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No, Anne Frank’s diary would not be an adequate replacement for ‘Maus’ in Tennessee schools

It would seem counterintuitive that a graphic novel featuring mice and cats as Jews and Nazis would be a more effective Holocaust teaching tool than the diary of a young girl who died in Bergen-Belsen. Yet, after a Tennessee school district unanimously voted to ban Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” from its eighth grade curriculum due to nude drawings (of mice) and otherwise “not wise or healthy” content, some people on Twitter are suggesting that other well-known Holocaust books such as Anne Frank’s diary would not be an adequate replacement for Spiegelman’s work because they don’t drive home the Holocaust’s horrors as forcefully as “Maus” does.

To be clear, replacing “Maus” with Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” is not currently the plan in the McMinn County school district; educators there explained that they would not use Frank’s diary because it is written at a lower grade level than “Maus,” which they rank as eighth-grade material; the more likely result is that, with no immediate replacement for the now-banned book, which anchored a months-long unit of activities and study around the Holocaust, classes will skip the module entirely, according to the minutes from the school board meeting. (The notes mention that, due to COVID-related scheduling issues, they opted to skip the Holocaust module last year as well.)

But why wouldn’t “The Diary of a Young Girl” work as a replacement for “Maus?”

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel takes on the Holocaust directly, highlighting the violence and horrors of concentration camps and the Nazi regime. In fact, that’s exactly why the Tennessee school board took issue with it; the book “shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids,” objected school board member Tony Allman. Implying that depicting violence in the Holocaust was akin to endorsement, he added: “Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.”

Anne Frank’s diary, on the other hand, stops before the Frank family is discovered and deported to concentration camps to die; she did not take her diary to Bergen-Belsen. Of course, Anne Frank humanizes the victims of the Holocaust, and sheds light on the terrors of hiding from the Nazis, but it cannot depict the full scale of the horrors of the Holocaust; it skips too much. It doesn’t even depict what happened to the Franks, because it ends before Anne met her own end; while the editions mention her death from typhoid in an introduction or afterword, they do not detail or illustrate the horrors she suffered after the diary’s end, and spend a paragraph or two on the Franks’ later suffering.

And even what does make it into the diary of the Franks’ life in the attic is often censored; initial versions of the diary were edited by both Anne’s father and by publishers to remove her frank discussions of her sexuality and changing body as well as her sometimes-vitriolic hatred of her mother. While those parts were added back into the work in later editions, given the McMinn school board’s desire to censor both a naked mouse drawing and Spiegelman’s difficult relationship with his father, the likelihood that they would use the uncensored version seems slim.

Additionally, much has been written about how curricula frame what is in Anne Frank’s diary; often, her forgiveness of her oppressors is highlighted more than her suffering, as is her relatability, both of which serve to obscure the singularly violent nature of the Holocaust.

On Twitter, many Jews worried that the concerns voiced by the school board, which included the swear words, nudity and parental disrespect in “Maus,” were a smokescreen for a deeper discomfort with truly telling the story of Jews in their own voice. Spiegelman told CNBC he had a similar suspicion about the school board’s reasoning.

Others wondered if, given the school board’s discomfort with centering a Jewish narrative, the replacement book to anchor the Holocaust curriculum would center the experiences of non-Jews instead of Jews in an attempt to make the events easier to swallow for students. In fact, the school board seemed so unconcerned with including Jewish voices in a discussion of the Holocaust that the word “Jew” was never uttered in the 20 pages of meeting minutes.

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A statement from the school board, standing by its decision despite widespread criticism this week, reiterates board member Allman’s worries. It says the board is searching for a more “age-appropriate” book that teaches about the horrors of the Holocaust.

But the Holocaust was horrific — kids were killed and people were hanged — and it was not “wise” or “healthy.” It is impossible to communicate the magnitude of the event’s evil, without detailing the depth of the horrors and violence involved, which does not amount to endorsing them. “Maus” is a distressing read because the murder of six million Jews is distressing. The idea of making the Holocaust appropriate in any way is absurd.

For his own part, Spiegelman called the choice “bewildering” but seemed unsurprised. “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented,” Spiegelman told CNBC. “There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

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