The impact of art on education and the culture at large occasionally makes the mainstream news. Unfortunately this time it was due to a school district banning a formative graphic novel about the Holocaust. The book, Maus by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of the author’s father, Władysław (aka Vladek) Spiegelman, who survived the Holocaust in Poland. It became the first and only (so far) graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
On January 10, 2022, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee, voted unanimously to remove the novel from the eight grade curriculum. The reason they gave was that it features obscenity, such as strong language, violence and nudity. Let that absurdity sink in for a moment. A school board is removing a groundbreaking work of art and literature because they are offended by its violent and obscene themes. One school board member had the audacity to say that “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.”
How could any true reflection of one of the most depraved and brutal events in modern history not include descriptions of these acts?
What is not wise or healthy is to commit acts of erasure, which is what they are doing by removing this book. Studying the Holocaust is not meant to make anyone feel comfortable. The legacy of the Holocaust is enduring and provides overarching lessons on human nature. With antisemitism on the rise, it is clear that we need even more examples showing what people and groups who embrace hatred and bigotry are capable of.
There are many pertinent models of curricula for teaching and learning about the Holocaust and other global genocides (some of which I have included at the end of this post). The Victoria State Government in Australia, strongly articulates the necessity for educating students about the Holocaust by stating that: “Studying the Holocaust, allows students to develop the capacity and willingness to be informed and active citizens. It shows us how fragile the institutions that are supposed to protect the rights and security of everyone can be, and how they should not be taken for granted. Learning about the dangers of hatred and discrimination in the Holocaust is important to fighting intolerance and prejudice in today’s world.” And lo and behold, their guide for books and films, created in partnership with Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, recommends teaching Maus.
The notion that Holocaust studies enable students to develop critical thinking is reinforced by many McMinn County citizens including Alex Sharp, a local librarian at Tennessee Wesleyan University who remarks that, “If you ban a book outright, that cuts off any dialogue that there is to be had about that book. And I think that this is an important story, we have to have this conversation” (Keenehan, 2022).
Maus illuminates many of the important historical, social and emotional aspects of the Holocaust. Reading diaries, letters and interviews of Holocaust victims and survivors provides us with a well rounded understanding of factual insights as well as intimate thoughts and feelings. These sources strengthen our comprehension of documented events and prompt empathetic responses to the harrowing experiences of others.
Maus employs multiple genres as visual and literary storytelling devices. It is a fusion of autobiography, biography, history, historical fiction and memoir. Spiegelman incorporated metaphors that are apropos to the horrors of the Holocaust. All the characters are portrayed as anthropomorphic creatures. Jews are mice, Nazis are cats and non-Jewish Poles are rendered as pigs. The animal symbolism is simple, yet effective and indicative of how the Nazis viewed and victimized the Jews. Cats prey on many small animals, but they are most famously associated with terrorizing mice. If you have ever seen a cat catch a mouse, it is not a pretty sight. They ultimately kill them, but not before engaging in a very one-sided game of brutality. This is how the Nazis acted towards the Jews. They saw their prey as nonhuman entities, like vermin. In fact, antisemites have depicted Jewish people as animals from the Middle Ages to the present day.
Regarding the need for works of literature and art that educate and heighten our awareness about the Holocaust, Spiegelman notes that knowledge of the Holocaust is still something of an anomaly. In his own experiences as a student during the 1950s, the Holocaust was not a subject that was discussed in the curriculum, albeit basically being a current event at that time. Even today, with the Holocaust included within K-12 history curricula, the lack of realization among young people is appalling. A survey taken last year of individuals throughout all fifty states who are in the Millennial and Generation Z age range, found that a significant number of participants could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto and believe that only two million or less Jews were murdered. Even more concerning is that almost twenty-percent of those surveyed actually believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.
Spiegelman sees the Holocaust as a harbinger of things to come, but similar ideologies have already been experienced in the present. We have witnessed the ramifications of what can happen when governments manifest and support false narratives, divisive rhetoric and bias. In light of the misinformation and deflection of moral responsibility, which is supported by figures of authority, and the generational ignorance about past historical events like the Holocaust, the genocide of Indigenous Americans, slavery and racism; our society is in a dire situation. Education has a major role to play in addressing these issues, and educators have both the experience and materials to do so.
Graphic novels like Maus, March (a biographical narrative about the late civil rights activist and congressman, John Lewis) and Persepolis (a memoir of life in Iran during the Islamic Revolution) are all valuable resources that can be used to teach art, history and literacy.
Visual culture helps strengthen comprehension skills, which is a key aspect for learning to think critically. One of the ways that imagery can bolster a narrative is by alluding to the moments in the text where specific emphasis should be placed. This enables us to make specific inferences and sensory connections to past and present events and prior knowledge, as well as any associated feelings and cultural experiences that are evoked by connecting visually. We generally refer to this method as being able to “read between the lines.” In Maus, Spiegelman’s artwork powerfully and poignantly draws our attention to the excruciating trauma that is associated with experiencing the Holocaust. Not everyone at the McMinn County School Board meeting felt that the language and imagery in Maus was off-key for the curriculum. Julie Goodin, an assistant principal, countered by saying, “I can talk of the history, I was a history teacher and there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history” (quoted in Bishara, 2022).
Devastating moments in our collective history need to be communicated, recounted and visualized so that we truly comprehend the gravity of what happened, in order to ensure that we are prepared to be informed and active in the fight against intolerance.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Below are resources for building a curriculum and a library of books about the Holocaust and other social justice themes:
- Social Justice Books’ Booklists provide an extensive, yet carefully selected list of multicultural and social justice books for children, adolescents and educators.
- Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Curriculum Guide to Maus.
- Facing History’s Holocaust teaching resources.
- The United States Holocaust Museum’s Guide to Teaching Materials by Topic.
- The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum E-learning resources .
Bishara, Hakim. “Tennessee School Board Bans Maus, Famous Graphic Novel About the Holocaust,” Hyperallergic, 28 January 2022. https://hyperallergic.com/708067/tennessee-school-board-bans-maus-famous-graphic-novel-about-the-holocaust/
CNN. “‘Maus’ author reacts to his book being pulled from curriculum,” CNN New Day, 27 January 2022. https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2022/01/27/maus-tennessee-school-board-art-spiegelman-newday-vpx.cnn
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). “U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey,” 16 September 2020. https://www.claimscon.org/millennial-study/
Hernandez, Joe. “1 in 4 American Jews say they experienced antisemitism in the last year,” NPR, 26 October 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/10/26/1049288223/1-in-4-american-jews-say-they-experienced-antisemitism-in-the-last-year
Keenehan, Katelyn. “Community upset over McMinn Co. BOE decision to ban Holocaust book from curriculum,” WBIR, 27 January 2022. https://www.wbir.com/article/news/local/mcminn-county-school-board-faces-backlash-for-decision-to-ban-famous-maus-from-school-curriculum/51-aaaea576-7a19-47df-bfab-e9ca0fc5fd8b
Victoria State Government’s Holocaust Education Delivery Requirements. https://www2.education.vic.gov.au/pal/holocaust-education-delivery-requirements/policy
I have the graphic novel Maus by Art Spielgelman. I believe it a very good way to teach the atrocities which occurred during those times, through a genre which is easily accessible to all.
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And one of the book’s important lessons that we can all benefit from is that racism (and bullying, and mocking) persists even in those who have suffered from it. Kids can’t learn this too soon if it helps them to overcome it. But it’s so painful that, like ‘Huckleberry Finn’, many can’t face its harsh reality and would prefer that no one did.