“There is nothing beautiful about the Holocaust, and for me it was a great way to portray a horrific time in history,” said school board member and former history teacher Julie Goodin. , at a January meeting of the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee. “It’s hard for this generation, these kids don’t even know [about] 9/11, they weren’t even born. For me, it was his way of getting the message across.
His words came to naught, and the school board voted unanimously to remove Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from their eighth-grade language arts curriculum. Some school board members cited nudity, violence, and foul language, but many were immediately skeptical of the board’s reasons for implementing the ban.
“Maus” is just the latest high-profile victim of a wave of book bans in public schools and libraries across the country, and evidence of a disturbing national trend to suppress honest telling of stories. marginalized in favor of comfortable stories.
The desire for sweetened retellings of history is not new, nor unique to this school board. In the field of Holocaust education, this trend could be seen as “pajamamification”: a preference for a kind of fiction best embodied in John Boyne’s 2006 novel “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.”
Boyne’s novel, about a young German boy who befriends a young Jewish prisoner on the other side of the fence, has been widely criticized by a number of scholars and sources, including Auschwitz-Birkenau National Museum, for being a particularly implausible work of fiction. Critics say the book perpetuates a number of blatantly misconceptions about German civilian ignorance of the Holocaust, the passivity of Jewish victims and the pervasive nature of anti-Semitism in Europe. Nevertheless, this book and similar books are continually used to teach about the Holocaust because, whatever their intent, these accounts do not serve to challenge or educate readers, but to comfort them. (The author had responded to criticism by defending his work.)
The main characteristics of pajamification are: first, to shift the focus from the disadvantaged to the privileged; second, the emphasis on the innocence of the characters; third, to downplay the specificity of the event and instead make it a kind of universal moral tale; fourth, omitting details and referring to violent and disturbing events only indirectly and abstractly; and fifth, replacing non-fictional first-person narratives with fiction.
The Holocaust isn’t the only historical event that suffers from pajamafication. At various times and places, it can be historical novels that reduce slavery to daring escapes from the Underground Railroad, from Christopher Columbus to an adventurous explorer, or from Martin Luther King, Jr. to a guy who just wanted let everyone get along. In all of these cases, the effect is the same: to present a picture of history that is safe and reassuring for students and to prevent them from having uncomfortable feelings about these events – especially, for white students, the role of their ancestors in these events.
Much of the criticism that is raised against Kill a mockingbirdfor example, stems from precisely these factors: reframing Jim Crow through the lens of a white character and turning it into a nostalgic childhood story.