The Battle over Maus and the Teaching of Holocaust Literature

On January 10th, a McMinn County, Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove from its curriculum Maus, Art Spiegelman’s  book about his father’s Holocaust  experience. During a board meeting, educators explained that although Maus was an “anchor text” for McMinn County’s eighth-grade English language arts instruction and the centerpiece for a months-long study of the Holocaust, they voted to eliminate it because of age-inappropriateness, nudity and profanity. They made certain to make clear that this issue was not “content-based”. I would like to address each of the three negative points briefly and then respond to their assertion that this decision is not content-based.

With regards to age-appropriateness, this Graphic Novel, a genre defined as that of the comic book, is rated as appropriate for almost any classroom eighth grade or higher.[1] Ideally, this book would be taught in any eighth or ninth grade classroom so the students can begin to develop an enjoyment for comics earlier in school, but be mature  enough to discuss some of the issues in the story.

The second point raised was the issue of nudity. There are NO nude Human characters presented – only “naked” dead and/or dying mice… vermin. To be precise, there are NO Human characters in Maus. This Graphic Novel uses only anthropomorphic characters, i.e. animals chosen to embody the allegory it presents. Anthropomorphic Mice—Maus in German—to represent Jews, Cats to represent Germans, and other suitable animals to represent other nationalities or ethnicities. Mice was not a random selection. Nazis considered Jews as subhuman; they referred to them and portrayed them as Rats in their films – to be exterminated. As concerns the appearance of the Jews portrayed as Mice, they have indeed been given the form of men and women. However, no matter at what point they appear in the story, they are never nude; there are no male or female genitalia, breasts, etc., only the genderless human form. Their identity as Mice is defined by the masks which cover their human faces. Prior to their being sent to the concentration camps, they appear dressed in clothing appropriate to time and locale, their faces always masked as Mice. Only the clothing delineates their gender. Interestingly enough, in the camps they are all dressed in the unisex striped pajamas. When stripped before gassing, the male forms have a shadow in the appropriate area.  The one possibility for a nude woman to be presented would have been that of the author’s mother who attempted suicide. Yet, there is no mouse mask. There is no nude body per say. There is only the partial image of a  bathtub, one partial leg hanging over the side of the tub, and a partial arm draped over where a breast could have been. Nudity? Not to the human eye.

The use of the word pornography, in addition to nudity, is totally inappropriate and agenda-based.  I want to bring to the readers’ attention the definition of pornography in the Meriam Webster Dictionary:  “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement; material (such as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement…the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” NONE of this is applicable to Maus. Everything portrayed in this Graphic Novel appeals to our intellect, to our need to comprehend, to our sense of right and wrong and to our human emotions. NOT to our sexuality.

And finally, profanity.  Profanity is a socially offensive use of language, including cursing, swearing, and/or expletives. In Maus, the language is that of warfare and extermination and totally appropriate. It is definitely NOT age-inappropriate, given the language young people hear and/or read on a daily basis. This entire argument is specious and  hypocritical. These School Board members refuse to acknowledge that they have textbooks, instructional materials, even library books that are age-inappropriate, have pornographic content and are rife with profanity and inappropriate for all students, K-12.

The assertion that the issue is “not content based” is not true. The points which they have given to remove Maus are fallacious.  The content is THE issue. This comic book is probably the finest text that exists to teach the meaning and unthinkable deeds of the Holocaust to young people, in a palatable form. In that way, they will understand that the Holocaust must never be repeated and other genocides must not take place. This decision to remove Maus is anti-Semitic in design and academically despicable. It is not Holocaust Revisionism. It is not Holocaust Denial. The book has been removed precisely because it is about the Holocaust. It is in effect a subtle form of Nazi extermination of the Jews.

[1] Krista Mann, Rationale: Maus I: East Tennessee State University, 2022.

About the Author
Born, raised and educated in Washington, DC, I hold a BA, MA and PhD. I am a university professor and also Senior Academic Fellow for 2 non-profit organizations Truth in Textbooks and Proclaiming Justice to the Nations. As such, I review and correct textbooks in the areas of Judaism as a World Religion; the Shoah; the History of Israel from Biblical Times to the present; anti-Semitism and terrorism. I worked as Assistant to the previous Director of the Martef HaShoah. I am a member of the National Board of Hadassah. I belong to Yedidya, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Bak'a. I made Aliyah on September 6, 2018.