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Maus, and the Search for a Friendly Holocaust

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I’m starting to accept that the long list of things I said I’d write about after getting settled in my new apartment is going to become a list of things I never got around to writing about. Better, perhaps, to focus on newer projects. But one thing that I really regret not having the time or brain power to write about when it happened was the clusterfuck surrounding the banning of Maus from the syllabus of a module on the Holocaust in a Tennessee middle school. There were a lot of interesting discussions on twitter about what Maus is, what makes it unique and remarkable as a work of Holocaust biography, and why the school board who banned it reacted so strongly against it. I had some thoughts I wanted to add to that, but I needed a moment to gather them, and by the time I was able to take that moment, the conversation seemed to have moved on.

Happily, Abraham Riesman has brought the issue back to public attention with an interview with Art Spiegelman at New York. It’s a fun interview (and Spiegelman, as he comes off in it, reminds me a lot of my own beloved—and now sadly passed—Jewish New Yorker academic relatives). It allows Spiegelman to reflect on his most famous, most influential work and on the current political moment. On the censorship issue, he makes an observation that several people made after the banning of Maus became international news, that what this story is really about is how American culture tries to process—and at the same time, deny—atrocity.

Although the incident hasn’t led to other calls to ban Maus, the book’s defenders suspected more sinister motives beyond discomfort with obscenities: anti-Semitism and hatred of so-called critical race theory. Spiegelman, on the other hand, isn’t so certain there’s any actual bigotry behind the parents’ complaints, which he stayed up until 4 a.m. reading. “I feel like this wasn’t an actual anti-Semitic incident. It was an incident created by somebody who probably knows very few Jews,” he says. “The thing that really upset them was me yelling at my father for burning the diaries. I guess it would’ve been better, for the school board, to say, ‘Gee whiz, Pop — I wish you hadn’t done it!’ But that would not have been accurate to my intensity of horror.”

As Spiegelman sees it, the real reason for the board’s decision may be that the narrative of Maus offers no catharsis, let alone comfort, to readers. There are no saviors. No one is redeemed. The characters — Spiegelman’s family — remain the imperfect people they were to begin with. “It’s a very not-Christian book,” Spiegelman says. “Vladek didn’t become better as a result of his suffering. He just got to suffer. They want to teach the Holocaust. They just want a friendlier Holocaust to teach.”

I read Maus when I was twelve or thirteen. Looking back, and despite the contention of the McMinn Country school board, that’s probably the perfect age for it. The book’s graphic format and its attention-grabbing central conceit—Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, etc.—make it accessible to younger readers. But they also make the horror that it describes more immediate and visceral. Moments and images from Maus have lingered with me far more powerfully than anything from The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read around the same time.

But another reason why Maus was just right for me at that age was that it was the first work that tried to complicate the more simplified narratives I had been taught about the Holocaust until that point, ones that had stressed the innocence and nobility of its victims. Vladek Spiegelman, in contrast, is a lot harder to like. He’s domineering and stubborn. He’s a racist. He burned his wife Anja’s diaries after her death. Perhaps most importantly, there’s nothing noble about his survival. Even before the Nazis come into power, Vladek is a macher—a hustler and a striver, always looking for the angle, not quite a cheat or a conman but definitely a bullshit artist, who is happy to cut other people off at the knees. He embodies, in other words, a lot of pernicious Jewish stereotypes, and his survival of the Nazi regime, as much as it hinges on courage, ingenuity, and luck, is also bound up in these qualities.

Spiegelman clearly has a lot of admiration for how his father first evaded capture by the Nazis and then survived Auschwitz. But he also lets you feel how seedy and desperate some of his schemes were, and how a lot of the time Vladek seems to be building a life raft for himself alone, while implicitly judging those around him who weren’t able to do the same. (Also, this is not a point made explicitly by the book, but it’s impossible not to notice how much Vladek’s survival comes down to the cushion of wealth he had from Anja’s family, which made it possible for him to bribe people and stay hidden.)

Maus, in other words, is a book designed to deny you easy consolation. It’s full of moments that you’re not supposed to know how to feel about—perhaps none more so than the death of Vladek and Anja’s son Richieu, who is murdered, along with two other children, by their caretaker, rather than allow them to be taken to the camps. And it’s also a book about how these sorts of horrors can never be put away. Vladek and Anja survive and are reunited. They come to America and have another child, Art. But Anja still ends up taking her own life. Vladek isn’t made a better man by his suffering and losses. And Art ends up very clearly messed up by having to grow up in the shadow of all this horror. Your early teens feels like a good age to start learning that there are no neat endings in life, that heroism isn’t always pretty or uncomplicatedly admirable, and that suffering leaves an indelible mark.

So yeah, I think Spiegelman is entirely on the money when he writes that what was at play here was less antisemitism as it was a desire for a more friendly—and perhaps a more Christian-friendly—version of the Holocaust to teach. These people didn’t just want a tale of survival, but of redemption. They wanted something uplifting. Perhaps they also wanted a Good German in the mix to act as a focal point. Nor is this the first time I’ve noticed these tendencies, a desire for depictions of the Holocaust to be cuddlier, an increased interest in the perpetrators over the victims. John Boynes’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a work of fiction whose main character is German, and which has been decried for its inaccuracies by the Auschwitz Museum, is still taught in some schools as part of their Holocaust curriculum. Jojo Rabbit changes the ending of the novel it was based on, from a morally complex conclusion that acknowledges that there is no such thing as an innocent Nazi, to a heartwarming dance-off. Most people probably wouldn’t go so far as to ban Maus, but still, there’s no denying that there’s a type of Holocaust story that people want, and that increasingly, work like Maus or Son of Saul isn’t it.

Not that the Holocaust is where it stops, of course. A lot of Critical Race Theory hysteria is rooted in the same attitude, that the past can only be taught if it’s uplifting (and ideally with a white hero at its center). That teaching history should never make children “uncomfortable” (the children are fine, of course; it’s the parents who are uncomfortable with the questions they’re asking). And I think I see it, also, in the insistence of some people that being tired of COVID means that the pandemic must be over, that if we just say “back to normal!” often enough, it’ll somehow be 2019 again. There is, I think, a resistance to accepting that sometimes things suck. That sometimes damage is forever. And before we talk about whether children are ready to learn these sad truths, we should probably go check on the adults.

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