As someone raised Jewish, I have known about the events of the Holocaust my whole life. I lit candles for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I listened to stories from Holocaust survivors who narrowly escaped death in concentration camps. I walked through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and knew most of the information it provided before I set foot in the door. I have seen “Schindler’s List” twice, and read Maus more times than that.
This was not a choice. You do not get a choice when you’re Jewish. The Holocaust is something you learn about over and over again. It does not matter how old you are. By the time you approach the topic in public school, you know the most of anyone in the room. People ask you if you know any survivors, or if you had any relatives who died. You do not get a choice.
You might think then, “wouldn’t you want a choice? Wouldn’t you want to protect other children from this knowledge? Wouldn’t you want to ban books like ‘Maus’ from children’s schools, and wait until children are older to tell them about what happened?”
No. Not at all.
Children understand things better if they learn them at a young age. We know this about reading, about learning languages or tying shoes. Why should history be any different? The privilege of choice comes with the responsibility to learn – those who are not forced to learn about the Holocaust because of their religion should learn about it for that very reason.
In the case of the board of trustees of McMinn County Schools in Athens, Tennessee, “Maus” was removed from the eighth grade English Language Arts curriculum in a unanimous vote over concerns the book wasn’t age-appropriate. The board specifically cited “unnecessary” profanity (eight swear words), a small drawing of a nude woman and mentions of murder, violence and suicide.
“Maus” does include all of these things, to be fair. The people in life-or-death situations swear. The traumatized mother who has killed herself in the bathtub is naked. The Nazis murder people. There is certainly violence in the Holocaust. It is impossible to discuss it without mentioning the harm brought to Jewish, Romani, LGBT and disabled people. But are these things impossible to look past? Is one scene with a tiny image of a nude woman enough to declare a whole book pornography?
Yes, the Holocaust was a violent, bloody time, and I am certainly not suggesting we show 2-year-old-Timmy “Schindler’s List.” But eighth graders, 13-year-olds, should certainly be able to handle the reality of what happened. They see worse in their schools, or in the shows they watch or the books they read.
In a response to the backlash after this vote, the board gave a statement that said, “We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion. The atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and we all have an obligation to ensure that younger generations learn of its horrors to ensure that such an event is never repeated. We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study.”
If the McMinn County School board is prepared to find works of equal teaching value, then fine. I’m glad that they at least understand the importance of teaching the Holocaust. But I am tired of this being up for debate. I am tired of watching schools ban books on histories they are uncomfortable with. I am tired of a section of the population spending years pretending the Holocaust never happened, only to turn around and liken themselves to its victims when they are asked to wear masks. Perhaps a better education on the seriousness of the Holocaust would prevent that. Whatever McMinn County chooses to replace “Maus,” it had better be good.
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