Since the McMinn County Board of Education unanimously agreed to pull “Maus” from its eighth-grade curriculum, I had to check out a copy from the library.
“Maus” was written by comic artist Art Spiegelman and published in 1986, and it received the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It focuses on Art’s father Vladek and his family, including his wife Anja (Art’s mother). It starts in the mid-1930s and includes the couple’s early years, their internment in the Auschwitz concentration and death camp, and reunification after the war ended.
The story includes powerful, vivid descriptions of how Jews were treated by the Nazis and their collaborators; the fear, deprivation, brutality, terror, and death the Jewish people felt and experienced; and the occasional tale of survival and reunification.
I thought it was incredibly powerful, and it is a story that clearly should be shared. I think this might be the first account I have read from someone who survived one of Nazi Germany’s concentration and death camps in Poland and Germany.
Two of the stated reasons I have heard for banning this book from the eighth-grade curriculum (cartoon animal nudity (they’re cartoon animals and it’s not graphic) and a swear word (I did not even notice until it was pointed out later)) seem trivial and ludicrous to me, and they pale in comparison to the heart of the story: the deadly dehumanization of one group of people by another. This is what we should avoid and need to avoid.
There is violence and a suicide and the themes are dark and heavy, but so was the Holocaust. I think it is better to teach this history and the grave mistakes that humanity has made in order to try to avoid repeating them. I really don’t see how you get around darkness and heavy themes if you are going to teach subjects like the Holocaust.
Art Spiegelman responds to the ban in The Washington Post, calling it a “red alert”: Art Spiegelman, ‘Maus’ author, sees the book’s Tennessee school ban as a ‘red alert’ – The Washington Post.
When I was a kid growing up near Minneapolis and Seattle, I read as many books as I could find about Crazy Horse, the Sioux, Sitting Bull, and Black Elk, and maybe other nations such as Kiowa, Pawnee, Ute, and Cherokee. I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Roots,” about General Custer, The Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph, and Nez Perce. There is a lot of violence and terrible suffering in these stories. But I was able to handle these stories just fine as an elementary school and junior high school student, and they were not traumatic for me. I am generalizing here, but I am skeptical that K-12 students can’t handle learning the dark parts of our history as long as they are taught well. The stories I read as a kid gave me empathy for the indigenous and enslaved people, and they made think a lot about how we avoid repeating the terrible atrocities of our ancestors. It seems like one primary tool we have to avoid repeating history is to avoid dehumanizing. I think that’s why books like “Maus” are important. They humanize.
One line that jumped out to me in “Maus,” given current debates about how we teach history in the United States and bills to prevent teaching subjects that make students (mostly white students?) feel uncomfortable: “Many younger Germans have had it up to HERE with Holocaust stories. These things happened before they were even born. Why should THEY feel guilty?” (p. 202) (This is from a section after Siegelman has published his book, and he is being interviewed by the media.) Does that line sound familiar and remind you of a question you might hear in the United States during debates over curriculums now?
It is interesting that people I know who were very upset about Confederate statues being removed, claiming this was erasing history, have said nothing about books about historical events being banned or removed from schools. I have to wonder: Are there only some types of history that they want preserved?
Writer Molly Jong-Fast on Twitter: “If you’re mad about cancel culture and not mad about a school banning a book about the Holocaust, then you’re just a hypocrite.”
George Takei on Twitter: “People who compare school book bans to the outcry over Joe Rogan’s misinformed podcast need a civics lesson. The 1st Amendment prohibits *government* censorship, which is why public school book bans are problematic. It does not reach private platforms such as Spotify.” I am going to have to look into this more.
Author Art Spiegelman in a Guardian interview: Art Spiegelman on Maus and free speech: ‘Who’s the snowflake now?’ | Art Spiegelman | The Guardian.
Here is a story in The Tennessean about book removals and legislation: Book removals, new legislation intensify debate over what’s taught in Tennessee schools (tennessean.com).
More about books bans here: US conservatives linked to rich donors wage campaign to ban books from schools | US news | The Guardian.
A Twitter thread about the banning of Maus: https://twitter.com/gwenckatz/status/1487530360703361024?s=20&t=3ZybDLGLmR8SxOi9lrq3Fw.