‘Maus’ in Tennessee
Educating children is often about a tradeoff between appropriateness and impact.
The decision of the school board at McMinn County, Tennessee, to strike from an eighth-grade reading list Art Spiegelman’s graphic comic “Maus” triggered in our editorial heart a twinge of sympathy. For when we first heard about “Maus,” we, too, rejected it. We finally began reading it when Jonathan Rosen serialized it in the Forward, and we came to appreciate the comic as one of the great tellings of the Holocaust story.
What had given us pause was the idea of telling the Holocaust story in a cartoon. We’d thought of the medium as at best childish and at worst perverse or obscene. It just didn’t seem appropriate for the gravest event to have befallen the Jews in modern times. The details only deepened our discomfort. In “Maus,” which is German and Yiddish for “mouse,” the Germans are pictured as cats and Jews as mice. The Poles are depicted as pigs.
Mr. Spiegelman recounts his family’s experience in the Holocaust from a post-war perspective. He includes their later troubles: his father’s pettiness, his own selfishness, and the suicide of his mother, who, decades after her immigration to America, still suffered from depression — doubtless in part due to her years in hiding and the loss of a child, the author’s older brother, under the Nazis. Could anyone from the period be unoffended by “Maus”?
Yet that, we discovered, is precisely what makes “Maus” so compelling and enables the memoir of Vladek and Anja Zylberberg to convey some of the horror of an incomprehensible event. Vladek, a small timer who by dint of sheer energy, rises from peddler to merchant, and Anja, the timid daughter of an established businessman, both come alive in “Maus”: regular people who happen to find themselves in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The cartoon pigs and mice who scamper across the pages of “Maus” help a young reader relate. Germany has, from the time of the Brothers Grimm, explored its own darkness through fairy tales and animals. How to teach young students about the strangulation of freedom by the Iranian revolutionaries who toppled the Shah? A book that followed “Maus,” “Persepolis,” does that better, at least for youth, than a dozen documentaries.
Which brings us back to McMinn County. Its Board of Education voted 10 to zero to remove “Maus” from its curriculum. The Board insisted it didn’t intend to “diminish the value of ‘Maus’ as an impactful piece of literature.” Rather, it was uneasy with the profanity and nudity in the book (one panel in the comic portrays the discovery of the body of Mr. Spiegelman’s mother in a bathtub).
If McMinn County, Tennessee, has trouble figuring out how to teach the Holocaust, one can only imagine the choices with which German town or state officials must wrestle when it comes to conveying this period in Germany’s past. It doesn’t surprise us that Germans turned to “Maus.” A German-language edition of “Maus” — cats, pigs and all — was translated by two of Germany’s most distinguished journalists, Josef Joffe and Christine Brinck.
The point is that educating children is often about a tradeoff between appropriateness and impact. Sometimes, a work, precisely because it appears in a new medium, packs a punch so powerful that overlooking its infelicities makes sense. Hundreds of young adult programs thought so too, and now feature “Hamilton,” the musical, notwithstanding its risqué references and occasional abuse of the principle of accuracy.
In any event, the good news is that the contretemps over “Maus” in McMinn County has sent sales of the book soaring. Mr. Spiegelman has asked to meet with the school board members, and from our own evening across from him at a dinner table now 40 years ago, we’d guess it would be a cherished experience. Perhaps McMinn County will someday think again about teaching “Maus,” if not for eighth-graders then for high schoolers.