What Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” Means to the Children of Survivors

Mouch is the book that changed my life, that turned my vision of the world from black and white to color. Maus showed me it was possible to tell an honest and complex story about a parent who was a Holocaust survivor. Maus helped me figure out how to understand and explain my own family’s history. Maus made it possible for me to reach for the words I needed and the anger I needed to talk about what had happened to my family before they were able to flee Germany. It is impossible for me to imagine what my life would have been like, or who I would be, if I had not read Maus.

Everyone by now knows that in January this year the school board in McMinn County, Tenn., voted unanimously to ban Maus from schools in the district. Everyone knows, too, the explanation the board members gave: the graphic novel about what happened to Spiegelman’s family during the Holocaust contains eight mild curse words. It shows a woman—that is, a cartoon mouse version of a woman—naked in one panel. I am not particularly interested in analyzing the school board’s decision. The absurdity of their decision, the crudeness of their explanation, the way they have tried to position themselves as vulnerable in this situation (which all perpetrators do) tells you everything you need to know about who they are.

Every time I see the cover of Maus—displayed in a bookstore, reproduced on a newspaper page, as a thumbnail on a computer screen—I feel a kind of reassurance. I realize how strange it seems to say that about a book with a swastika on the cover. But Maus is the book that I’ve returned to again and again in hard times, because Maus is about the hardest of times and it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. And it never—I mean never—drops into cliché. que Maus shows, more than anything, is the real flawed and unpredictable humanity of people trying to make it through an inhumane situation.

The first time I heard about Maus, I was sitting in the living room of the house where I lived in Northampton, Mass.—the kind of ugly house you share when you’re a student. On the radio, someone was describing a graphic novel about a son trying to talk to his Holocaust survivor father. What was so remarkable, the broadcaster explained, was that the father wasn’t depicted as saintly. The writer’s father was a racist, and troubled—and he wrote about all of that.

I wanted that book immediately. Because I was, back then, just starting to talk about my own father’s history, and I had no idea how to talk about it. Sometimes new acquaintances would say: “Oh, your father must be an amazing man!” They would ask personal and intrusive questions. Or they would tell me what they knew about the Holocaust, which I was really—I mean really—not interested in. Or they would say easy and ignorant things about how my family’s survival showed that they’d been smart.

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