My family’s worst moment is captured in ‘Maus.’ Its ban gravely disappoints me
Have you ever discovered an incident from your own family’s history in a famous work of art? I have.
As a child, my mother would tell me stories about our family’s experiences during the Holocaust. Some of them had happened to her parents, Chaya and Mendel, who had fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Most of the stories about our extended family were conveyed to my grandparents, uncles and mother for the first time in the late 1950s when my grandmother’s sister Leah came to visit them in Israel. A survivor of Auschwitz, she had emigrated to France after the war.
The most horrifying story was about Chaya and Leah’s first cousin Hela. On Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, she and her husband were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on their way to New York’s World’s Fair. They had left behind a teenage son and a young daughter and were now powerless to help them.
Their son, Leon, survived Auschwitz and joined his parents in the United States after the war. Their daughter was not as fortunate: the aunt taking care of her and two other children, Hela’s sister-in-law poisoned the kids and herself when it became clear that the Nazis were about to kill everyone.
For most of my life, I thought our family tragedy was only told among ourselves. In 2010, that all changed.
I had long planned to read “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir about his family’s Holocaust experiences as conveyed to him by his father, Vladek. I had already read Spiegelman’s excellent “In the Shadow of No Towers,” his personal account of 9/11, but hadn’t gotten around to reading his most famous work.
A wave of renewed press coverage in Israel due to the publication of a new Hebrew translation prompted me to pick up “The Complete Maus” in English and finally read it.
As I started the book, I noticed that Spiegelman’s family was from Sosnowiec, my grandparents’ hometown. I wondered if I would recognize any of the characters, but that seemed like a remote possibility, considering that Sosnowiec is not so small — before the war, approximately 30,000 Jews were living in the town of 150,000.
But on page 76, I encountered a familiar story: Vladek mentioned a woman named Hela who had traveled with her husband Herman to New York’s World’s Fair leaving behind a son and daughter, Lolek and Lonia.
Were my relatives featured in one of the world’s most famous Holocaust books? The story was too specific to be about somebody else. Any lingering doubts disappeared about 35 pages later when the most tragic occurrence in my extended family’s history — the poisoning — was depicted in cartoon form.
I emailed my parents, who were on a trip in the United States at the time. My mother immediately went out and bought a copy of “Maus” to read for herself. She also bought copies to bring as gifts when visiting American friends and family on my father’s side, those who were not related to the characters.
It was a grim gift, yes, but a very personal one. My parents regularly visited Hela in Pennsylvania in the 1970s when they lived in New York. Hela also spoke fondly of her talented nephew, an illustrator — my parents even recalled seeing an illustration of an ant, captioned “to my favorite ant,” hanging on the wall.
Until my email 10 years ago, my parents hadn’t made the connection that the nephew was Art Spiegelman.
Finding literal family members in the stories described in famous memoirs is rare. However, I did grow up reading books and watching movies and television shows that told stories about families like mine. Depictions of the Holocaust reminded me of my mother’s family. In “An American Tail,” that other famous but less grim movie depicting Jews-as-mice, Fievel Mousekewitz immigrated to New York from Russia at about the same age as my paternal grandmother did.
What I wasn’t exposed to enough as a child and teenager, however, were depictions of the hardships and traumatic experiences of families that weren’t similar to my own. Growing up in Israel and the United States, I rarely read books written from the perspectives of other minorities in Western countries or watched movies made by nonwhite filmmakers from the global south about their lives.
I was not unique in that. And soon, many children will be even more cut off from one another’s histories and traumas: unless they read it in their own free time, the children in McMinn County, Tennessee, will not be exposed to “Maus”. The county’s school board recently voted unanimously to ban “Maus” from the eighth grade curriculum, citing nudity and profanity.
With the growing backlash against the teaching of any uncomfortable facts about the historical and current treatment of people of color — often mislabeled as Critical Race Theory — “Maus” was bound to reach the chopping block eventually.
It’s a shame. McMinn County is 92.5% white, according to the Census Bureau. It’s a safe bet that its Jewish population is small, if it exists at all.
But the kids of McMinn should be exposed to Jewish stories. And Black stories. And Native American stories. And Asian stories. The goal is not to generate white Christian guilt but empathy, to humanize those whose religion, race and ethnicity are different from their own.
It’s the same reason white Jews should be exposed to African American stories and vice versa.
Underrepresentation in media and literature means that people of color see members of the majority on screen, stage and page more often than they see themselves.
Let’s read more of each other’s stories, especially those told by the voices we don’t hear enough. It will make us better people.
To contact the author, email [email protected].