On Feb. 2, images of a book burning led by a pastor in Tennessee cropped up across social media.
To Jason Lerner, a Jewish middle school English and social studies teacher at Austin Mehan Middle School in Philadelphia, the images elicited a strong response.
“It’s just eerily mirroring the book burnings that took place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” Lerner said. “If the pictures were black-and-white, you might not be able to know the difference.”
The book burning took place in tandem with a national conversation around book bannings sparked by the Jan. 10 unanimous vote by the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee to ban the Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman from the middle school curriculum due to concerns about profanity and female nudity in the book.
“Maus” is an autobiographical accounting of Spiegelman interviewing his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, about his life. In the graphic novel, Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats.
Spiegelman called the book banning “Orwellian” and said in a CNN interview, “I moved past total bafflement to try to be tolerant of people who may possibly not be Nazis, maybe.”
Lerner expressed a similar sentiment about the banning, drawing connections between the book banning and the book burning event: “It invokes thoughts of how it was in the 1930s with fascism: ‘You can’t read this. You can’t say this. You can’t do this. And you have to do what we do.’ And it’s all in step and right in line with what then was Nazi Germany to me.”
Lerner and Spiegelman are not alone in their attitudes toward the book banning. Other Jewish educators agree that the banning of “Maus” was the wrong call.
“Banning is a really extreme measure,” said Barbara Mann, Chana Kekst Professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Mann argued that the reasons for banning the book — the use of the word “goddamn” and the depiction of Speigelman’s mother naked in a bathtub following her suicide — were lofty, but Mann doesn’t argue that the content of the graphic novel isn’t disturbing.
“There’s a lot of really brutal stuff in here. The Holocaust was kind of a brutal event,” she said.
However, the difficult material, such as Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide, is situated in the context of larger themes such as memory and trauma.
“It’s just treated really sensitively honoring the fact that there was this horrible thing that happened to this family that ripped it apart, and now they’re dealing with it, and they’re talking about it,” Mann said. “I don’t know, that sounds like a really good thing to teach, don’t you think?”
Mann is co-leading a March 3 workshop called “‘Maus’: Using Graphic Novels to Teach About the Holocaust” at the Rutgers University Littman Families Holocaust Resource Center with Holocaust educator Colleen Tambuscio.
Tambuscio, a high school teacher at New Milford High School in New Milford, New Jersey, believed “Maus” has an important role in the classroom when teaching about the Holocaust.
“It’s reflective of the survivor story. It’s also in this graphic novel format that is accessible to students,” she said. “This is something visual that they can relate to, and it also is done in a very literary sense.”
To Lerner, who does not teach “Maus” as part of his English curriculum, its banning is symbolic of a loss of opportunities to have difficult conversations in the classroom.
Lerner’s students will often come to class with differing views on topics, including the COVID vaccine and gender-neutral bathrooms, which he tries to incorporate into his lesson plans.
“We try and have open discussions where it’s peaceful and conductive, which is really important in the classroom, but sometimes a lot of teachers avoid it,” Lerner said.
He said that some teachers don’t want to experience the discomfort of students talking about sensitive topics or be diverted from their lesson plans. Lerner admits he is not immune to distracted students.
“Some kids will make comments and jokes, but that doubles down on the opportunity to talk about not making comments and how to express your feelings if you don’t agree with somebody,” Lerner said.
While Lerner can have meaningful conversations with students, he also said his students don’t “usually” fully understand the weight of the Holocaust.
“Maus,” due to the mature themes around death, grief and generational trauma, might be too sensitive for some readers, Mann argued.
“Know your audience, right?” she said. “I’m no expert, but it’s a challenging book, and so maybe it’s more appropriate for a high school curriculum than a middle school curriculum.”
Tambuscio asserts that regardless of the age of the person reading the graphic novel, there must be appropriate context given about the difficult topics covered.
“You have to know your class. You have to know your students. … You have to have a reason to teach something difficult,” she said. “The purpose of teaching a difficult subject matter is not for shock value.”
For educators interested in teaching “Maus,” Mann and Tambuscio suggest priming students with background knowledge about World War II and the Holocaust, as well as about how to read a graphic novel.
“With framing and with information, students can be set up to read this book in a really impactful way,” Mann said.