During Paul Regelbrugge’s 12 years as a middle school English teacher, he saw firsthand the power of teaching Holocaust history through literature — not just for the adolescents in his classrooms but for their families, too. His former students and their parents still write to him, he says, to share how certain works — such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a memoir of Wiesel’s experience in concentration camps, and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel in which Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis are depicted as cats — have stayed with them, often revisited in family discussions.
So when news spread that a Tennessee school board had voted unanimously in January to remove “Maus” from its 8th grade curriculum, citing objections to nudity and profanity in the text, Regelbrugge, who is now director of education for the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, found himself receiving messages from former students once again. This time they were forwarding news stories about the ban, along with their own astonished reactions: Have you heard about this? How could they do this?
The school board’s vote sparked an immediate backlash, with an onslaught of educators, parents, public figures and prominent Holocaust-focused organizations condemning the ban.
Regelbrugge and Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, each spoke to The Washington Post about the importance of teaching the Holocaust through literature, and how parents can help guide their children through this essential history. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What is your reaction when you see a work like “Maus" being banned from classrooms? What is lost when kids don’t have the opportunity to engage with this kind of work?
Paul Regelbrugge: It’s almost indescribable actually. At first blush, it’s like — okay, let’s try to put this in perspective, that it’s one small district in the state of Tennessee. But clearly there has already been an international response to this, as part of a much larger issue. My personal response is that having used this book with kids in middle school and up, I have never seen a text change the dynamic of a classroom the way this one did for the several years that I used it — with different grade levels, and different demographics, different backgrounds. I taught it to mostly African American kids in Buffalo, and to all Hispanic kids in Chicago, and kids from all over the world in the Kent School District (in Washington). It becomes an unbelievable vehicle, and all the students that I’ve ever had have connected so profoundly to it. It’s been truly life-changing for so many students, so taking it away is incomprehensible. As a parent, I have two boys, one is a 16 year-old now and the other is in college, but they both have read it. The younger one, it has stayed by his bedside for probably the past three or four years, and sometimes he’ll pick it up, he’s read these books five or six times each, because he says every time he reads it, the older he gets, the more he’s getting out of it. And every time he reads it, he’s asking different kinds of questions.
What is the right age to start introducing children to the history of the Holocaust?
Gretchen Skidmore: Students in grades six and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts, and they can attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history. At the museum, our exhibition is for ages 13 and older.
PR: Sixth grade is perfectly within reason, focusing on lessons of empathy and understanding. At these earlier ages, there are some ‘safer’ books — and when I say ‘safer,’ they’re books that don’t go right into the heart of darkness, they’re books that tend to prioritize lessons of resistance, stories that show more light and courageous action. You wouldn’t lead younger readers into the hopelessness of things — you don’t want to go right into the heart of Auschwitz. You want to provide them with responsible choices that meet them where they are. We never shy away from history, but we don’t want to traumatize. We want to learn and take them further into the history incrementally, over time.
Are there a few examples of the sorts of books you’d recommend parents start with?
GS: There are lots of materials that can help parents choose, and the USHMM website has guidance about how to choose texts. We want to encourage people to make sure that the text focuses on individual stories, because for young people, translating statistics into people is really important. You want to make sure that the content is historically accurate, and it’s really important to provide the context for the historical events. You need to think about vocabulary — whether the vocabulary is appropriate or accurate, and we strive for precision of language, so we want to avoid generalizations.
PR: One book I recommend is titled “The Whispering Town,” by Jennifer Elvgren — that’s a nice introductory piece, about a town in Denmark that helped save a bunch of Jewish people in the Holocaust. There’s another book titled “Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree,” by Jane Kohuth, and that’s another sort of safer introductory work, so kids are beginning to hear introductory terms: What is empathy, what are differences and similarities between people. “Terrible Things” by Eve Bunting is a great allegory of the Holocaust, if you’re familiar with the famous poem by Martin Niemöller that begins “First they came for the communists …” [Bunting’s] story follows that allegory, using different animals of the forest.
What would you say to parents who worry that these works are too distressing for their children to confront?
PR: Well, we want to make sure that things are relatively grade-level appropriate, for obvious reasons, especially with younger kids. But as far as people saying, “Oh, my kid in high school or eighth grade shouldn’t be learning ‘Maus’ or ‘Night’ because it’s too dark and too difficult” — that’s absurd when you think about it. Think about history: History itself is so loaded with so much good but also so much awfulness, and as an educator, we need to provide balance. There are going to be so many horrible, terrible things that shed light on a significant part of human nature, but hopefully the teacher or the parent is there to help add nuance so the child can see the good, too. People look at the Holocaust and say “Oh my God, it’s so dark and bleak and awful,” and yes, to all that. However there were an awful lot of people who did a lot of really great things, too: People who dared to challenge. People who dared to save or protect or hide Jewish people. People who stood up against Nazis. People who shared a morsel of bread with someone when they had nothing. Sacrifice, love, compassion under times of duress in history — learning about this helps inform how we face the world, how we hope others will treat one another: “How will I, in light of this knowledge, stand up against injustice?” These lessons are universal. Once kids learn these things on such deep levels they’re able to easily connect them — they immediately see how it pertains to the treatment of African Americans, the treatment of Native Americans, the treatment of Asian Americans.
PR: That book has been embedded in so many Holocaust curricula, and it is filled with historical inaccuracies. Students who read that particular book come away with so many misconceptions — for example, during the Holocaust there were 6 million Jews who were killed, but there were also so many other victim groups; the disabled, the Roma, so many others. Yet what happens when someone reads “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is that students seem to most empathize with and be outraged by the death of the Nazi commandant’s son. All death is tragic, but in that case, the empathy is being placed not toward any of the actual victim groups, but rather toward the son of the Nazi officer. For purposes of teaching lessons of the Holocaust, you want to focus on something that is historically accurate.
Much has been said about the importance of introducing kids to work by those who experienced the atrocity firsthand — Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Art Spiegelman. But what are your thoughts about approaching work about the Holocaust that is written by non-survivors or by non-Jewish authors — books like “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, for instance?
PR: Just because something is written by a historian or it’s a memoir, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be appropriate for a particular age or grade level, and it doesn’t mean it’s any good. If it’s not well written, if it doesn’t have pace, if it doesn’t have figurative language and dialogue, movement in the story, plot — if it doesn’t have those things, kids are going to be bored. It needs to be something that grips them. Obviously the preference and the priority should be on first-person accounts, and sometimes you can hit the jackpot, like Elie Wiesel’s memoir is unbelievably striking and stirring. But a teacher or a parent has to make choices, and that shouldn’t be just about who wrote it, but rather just making sure that a) it’s historically accurate and b) that it’s a well-crafted story appropriate for the age of the reader.
GS: If the content is historically accurate, if it doesn’t overly romanticize the history, if it relies on historical context, if it supports various perspectives on the Holocaust — that’s a rubric we apply to all works, across genres and authors.
What can parents do to prepare themselves for some of the more difficult questions their children might ask — about the capacity of humans to hate in this way, and for that hatred to manifest as such horrific acts of violence?
GS: You have to really think about how to help young people see the complexity of it — that there is no simple answer. There is no one clear-cut way that it happened. It happened differently at different times and in different places. Learning about the Holocaust presents opportunities to think about some fundamental, enduring questions, questions about human nature, questions about progress, and the way communities respond to crises — but it also provides an opportunity to look at the idea that individuals have a lot more power than they may realize. It creates a lot of opportunity to talk about the importance of thinking about your own choices, and how history can inform those choices. And those are really valuable conversations.
PR: I guarantee you, having done this myself, kids are going to ask a million questions: “What? How could this happen? Who are the Jews? Why didn’t the Jews just leave? What was America’s role during this war?” Most people would not be able to successfully have answers that are going to be tight and taut in response to those questions. It’s impossible for a parent — it’s often impossible even for good, seasoned educators — to have answers to all these questions. The same is true to learning about the slave trade, about Jim Crow laws. So what we do is we make sure that we are humble, and modest, and we don’t pretend to have all the answers, but rather we’re inviting them in so that we can embark with them and learn together. Those questions become new learning experiences — through inquiry, through discovery, we can talk about these things together, and then they resonate. Why do people hate so much? Well, let’s learn what antisemitism is, let’s learn how long Jews were in Europe, why they were being persecuted. As with any epoch in history, these topics are layered and nuanced, and we can’t have all the answers, but we can be open. We can show kids that their thoughts and their curiosity ought to be fostered and cherished and encouraged.