“Mainly I remember arguing with him… and being told that I couldn’t do anything as well as he could,” Art tells his therapist. “No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz” (II.2.34).
Given what we learn about Vladek in Maus, it’s easy to see how Art feels. Vladek looms large as an almost superhuman hero, not unlike classic comic superheroes such as Superman and Iron Man. In Vladek’s version of his story, he’s a dashing young man, good-looking and ambitious, intelligent and resourceful. When the Germans invade Poland, and conditions worsen for the Jews, Vladek moves easily from his role as a successful businessman to a black market trader to a jack-of-all-trades, with a talent for skilled labor and disguise when necessary. While others despair, he is a voice of hope.
When Vladek arrives in Auschwitz, he is constantly looking for opportunities to barter some skill for better treatment for himself and for his wife, Anja. He finds a way to scrimp and save when he’s given less than nothing to live on. Vladek repeatedly emphasizes how lucky he is – even the prisoner number stamped on his arm is somehow a good omen – but he seems to have earned his good luck through his own efforts.
Compared to this heroic Vladek, the older Vladek who tells the story to his son is a pale shadow. Physically frail, many of his ailments are the result of the acute physical suffering he experienced in the camps. He runs out of breath during his stories, his weak heart straining under the effort. The enormous energy it took to survive the Holocaust seems to have been channeled into a kind of hyper-perfectionism in all things, no matter how minor – pill-counting, nail-sorting, money-counting. It’s a kind of neurotic obsessiveness that even the other Holocaust survivors in the novel find unusual.
In light of this older Vladek, the heroic Vladek rings a little hollow. Perhaps it’s because we never hear Vladek say anything about how he felt during his experiences. Vladek is the one, for example, who convinces Anja to keep living when she wants to kill herself on learning the death of their son. “To die is easy,” he says, “But you have to struggle for life” (I.5.124). It seems that in the struggle for life, there is no room for mourning, despair, sadness, or anger.
Perhaps that is why, in his old age, Vladek tells his story to Art. It is a way for Vladek to continue his struggle for life, despite his physical and psychological frailty. A way to pass on to his son the hope that “to die is easy,” and that there is much to gain simply from the struggle for life.