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The tension between comfort and history

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it snowed in Jerusalem. As I peered out of my apartment’s window, I could not help but think how beautiful the white snow and the Jerusalem stone go together. In addition to strange weather on this day of morbid memory, another piece of shocking news flooded my screen. A Tennessee school board has unanimously decided to pull “Maus,” a graphic memoir about the Holocaust from its curriculum.

In order to teach and learn about the Holocaust, one cannot avoid grave language or imagery. The McMinn county school board citing grave language and imagery as the reason to pull “Maus” from their curriculum is in my view, an admittance that they are not serious about teaching the Holocaust. Are you planning to replace it with a work that does not have harsh or difficult language and imagery? Were this to occur, it would not be true to the history. Of course, teaching children about this time period must be done with intensive caution, and as an educator I am keen to this position. Nevertheless, we must continue to educate future generations about the Holocaust without fear of making them feel uncomfortable. And we should use all of the tools at our disposal to assist students in processing their emotions whilst studying this material. These two endeavors are not mutually exclusive. It is vital to transmit the knowledge of what the Nazi regime did to the world to our next generation so  nothing like it will happen again.

As I am concluding Leon Uris’ monumental novel “Mila 18,” which retells the miraculous story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I can’t help but wonder how the characters in this book would respond upon hearing about this decision to pull “Maus” from the curriculum. What would the teenagers in the ghetto, that lived underground for weeks at a time without sunlight, sufficient food, or the knowledge of if they would survive another day, say to their story making people feel uncomfortable? Think about that for a minute. Consider anyone who endured such horror that was the Holocaust interpreting that rationale. Uncomfortable? Too much profanity? Too much nudity? What will these students in McMinn County think when they encounter the reality of discomfort, profanity, nudity, and the horrors of history in their own lives?

It is clear that the desire of the educators from McMinn County is in no way to not teach about the Holocaust. It appears that they simply want to proceed with a different book or source material, although it is not certain which work will replace “Maus.” Even with a replacement offered, I am afraid there is not an easy way to teach about this. There is no way to not make students feel discomfort or anxiety. That is just the way it is. Welcome to the show, everyone! Fortunately, the show is improved nowadays with consideration to the abundance of therapeutic options available and society’s increasing position of normalcy around seeking therapy.

The fear that our society is producing a generation of “soft” people is an age-old admonition. Yet, I am afraid that when we abolish a work that has frequently been used as source material to teach history, language arts, social studies, and family psychology, we are inching closer to that admonition being realized. The timing of this news connotes insensitivity in the slightest, and in the most extreme anti-semitism. But this is not the point. It is not necessary to get hung up on the personal details. Anti-semitism existed before this and it will remain hereafter. The essential lesson here is that we cannot afford to attempt to give preference to our students comfortability levels over truthfully teaching history. Society’s obsession with convenience and evasion of distress comes at a cost. How can one preach “never again” without being the least bit sorrowed by the study of the Holocaust?

References
Tennessee school board removes ‘Maus,’ iconic Holocaust book, from its curriculum – Jewish Telegraphic Agency (jta.org)

About the Author
Josh Less is a freelance writer and amateur podcaster. His interests range from Middle Eastern History and politics to musical history to philosophy. He is currently studying for a Master's in Jewish Education at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Israel.
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