There seems to be so much going on, always, so even if you heard about this, you may not have thought it was so important. Just a few days ago, a school board in the United States, in Tennessee, voted unanimously to ban the graphic novel Maus from being taught in their school system.
Why is this a problem, you may wonder? Maus is a graphic novel whose main characters are mice. These mice, in no hidden, possibly anti-Semitic way, are Jews. They are Jews at the time of the Holocaust. The book, written by Art Speigelman, is meant to show what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. He wrote it from interviews with his father, a survivor of the concentration/death camps. In the book, the Nazis are depicted as cats, and other nationalities are other animals.
Graphic novels refer to books that are written to look like comics, but they are so much more. They especially appeal to young readers who find the pictures helpful in properly understanding what is written. The word “graphic” is also used to refer to all types of art and media that paints a particularly vivid picture (even with just words) which is highly descriptive. It also often means that there is gore, or sex, or other taboo topics. According to the school board, that is their ‘reason’ for banning the book, after 30 years of it being part of the curriculum. But that was only the surface excuse. It is said that anyone who gives multiple excuses for something is probably not telling you or not even admitting to themselves their real reason.
Last week, Thursday January 27th, the day of the vote, was also International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I don’t know if I manage to explain irony precisely enough to my students at times, but for the ban on Maus to have come out the same day as International Holocaust Remembrance Day is certainly a prime example of irony, as well as the height of chutzpah. Maybe they don’t know what chutzpah is in Tennessee; hopefully they haven’t banned dictionaries and they can look it up.
I am ashamed to say that, although we own the books, I, an avid reader since childhood, have yet to read them. I read Night by Elie Weisel when I was much younger, and Sarah’s Key only recently, but I kept telling myself that I would get around to reading Maus. I don’t shy away from difficult or painful subjects, but I was just never “in the mood” to pick up such a heavy topic, especially in the past few years. The truth is that my generation doesn’t need these books as much as they do now. Although Mr. Spiegelman mentions that when he went to school, they did not teach the Holocaust, in the small town where I grew up, in our Jewish Day School, they showed us actual footage from the camps, people dying by inches as they clutched the barbed wire with their emaciated skeletal hands, wearing nothing but striped rags in the freezing European winters. So many years later I still remember the sound of a bag of empty bottles hitting the blackboard, as our principal demonstrated what it sounded like as Nazis picked up babies and toddlers in front of their mothers and dashed their brains against the wall. Is that graphic enough for you? So no, I probably don’t need to read Maus, but you can bet it will be in my hands this week.
This ban, this move to erase the real past, hits me deeply, because I, too, am a second generation survivor of the Holocaust. My father was lucky enough (at age 2) that his family escaped Poland, where much of Maus takes place as that is where Vladek Spiegelman, the author’s father, had lived. My father’s family fled to Russia and had their own trials and tribulations. My father and aunt made it to Israel, called Palestine at the time. My grandparents did not. When he was old enough to look into it, my father tried to get his birth certificate from Poland. According to them, he never existed, which is how we understand the Polish people felt towards the Jews. Unlike the meticulous records the Nazis kept, many Jewish families who managed to survive the Hell of the Holocaust and somehow were able to return to their homes in Poland found those homes, and their former lives, erased. It not even long after all of these atrocities were committed that there were those who, at the same moment of saying how we Jews should burn in ovens, also started to claim it never happened. As the saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Jews have always been the barometer for fascism in the world, and the slide towards oppression starts with removal of small things. We don’t boil the frog all at once, and it stays in the pot until it dies. Some Jews managed to escape Europe, saw the writing on the wall; many didn’t, or couldn’t.
It is valid to use other stories to teach about the Holocaust. Even here, I know teachers who use The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, or the one about the Danish girl with a Jewish friend. There is certainly a place for other points of view, which allows the world to see that not only a small population was affected. But canceling a book from a curriculum that has taught it for a very long time, is akin to what went first into the fires. Because before there was room for men, women, and children in the ovens, there were massive book burnings in Germany. The first freedom we take away is knowledge, because yes, knowledge is power, as those in charge well know, and the freedom to acquire knowledge is dangerous to certain groups in power.
When we go back to look critically at the “reasons” for this ban, we find out that the school board mentions nudity and profanity. This is not a story about porn or lewd behavior. The nudity was about stripping away the dignity of a people, degrading them so that they, too, would believe that they were worth nothing more than wood to stoke the flames of insanity.
When my children were in grade school there was a time that a teacher showed what I felt was an inappropriate movie for 6th grade, Gladiator. There was murder and gore, and I did feel that at that age, they were too young to understand the lesson that the movie taught. However, with parental permission, I did show my 8th grade Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust movie Schindler’s List. Why? Yes, there was nudity, and murder, and graphic violence. But this is not ancient history. This is something that happened within recent generations. There are still Holocaust survivors in Israel who light the memorial torches on Yom Hashoah in the spring. How can we say Never Again, if we don’t show or teach what it was that actually happened? If students curse in front of me, I tell them that those words are not appropriate in class. If they fight, I teach them how to work things out without violence if I can. But how can they know what not to do or say if they don’t know what it is that is so terrible? How can the world, much of which is already starting to forget about the Holocaust (if they aren’t pretending it didn’t happen at all), know what is so awful that we shouldn’t do it to people if we aren’t allowed to teach it?
All over the world, including in America, there are still people being treated terribly, there are genocides and human rights violations. If we don’t say anything, do anything, if we don’t even know that this isn’t the way we should treat people, how are we any better than the generation of the Holocaust?
Remember the poem, First They Came by Pastor Martin Niemöller? He didn’t speak up, according to his poem, because it wasn’t him, his people, or his beliefs that were being threatened at first. He was even a supporter of the Nazi party before his views changed. (More information about this is available on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust site, linked above in the poem title). But what if he had been taught to think further? What if he had read the Jewish barometer and noticed that this was the first step, had smelled the burning books and so been able to protest before there was the smell of burning people?
Yes, the Jews ended up, in large part due to the atrocity of the Holocaust, back in our own country after so long. And yes, we have survived and thrived. Yet so many died for what we have now; what if we could do things in a more peaceful way? What if we can learn from our past, what if the world did, and allowed knowledge its place as teacher and creator of a better future? What if?
Of course, the final joke’s on them: just as the Jewish people have the last laugh on Hitler with our thriving population, according to many news sites, sales of Maus are now up, particularly in Tennessee. This is one thing that gives me hope. People want to know, want to grow. All we can do is try to be better than we were yesterday. I hope we are all learning that lesson.