[Note: This story took place many years ago.] Passing a freight yard on our first family trip by train, Gabriel, aged seven, is struck by a funny thought: people traveling in freight cars. I don’t tell him that Jews, his very own great-great aunts and uncles, were shipped to concentration camps in freight trains. Fudging the issue, I agree it would be odd, never hinting that it happened. I wonder when I will break his innocence.
It seems something like sex, this question of history. I elect to wait until he asks me something about it.
Some weeks after that train ride, I find Art Spiegelman’s book Maus at the library and bring it home. Spiegelman’s artistry is not lost on my son. He grabs it eagerly and begins to read.
Not ten panels into the book, Spiegelman has raised the issue of French anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair, the Nazi collaborationists. Gabe skips those hard words, and I offer no explanation. After dinner, he urges me to read Maus to him—I’m so much faster a reader. “It’s a very sad story,” I warn him, “it’s awful.”
The beginning is bucolic, funny. Spiegelman’s father Vladek is so cheap is rations wooden matches, but leaves the gas burner on all day, because someone else pays for it. He has the dogged, powerful self-interest of the survivor. His scrimping old man ways are laughable. Soon, however, the story shifts back to Poland, 1944, to Vladek’s capture and arrival at Auschwitz.
“Does this frighten you?” I ask Gabe.
“No. Keep reading.”
The cartoon figures are naked now, with the face of mice and the bodies of men, and the camp guards, German cats and Polish pigs, are yelling the mice, who shiver, barefoot and shirtless, in the snow.
“Is this going to give you nightmares?”
I read on. Spiegelman’s gritty black and white cartoons now include smokestacks which Vladek grimly acknowledges.
I ask, “Do you know that this is about?” We have only recently, the past Veteran’s Day, discussed the two world wars. I have probably even mentioned Hitler as the ruler of Germany, but have never spoken of his treatment of the Jews.
“Yes,” Gabe says. “The Germans killed the Jews.” He is matter of fact.
It is like sex, revealed to him some years ago by an older girl. Someone else has already told him about this history. Colin, a nine-year-old neighbor child whose favorite games involve lining the younger children up in order to shout orders and blow his whistle at them, has broken to Gabe the truth that seemed too dangerous for me to tell him.
Gabe has wept for hours about the injustice of Colin’s grandmother putting an inconvenient cat to sleep, and he has, as a younger boy, poured cup after cup of water down an anthill for the sheer thrill of the pandemonium it creates, but he has just begun, barely, to put the two together, the pity of an individual’s death and wholesale, unthinkable terror of mass murder.
He is too young to know he has lost his innocence about history. No longer a technical virgin in the human story, he has still has plenty more to learn. A more serious parent than I could start in: Hiroshima. Stalin. Pol Pot. Where would they end?
Some days after our reading of Maus, I hear him ordering his younger brother around in the language of a camp guard.
I keep writing history as though somehow this may be a story that goes somewhere, that shows some progress.
I wanted, like mothers before me, to protect my child from something unpleasant, in this case, one particular nightmare of twentieth century history. But history, like sex, will break through.