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And Then They Came For the Mice: No One Wants To Hear Such Stories 

 

SAY WHAT? - Eerily echoing Adolf Hitler's vow to "burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of LIBERAL excess," a Tennessee school board in their unholy wisdom has banned Art Spiegelman's singularly searing, brutally tender, Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus, which uses cartoon animals - Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, Poles as pigs - to tell the harrowing story of his survivor parents and the carnage, horror and enduring trauma of the Holocaust. Unsparing and multi-layered, Spiegelman merges personal and historical devastation by documenting the lives of his father Vladek and mother Anja, Polish Jews who survive Auschwitz deeply scarred, and his own struggle to unspool their painful stories. Disquietingly, there is no redemptive arc, no real justice in the end, just a dark account that must be recorded. Anja committed suicide in 1968, when Spiegelman was 20; Vladek, who lost a six-year-old son and most of his extended family during the war, emerges as a controlling, cranky, shut-down old man; their fraught relationship leads Spiegelman to the pitiless conjecture that, "Unimaginable suffering doesn't make you better - it just makes you suffer." Through much of Maus,Vladek harshly resists his son's inquiries into a past whose losses still haunt him. "It would take many books, my life," he says bitterly, "and no one wants anyway to hear such stories."

Ultimately, improbably, Spiegelman turns to cartoon animals to tell such stories - perhaps, writes one critic, "because only the caricatured quality of comic art is equal to the seeming unreality of an experience beyond all reason." Maus' portrayal of mice resonates - the Nazis often referred to Jews as vermin - while helping create enough psychic space to make their stories bearable; when he's writing or quizzing Vladek, Spiegelman wears a mouse mask that places him in both past and present. In 1992, his "genre-bending" work became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. But even with success, he remained tormented by the same survivor's guilt as Vladek and many others: He tells his therapist, "Mostly, I feel like crying...No matter what I accomplish, it doesn't seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz." Vladek died in 1982, shortly after Maus was published. Despite his grief and rancor, he left behind the stark, indelible testimony of Maus. On his labor in Auschwitz' gas chambers, alongside an image of screaming mice: "And the fat from the burning bodies, they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better...You heard about the gas, but I'm telling not rumors, but only what I really I saw." Friends in the camp found and lost: "Abraham I didn't see again - I think he came out the chimney." Crimes at first unfathomable: "People came back and told us. But we didn't believe." 

Earlier this month, faced with this quixotic rendering of inconceivable evil, the upright members of the McMinn County school board turned away - in fear? Indifference? Out-and-out stupidity and/or anti-Semitism? Denial before the reality that such things happened in the name of now-ascendant white supremacy? Choosing to focus on the inane, they unanimously voted to remove Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. Their "reasons": 8 uses of swear words, mostly "Goddamn," 1 small image of a naked, cartoon, female mouse - Anja in the bathtub after she kills herself - and "some rough, objectionable language." The move was first reported by The Tennessee Holler, now offline, but here; their link to the minutes of the meeting was revelatory, if terrifying. Their gist: never mind the genocide, what about those bad words? Many claimed they had "nothing against teaching the Holocaust" but they prefer it without unseemly profanity or nudity - like stripped naked mice lining up for the gas chambers - evidently unaware that, notes one critic, "To actually engage with the horror of the Holocaust, one has to be horrified." Thus, their ceaseless, clueless whining about “vulgar and inappropriate” content and their "argument" they can teach kids history "but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.” From one, "(Maus) shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy." Glaringly obvious note: Neither was the mass murder of millions of innocents. 

Others discussed the difficulty of censoring the word "b-i-t-c-h" - yes, he spelled it out - or re-imagined the bloody fact of the Holocaust as an icky sex ed class. "We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity - it wasn't explicit, but it was in there," said one queasy father, arguing that proves the entire curriculum is indoctrinating kids to "normalize sexuality, normalize nudity, and normalize vulgar language." Another helpfully trashed Spiegelman: "I may be wrong, but this guy (used) to do the graphics for Playboy...If I had a child in the 8th grade, this ain't happening." There was, it's true, a sprinkling of sanity amidst the mass idiocy. A former history teacher noted that, in fact, "There is nothing pretty about the Holocaust." A supervisor said duh, actually, "People did hang from trees, people did commit suicide, and people were killed." An administrator laboriously explained, as to a kindergartener, Expeditionary Learning, the concept of kids using "an anchor text" to explore a topic in depth: "When we think about the author's intent, I could argue his intent was to make our jaws drop. Oh my goodness, think about what happened and what it would have been like." The goal is to learn "the difference between right and wrong. We teach them to be empathetic, ethical people (with) compassion and respect for others." Yes, but, people clamored - bad words. After much moronic babbling - redaction, copyright, the need for more "appropriate" material - all ten voted to kill Maus. 

The move, part of a growing right-wing effort to empty schools of books about race, history, sexuality, or any topic that might cause discomfort to snowflakes busy ranting about the left's "cancel culture" - pot/kettle - caused noticeable uproar thanks to the supreme stupidity of arguing it's ok for kids to learn about genocide but they should do it without, you know, the bad stuff. Twitter fumed: "This book about the Holocaust is a real bummer," "So, find a kinder, gentler portrayal of genocide, maybe with music and more palatable atrocities," like "a puppet show of Uncle Zeke's Holler-cost Adventure." Also: Read the Bible, check the search history on your kids' phones, what about mass shootings, active shooter drills, your kids overdosing and getting pregnant in junior high, let us be worried about nudity in a book about - checks notes - the Holocaust, and gee, why didn't Spiegelman make his (literally one frame) depiction of his traumatized mother's suicide, well....nicer? "Banning Maus is obscene," wrote one, noting "the Weimar Republic vibe. And, "People are stunned arses." Amidst the turmoil, the Board issued a statement trying and failing to justify their move. Arguing one of their most important jobs is to "reflect the values of the community we serve" - unless your community is Nazis "or whatever they're calling themselves these days" -  they said they banned the book for "unnecessary use of profanity and nudity, and its depictions of violence and suicide," adding, "We have nothing against teaching the Holocaust, but we don't believe this is an age-appropriate text" for our students." Questions: What could be more age-appropriate than a comic format replacing human carnage with mice? Don't they know people who ban books are never the good guys? You know what else was unnecessary? The murder of millions. 

If they ever read history, of course, they'd know the best way to get teenagers or anyone else to read a book is for one dimwit little school district to ban it. Maus is now topping bestseller lists - previously, it wasn't within the top 1,000 - and several groups, including a comics store in Tennessee, have offered to donate copies to however many kids request it. Spiegelman, now 73, has said he's "baffled" by the board's move, calling it "Orwellian," "obviously demented" and "daffily myopic." "I've met so many young people (who) have learned things from my book," he lamented, adding that after reading the meeting's  transcript he sorrowfully realized the problem is "bigger and stupider" than he thought, so "I'm trying to wrap my brain around it." Bottom line: "I'm trying to be tolerant to people who possibly may not be Nazis, maybe." One final, awful, surreal, little-noted irony: While the board acted a few weeks ago, news of the ban suddenly surfaced on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the liberation of the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where Vladek, Anja and so many others were imprisoned. Of the 1.3 million people held there, the Nazis murdered an estimated 1.1 million. They, in turn, were part of the over six million who ultimately died in the Holocaust. Six million. Not mice. Human beings, often naked. Goddamn.

 

(Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.)