when an opportunity arose. Through this process, he was able to befriend him. In turn, the guard provided him with extra food, protection, and a new uniform. Sadly, after a few months the guard could no longer offer enough protection for him. In order to avert a possible transfer to more difficult work, the guard organized for him to work as a tinsmith. Ideally, skillful laborers enjoyed better treatment than non-skillful ones. Consequently, Vladek would have a better lifestyle than when working in manual jobs.
Vladek was a quick learner and he readily acquired skills needed in the tinsmith industry. Unfortunately, his supervisor was a former Jew, Yidl, who knew of his previous high social status before he lost his wealth. In order to please him, Vladek regularly gave him portions of his food and small gifts. While working as a tinsmith, he was also able to make contact with Anja’s Jewish supervisor named Manice. Importantly, she assisted him to send to her food portions and consolation letters. During this time, Vladek was able to arrange for a work transfer to Birkenau where he spoke with Anja. While working in Birkenau, he was able to arrange for a switch of the job from a tinsmith to a shoemaker. Prudently, he fixed the shoes for Anja’s guard who in turn ensured that she was treated fairly. In addition to this, he learned about the construction of an ammunition factory in Auschwitz. Moreover, he became aware that some detainees in Birkenau camp would work in the munition factory once it was complete. In order to save Anja from been thrown to the gas chambers, he began to save huge amounts of food and cigarettes that he purposed to use as a bribe so that she would be selected among the prisoners for the Auschwitz job.
After working for some time as a shoemaker, Vladek soon lost the work and he was engaged in manual labor. This work was exhausting and tedious. Worse still, he received small portions of food to provide him with the necessary energy needed in manual labor. Eventually, he started to lose weight and grow weak. In order to avoid a possible execution in the gas chambers, he regularly hid in the crowd of fellow prisoners. He was lucky to survive using this tactic until he found another transfer as a tinsmith. On the same breath, he was still lucky to survive a life threatening transfer from Auschwitz when it came under eminent attack from the Allied forces.
Worried about the impending attack, the Germans forced all the prisoners to a 145-kilometer death trek from Auschwitz to Breslau in Germany. Malnourished, sickly, and exhausted, many of them die along the way. Actually, it is reported that up to ninety percent of all the prisoners succumbed to the hostilities in the trip. Further, upon reaching Breslau, the prisoners were packed into cattle trains that took them to Dachau barracks. Using his ingenuity, Vladek survived the ordeal by consuming ice that was on the train’s roof since there was no drinking water. Essentially, this was the main factor that enabled him to survive.
Unfortunately, upon arriving Dachau, Valdek contracted an infection and typhus. Actually, he almost died out of these sicknesses. Nonetheless, despite the lack of proper medication, he slowly regained his strength and he recovered from the ailments. His recovery was miraculous and is attributable to luck. Notably, he is also lucky to have survived the inhuman and crowded Auschwitz prison without getting sick. Evidently, this would have resulted in execution.
Similarly, Vladek luck is illustrated in the manner that he gets his freedom. Ideally, the Nazi regime had a policy of ensuring that all individuals in the concentration camps were executed so that secrets of the atrocities in these camps did not leak out. Nonetheless, in the case of the Auschwitz-1 camp, they chose to exchange them as prisoners of war at the Swiss border (Balson). Effectively, this made many of the would be casualties, including Valdek, escape from a possible massacre in the gas chambers. Moreover, once the war ended, Valdek and his friend Shivek did not face any atrocities from the German soldiers. Actually, they were captured two times and in both instances, they were left scot-free. “It was crying and praying. So long we survived. And now we waited only that they shoot, because we had not else to do” (Maus, Vol. ii 267). During their capture, they though that the German soldiers would execute them, however, they were let free. Eventually, Vladek and his companion decided to hide in an abandoned farmhouse until the war was truly over. In the end, Vladek was able to reunite with his wife Anja who had also miraculously survived the war.
To sum up, Vladek’s survival in the war was primarily due to his cunningness, wit, and sheer luck. Importantly, his efforts of manipulating all opportunities presented to him enabled him to avoid possible execution and harsh treatment that would have led to his death. Moreover, this behavior also enabled him to rescue his wife who was experiencing harsh treatment at the Auschwitz-2 prison. Essentially, the novel shows how Valdek’s luck and resourcefulness enable him to survive the atrocities vested against him. Simply put, Maus is a novel that illustrates the quest for survival against all odds.
Balson, Ronald. Once We Were Brothers. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus, Vol. i: My Father Bleeds History. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1986. Print.
— Maus Vol. ii: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here my Troubles Began. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1992. Print.