“Then you could see what it is, friends”: Life in a Polish Ghetto

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.” [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4]

An armband worn by Jewish Police in the Warsaw Ghetto. (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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. [5] 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!” [6] 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. [7]


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. [8] 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. [9]

Jews being marched out of the Sosnowiec Ghetto as it is liquidated in 1943. (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.


[1] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I. My Father Bleeds History (New York, Pantheon Books, 1986), 6.

[2] Spiegelman, Maus, 82.

[3] Spiegelman, Maus, 87.

[4] Spiegelman, Maus, 83.

[5] Spiegelman, Maus, 86.

[6] Spiegelman, Maus, 61.

[7] Spiegelman, Maus, 118-119.

[8] Spiegelman, Maus, 86-87.

[9] 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.

14 thoughts on ““Then you could see what it is, friends”: Life in a Polish Ghetto

  1. John, I really liked the way you included the arm band photo. “Maus” was very powerful on its own, but seeing that band after having read it and understanding its significance adds a new layer. I think this speaks to the potential for museums to collaborate with visual artists and experiment in new mediums. They already combine images and text, as a graphic novel would, but have the added benefit of being able to bring in the material culture element (as seen in Julia’s blog).

    1. Yes! I love the idea of including material culture, and I think this is where museums can really shine. There are many stories that can be told by objects, even if their owners are no longer there to tell them. I wonder what an exhibit might look like that combined art such as that by Spiegelman’s with oral histories, photographs, and objects. I feel that this interdisciplinary approach would be very impactful.

  2. Your dissection of life in the ghetto and the different ways in which people protected themselves is very interesting. I like how you mention Vladek’s understanding of the Jewish police and how they were doing what they thought was right to protect a large amount of people through surrendering a few. It just shows the fear the Nazis provoked and the survival methods used to try to escape them.

    1. I agree with you Cassidy, I think that it’s very interesting that Vladek actually has a clear understanding of the Jewish police’s actions. Not only was propaganda conditioning people to act in such extreme ways, but the fear was so palpable that even those in danger could empathize with the people trying to harm them. I think Maus sends a powerful statement about powerful fear can be and the damage that hatred can do.

  3. I am very interested to see how the theme of friendship and “having each others’ backs” plays out in Part II of Maus. So far, we are exposed to how Jewish people acted outside of the camps, but the dynamic is going to change drastically once Vladek and Anja come to Auschwitz. Outside, the two were able to gain help from sympathetic Poles and work together to remain hidden from the Nazis, but what will happen when there is no hiding? This is not something that anyone who did not experience it can truly fathom, as is exemplified by Art’s inclusion of himself as a character in his own book, but it is something that in its extremity has a certain pull. We want to find out if friendships, camaraderie, and kindness can withstand the terrors of the Holocaust.

  4. John, you bring up an interesting point about the decisions people had to make during this time. It was dangerous to act but it might have been dangerous not to. I think Maus does a really good job of showing us how the pressures (and dangers) impacted decisions and perceptions of those who lived with that kind of constant fear.

  5. I like how you chose to focus on life in the Ghetto in this blog post. The most significant portion of Vladek’s life during the Holocaust was either spent in the Ghetto or spent in hiding. You outline well the different roles everyone played in order to survive, such as being part of the Jewish Police or participating in the black market. One of the most harrowing moments for me is when Vladek and Anja pay smugglers to get them safely to Hungary but it ends up being a trap and that is when they are taken to Auschwitz. They thought they would be safer leaving their current hiding space but unfortunately that was not the case.

  6. This section of the book contained the most tension because we all knew the possible paths that Vladek could follow. Either escaping and hiding out during the rest of the war or being captured and sent to a camp. As I was reading through this section I couldn’t help but think about the risk that was inherent in every decision made while living in the Ghetto and the possible outcomes of each. It must have been a terrifying burden to bear.

  7. John, your discussion of the emotions Vladek felt when faced with hardship was enlightening. So many Jews, whether part of the Jewish leadership in the ghettos or just everyday members of society, had to face these haunting decision each and every day. Vladek also reveals to us a lesson we can learn from today; these types of evils do not happen overnight, they happen in small steps. I don’t like to use the Holocaust as a metaphor for anything, due to the unique and horrid scale of the evils committed by the Nazis and other European groups, but some of the lessons of the Holocaust are still just as important today. Europe in 2016, just like Europe in 1933, is facing economic uncertainty, and just like in 1933 many countries are electing xenophobic leaders into power. It is important to remember the lessons of the Holocaust, and it would be foolish to think they could never happen again.

    1. Very true. I also had a thought of writing on the pre-existing antisemitism that laid the foundations for the Holocaust, but there wasn’t enough in the text to support. Still, it’s chilling to see how many people gleefully went along with blatant hatred.

  8. I too was struck by the kind of difficult decisions Jews living in ghettos were forced to make. It seems impossible to imagine how anyone living in such a situation could maintain a sense of compassion and understanding, and yet Vladek is aware that under the circumstances individuals could only look out for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, you also point out that the Holocaust never seems to be far from Vladek’s mind, as evidenced by his comment to Art about his “friends.” Clearly his experiences shaped not only the way he viewed the world, but likely had an impact on his son’s perspective as well. For me that goes to show that even decades later, events as traumatic as the Holocaust continue to impact society.

  9. I feel the title of this piece, John, speaks to a sense of profound commonality and experience among those that experienced these horrors and the survivors. After life in the ghetto, and then, the camps, everything thereafter is experienced and seen through the lens that these experiences created for people; it shaped how the rest of their lives were experienced. Hence, Vladek’s view of young Art’s exchange with his peers, as there was no comparison to the relationships he had experienced and navigated. As it was pointed out, Vladek’s difficulty with personal relationships was argued to be a manifestation of his experiences. I feel this post reflects the role that an encompassing environment such as the ghetto or the camps has in reverberating in people’s lives thereafter.

  10. John, this article really highlights the struggles and effects of living in the ghetto. The way Vladek’s experiences show how much an environment can impact the human psyche. Events like the Holocaust become ingrained into history books but to hear about the life of one man how how he say the world before and after is really eye opening. This is why with events such as this, you can have as much second hand interpretation as you want but it will not drive home the point as a oral history of a survivor.

  11. Your inclusion of the armband from the Jewish Police really helps highlight, not only Vladek’s story, but also the decisions that people had to make in order to survive. These decisions whether they are seen as right or wrong, were made in order to survive. I also think your discussion points to the idea of being in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, despite decisions made. This is especially evident with the incident with The Shooter.

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