As a free speech advocate I deeply oppose censorship and any type of book ban. That said, last week’s furor about a Tennessee school district removing from its curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction comic book Maus has raised a topic that has long captured my attention: How to teach the Holocaust to children.
A common reaction to the action on Maus is that the Holocaust was horrific, innocent children were brutally murdered — that’s reality, and it can’t and shouldn’t be hidden from children.
I disagree. I do not think children should be traumatized simply because other innocent children were traumatized. That doesn’t mean I think children shouldn’t learn about the Holocaust. But I am a strong advocate of those lessons being conveyed in an age-appropriate manner. There’s a way to teach that children were brutalized without brutalizing children. For example: It could be appropriate, with the correct framing, for children to see pictures of concentration camps upon liberation, depicting the Jews who survived, but I would never advocate young children seeing pictures of death trains or death pits.
Perhaps I’m sensitive to this topic because when I was an elementary school student, my school showed us “Holocaust,” a mini-series that was absolutely not intended for children. I was utterly traumatized by it. To this day, the images of that film are seared in my memory.
There was also a book — this one was intended for young adult readers — that for years haunted me, specifically the scenes of sexual abuse and foiled escape plans. I don’t believe children need to have nightmares because of school lessons.
My high school psychology teacher, the daughter of survivors, shared with us that it’s extremely common for Jewish children — in fact she said it was close to 100% — to have nightmares about the Holocaust, specifically about trying to escape the Nazis. This could be in part due to the popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank, which incidentally I think is an extremely powerful and age-appropriate book for upper elementary school grades.
In case you were wondering, I think Maus is appropriate for middle-schoolers, especially 8th grade, from whose curriculum it was removed. The reasons provided by the school board — a few instances of bad language and brief nudity — are not valid for 8th graders. We shouldn’t traumatize children, but we also can’t shelter them forever from emotionally difficult subjects. The tricky part is finding the right balance — and the right age.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at [email protected]
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