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'Maus' books donated to TUSD to help teach about Holocaust

Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham donated 10 copies of the graphic novel "Maus" and its sequel, about the memories of a Holocaust survivor, to local high schools last week. Cunningham knew Holocaust survivors growing up and provided the books in reaction to a recent ban of the book by a Tennessee school board.

In "Maus," a Holocaust survivor recounts his experiences to his adult son years after the end of Nazi Germany. It’s based on the real life interviews by the author Art Spiegelmen with his dad, who survived a concentration camp in Sosnowiec, Poland.

The graphic novel portrays Jews as mice and Germans as cats in its illustrations and depicts the rise of the Nazi party and later Jewish imprisonment in concentration camps. Spiegelmen won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the book, making it the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. Although the book and its sequel were published in the early 1990s, they were based on a series of short stories that Spiegelmen published throughout the '80s in the comic magazine RAW.

Cunningham, who was an 8th grade middle school social studies teacher for six years, said the book is informative and engaging for young teens. "Maus" is a responsible source of information, he said, especially compared to material on the internet, and more importantly, it’s an example of “ the kind of material that will inspire kids to go down their rabbit holes.”

“If you give kids something they find interesting, it can trigger them wanting to go and self-learn,” he said. “I think if you give a kid 'Maus' and he reads it, he’ll start looking up stuff like ‘Gestapo’ or ‘Nazis’ or ‘concentration camps’ or ‘Sosnowiec.’”

Cunningham is a “third-generation Jewish Tucsonan,” he said. He knew Holocaust survivors growing up and considers two local survivors, Walter Feiger and Meyer Neumen, as lifelong family friends who inspired with their own stories.

“I was privileged to learn from Mr. Feiger and Mr. Neuman and maybe a dozen or so other survivors I had met through temple growing up,” he said. “The biggest lesson was one that was unstated: my generation had a special responsibility to make sure no one forgets what happened.”

Feiger was sent to the same concentration camp in Sosnowiec, Poland as Spiegelmen’s father, but was imprisoned at multiple camps before being liberated by Soviet troops. He moved to Tucson in 1970 and served as the president of a Tucson survivors’ group. Until his death in 2020, Feiger used to go to Cunningham’s Ward 2 council office annually to notarize paperwork to receive reparations from the German government.

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Neumen owned an auto garage in Tucson in the 1960s and '70s. He survived the Nazis by convincing them he could fix trains, Cunningham said, which spared him from death in the gas chambers. He later learned how to sabotage the Nazi trains before being freed by the Swedish Red Cross. Neumen died in 2010.

Cunningham, who now works in TUSD as a gym teacher at Gridley Middle School, started teaching a Holocaust curriculum as a juvenile probation officer and included lessons about genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda.

The small donation Cunningham is making to TUSD with the 10 copies of Maus is a “benign gesture,” he said, but he hopes “it strikes a nerve."

"People need to remember what the Holocaust is and what all kinds of things are,” he said.

In early January, a school board in McMinn County in eastern Tennessee banned the book from their 8th grade curriculum. The board said it was because of the comic’s explicit language and (cartoon animal) nudity in some of its drawings, but it came as similar measures were taken in other states to limit discussions of race and sexuality in public school curriculum.

The Mukilteo School District in Washington state recently removed “To Kill a Mockingbird” from a 9th grade curriculum, and the Oklahoma Senate has proposed a bill that would ban books about sexual activity, sexual identity or gender identity from public school libraries.

At the same time, an ongoing discussion about "critical race theory," which is actually a graduate-level field of study in legal scholarship, has plagued school board meetings with heated accusations about how the history of racism is taught. Several state legislatures have banned or tried to ban the teaching of the CRT in schools, including Tennessee and Arizona.

Talking about the Holocaust can also lead to discussions about violence during other periods of history like the colonization of the Americas and Africa or the breakup of Yugoslavia, Cunningham said. He considers school curriculums more inclusive of diverse perspectives than they were when he was in public school in the 1980s, but more needs to be done to use those perspectives to teach kids how to be more moral and understanding people, he said.

“There’s a couple of different philosophies on what being a good person is and we’ve got to get back to talking about those things,” he said. “I did what I did (donating 'Maus') because I think it will help kids get a perspective about treating people nicer. I truly do believe that.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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