The very first moment in Maus is a scene from artist and author Art Spiegelman’s childhood. He comes crying to his father after his friends had left him behind and skated off to school without him. When Art mentions his friends, his father Vladek is morbidly dismissive. “Friends? Your friends?” he says. “Lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends.”  In the Spiegelman’s calm suburban life this seems shocking, but for Vladek it is a fact of life. He saw firsthand what fear and desperation could do to people during his time in the ghettos of Poland.
In 1941, Vladek Spiegelman and his extended family were ordered into the ghetto. The twelve of them moved from their comfortable upper-class home into a cramped apartment of two and a half rooms.  At that point, the family had already fallen on hard times. Jewish-owned businesses had been shut down or taken over when the Nazis took Western Poland, and many Jews had been forced to rely on the black market just to survive. In the ghetto, their fortunes got worse. Jews needed work papers to be allowed to move around the ghetto freely, and were constantly harassed by Nazi officers.  Vladek had already been running a black-market business of his own, and the increased scrutiny made that all the more difficult in the ghettos. His dealings were dangerous, facing harsh punishments if he were to be caught. Several of his trading partners were publicly executed when their work was discovered, their bodies left to hang for a week as a message. 
Different people found different ways to survive in the ghetto. Vladek spoke of some who joined the Jewish Police, helping round up or punish Jews who did not comply with Nazi orders. What struck me most about Vladek’s account was how understanding he was of their situation. When his son expressed shock that there were Jewish police, Vladek pointed out that they believed they could save more Jews by handing over a few.  In a stark contrast to the rigid, controlling personality Vladek showed to his family, he understood why the Jewish Police chose to help the Nazis. He had lived through the same desperation they had, and could see how they would cling to any faint hope, even if it meant helping the enemy.
While the threats from within the community were worrying, they paled in comparison to the threats from outside. Under the laws of the Reich, Jews were afforded no protections. Vladek told his son that “Under the laws of The Reich, anyone could kill us in the streets!”  Vladek also told of an encounter with an SS officer he later learned was nicknamed The Shooter. The Shooter made a habit of killing an unsuspecting Jew every day, just for sport. Had he not learned that Vladek was related to a well-known collaborator, he would likely have killed Vladek as well. 
Alongside the fear of starvation and death, Jews in the ghettos had to fear their families being split apart. Throughout Vladek’s story of his life in the ghetto, that was a constant thread. First, in 1942, the Nazis announced that all Jews over the age of seventy were to be sent to Theresienstadt. The announcement made it seem that the camp was a pleasant, peaceful convalescent home, but Vladek and his family never believed the Nazi propaganda. The elderly grandparents of the family were hidden away for a while, until the Jewish Police presented the family with an ultimatum; either find the grandparents, or the rest of the family would be taken away. They were forced to give up the grandparents to save the rest of the family.  Even then, Vladek held no grudge against the Jewish Police. He understood that they had their own families to save. Later that year, the Nazis ordered all Jews to come to the Dienst Stadium in Sosnowiec to register, offering them protection as citizens of The Reich. Vladek was one of many who suspected it was a trap, but they went anyway. Their suspicions were right. Those working in valued trades, and their immediate families, had their passports stamped and were taken to one side of the stadium, and eventually allowed to leave. Others were taken to the other side of the stadium, and later taken to the camps. Vladek’s father had been allowed on what they knew was the good side, but Fela, Vladek’s sister, was sent over with the others. Unwilling to let his daughter fend for herself, Vladek’s father climbed the fence to go help her, and was taken away with the rest. 
The oppression, fear, and starvation of the ghettos left their mark on everyone who survived them, and Vladek Spiegelman was no exception. The horrors he witnessed in the Sosnowiec ghetto created the bleak, distrustful outlook that stayed with him for the remainder of his life.
 Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I. My Father Bleeds History (New York, Pantheon Books, 1986), 6.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 82.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 87.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 83.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 86.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 61.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 118-119.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 86-87.
 Spiegelman, Maus, 90-91.
All photos on this post were found at Wikimedia Commons. The embedded photos are linked in their captions, the source for the featured image can be found here.