What are some of the central characteristics of Auschwitz that Vladek experienced? 

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In Book I, Chapter VI, Vladek is made to board a truck with a hundred other prisoners and is transported to Auschwitz. Vladek and Anja are separated, not knowing if they will ever see each other again.

At Auschwitz, the Nazis take his clothes, shave his head, and force him into a freezing cold shower. The prisoners thank God that it isn't gas. They are given clothes and shoes, many of which don't fit properly, and each prisoner receives a tattoo on the inside of his arm. There is a terrible, pervasive smell like burning rubber and fat, and there are smokestacks in the distance. Vladek and Mandelbaum sleep side-by-side on a single small bed.

Vladek is ultimately treated better than the others because he can speak English. He teaches the Kapo the langauge, and in return, he is dressed and fed well. This lasts for two months before Vladek is assigned to a work crew. 

Vladek maintains contact with his wife through a Hungarian Jewish girl named Mancie, who has a higher status at Birkenau because she is having an affair with an S.S. guard. 

When an S.S. guard comes to the tin shop looking for workers to go to Birkenau, Vladek volunteers on the chance that he might see his wife. The smokestacks at the camp are ever-present, lording over the buildings and constantly spewing smoke. When he arrives at the camp, he calls out for his wife and eventually finds her. She is very thin, and they speak without looking at each other so that the guards will not notice them. She tells her husband that she occasionally works in the kitchen and brings scraps of food out to her friends, and Vladek responds that she should save the scraps for herself. Everyone in the camps is looking out for their own survival, and not the survival of others.

At another meeting in Birkenau, a guard spots them speaking to each other and takes Vladek into an empty room, where he is beaten with a club and forced to count the blows.