It’s a familiar story, repeated so many times in American life over the decades: words and images, simple and powerful, and once again divisive.
The recent decision by a rural Tennessee school district to remove a Nazi Holocaust graphic novel from its eighth-grade curriculum has reverberated across the country. In many communities, including ours, it sparks conversations about censorship, book bans, and the relevance of teaching children true history.
You may have heard of this. If not, here’s what happened: The McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted unanimously in January to ban Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ . The book, which shows the different groups as anthropomorphic animals – Germans are cats, Jews are mice – chronicles Spiegelman’s parents’ experiences of anti-Semitism in the 1940s and their internment in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz , Poland.
According to school board meeting minutes posted online, the objections included “foul and objectionable language” and a drawing of a nude woman in the book. “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing children, why does the education system promote this stuff, it’s not wise or healthy,” a board member asked, while another said: “We don’t need that kind of stuff to teach kids history…. We can tell them exactly what happened but we don’t need all the nudity and of everything else.
At Fox Chapel, Tina Tuminella remembers reading “Night,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s harrowing account of Nazi concentration camp survivors, in ninth grade. Today, she is the mother of two young children. Tuminella’s son, Theo DeLong, heard about the Holocaust last year in third grade at O’Hara Elementary School.
“I’m very happy that he was exposed to ‘Number the Stars,'” Tuminella said, referring to Lois Lowry’s historical fiction about Jews in Copenhagen, Denmark, during World War II. “It’s just not direct, it’s very subtle, but I can tell you from attending Zoom meetings that kids are aware of it in third grade. That’s when I thought of reading “La nuit”, but my children are exposed to it much earlier. This is progress—let him know it. They can handle some of these concepts.
CHILDREN AND COMPASSION
“Kids are very interested in this topic,” said Jessica Resek, a gifted support teacher who taught Lowry’s novel at O’Hara Elementary School for five years. “It’s amazing that these are third graders reminding me that it’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
As the students also learn about teenage Anne Frank, who died in a Nazi concentration camp after hiding for two years with her family in a secret annex to a house in Amsterdam, Resek avoids going into details. the exact spot where the Franks – or, other Jews – were captured.
“I have to tread very lightly there,” she said. “They know Jews are being expelled from Copenhagen in ‘Number the Stars’, they know German soldiers are coming to take them, but not necessarily where. They know that Anne Frank died of illness.
But she and the students still took virtual tours of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam so they could see where Anne and her family have been hiding.
Sometimes Resek has to deal with what’s really going on in real time, she said. In 2018, as she prepared to teach “Number the Stars,” she and her students faced the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people.
What students were learning in school “suddenly became very real to them,” Resek said. “It really touched them. For some, it was their synagogue.
But when she tackles the themes and story of “Number the Stars,” Resek focuses on the harms of prejudice and discrimination, and the characters’ bravery in saving Jewish families.
“We talk about how the main character had to be brave and stand up to German soldiers, and how you never know when you might be called upon to be brave,” she said.
Becca Tobe also has two children at O’Hara Elementary School. They haven’t read about the Holocaust yet in school. But they are aware of it because the family discusses it at home: “We think it’s important that they know what happened,” Tobe said. “And it’s extremely important that this be taught in the school district. The Holocaust is an important topic to introduce.
Tobe said she and her husband give their children “a little bit of information and let it go”, waiting to see what questions the children have – why were Jews targeted, why is there hatred or were children harmed in the Holocaust?
“We say there were children who were affected by the Holocaust,” Tobe said. “We always answer questions with an honest answer because it is important for them, as Jewish children, to know what happened in the past.”
Banning the books does no good, Tuminella said, because it only persuades people to go for the banned material.
“As soon as you list what is forbidden fruit, it only makes the child want more,” she said. “Overall I find this ineffective and silly… Hopefully it backfires on you.”
Since the Tennessee school board’s ruling, “Maus” has climbed the bestseller list again. Comic book stores offered free copies to students. A store launched a crowdfunding page and easily surpassed its goal of $20,000. They have already raised over $100,000. An Episcopal Church in Tennessee offered talks about the book, and a teacher in North Carolina offered online lectures to eighth and high school students about the book.
For Tuminella, removing “Maus” — and banning books, in general, from libraries and school curricula — “reflects more on adults,” she said. “He does not protect the interests of children. It’s about sharing our fears. I feel like we’re going backwards. We did, we went.
Tobe believes children should be exposed to the horrors of the Holocaust and racism. Otherwise, they might not understand how hate affects others.
She recounted an experience her niece had as a middle school student in the Fox Chapel Area school district: The girl was on the school bus when a classmate asked aloud who the Jews were on the bus, said Tobe. Some raised their hands, and the other student said, “You should all go back to the gas chamber.
Another reason Tobe wants her children to know about the Holocaust is “to want them to be proud to be Jews,” she said. “We don’t want them to be afraid of being Jews. We want them to enjoy the life they have.
“It’s important for them to understand their history and their past, that such hatred existed,” Tobe added, “so that they can stand up for other minorities when it’s aimed at them. We want them to be witnesses, not spectators.
Resek agreed, “They should be made aware of the dangers of prejudice and discrimination, as well as the importance of human respect and the fact that some people are willing to stand up for it,” she said. “It teaches them to be strong leaders.”