Literature and the Holocaust: Investigating the Value of a Literary Holocaust Education

By Jessie Cartoon

Arts & Science 3X03: Individual Study


The Holocaust is one of the most researched and documented genocides in history, yet it remains an inconceivable tragedy. The mass killings, inhumane conditions, and sheer hatred that the European Jews faced during World War II are challenging to comprehend. History textbooks and documentaries inform audiences and readers about the facts and statistics of the genocide, but these media often lack a focus on human experience and struggle that can be provided through artistic forms. In contrast to history textbooks, literature allows readers to dive into the psyche of those persecuted. It adheres to the historical events, while permitting artistic exploration of personal narratives. Literature also creates a space where the unspeakable experiences and dehumanization that occurred during the Holocaust can be spoken, shared, and contended with. The literary reading process generates an inquiry-based education on the Shoah by fostering a dialogue between the reader and the narrative. Holocaust literature is sustained by survivors’ stories of resilience. Often, these tales of resilience do not have traditionally happy endings, nor do they import idealistic worldviews on the reader. These works illuminate how people must live with their past suffering and creatively navigate unthinkable, unspeakable challenges. Most importantly, these stories can be a tool for education; they can transmit the testimonies of survivors in the hopes of inspiring resilience in others. Through an exploration of the artistic forms and historical elements of selected works of Holocaust literature, I will demonstrate that literature is a valuable tool for Holocaust education and has merit as an integral part of school curricula.

Holocaust literature’s verisimilitude is a vital component of the genre. In fact, much of Holocaust literature takes the form of a memoir or diary. A memoir is a mostly un-embellished, often first-person account of a personal story. The categorization of a work as a memoir implies that the account has truth value. Unlike other forms of literature, memoirs ensure that the reader considers an account to be anchored in truth. Memoirs are valuable for Holocaust education, for their narratives are rooted in historical reality. Elie Wiesel’s Night (1956) details his father’s experience in concentration camps during the war. While the book remains grounded in historical truth, it enables readers to grasp the dehumanization and hopelessness that victims experienced throughout the war. As an educational text, the story illuminates the extent of the atrocity. While textbooks inform readers that two thirds of European Jews perished during the Holocaust (Landeau 169), Wiesel’s Night educates readers to the fact that prisoners often yearned for death as a better alternative to “slow agony in the flames” (42). In fact, every night, prisoners would recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that magnifies and blesses the name of a deceased person, “over his parents, over his children, over his brothers, and over himself” (74). The fact that the Kaddish—a holy and significant Jewish prayer—was recited over oneself is a particularly jarring and telling piece of information about the experiences of Jews in concentration camps: “in the long history of the Jews, people have never recited the prayer for the dead for themselves” (42). Through Elie’s testimony, the reader is able to grasp the Jews’ hopelessness, for they welcomed death and abandoned their will to live. A memoir provides readers with an explicit learning experience. It clarifies that the account is grounded in truth while delivering a personal narrative that centres on human suffering.

Like Wiesel’s Night, Imre Kertész’ Fatelessness (1975) provides a personal narrative of the Holocaust. In contrast, Kertész urges readers to study his testimony as truth, communicated through his repetitive and formulaic sentence structure and removal of internal thoughts. For instance, Kertész meticulously recollects the ‘Selections’ at Auschwitz: “All this, the whole business, must have taken up roughly around three or four minutes, if I wish to be strictly accurate” (95). He removes his personal feelings on the “whole business,” while focusing on the fact and accuracy of the matter. Kertész’ memoir could be likened to a textbook. He continually highlights the accuracy of his testimony and dispenses it with dry statistics, but it is anchored in detail that is not commonly known or studied. Although he removes his personal thoughts from his memoir, he cannot escape dwelling on his most troubling and important memories, observed through his communication of specific and sometimes minor details:

“The three of them always go about together, whenever possible, hand in hand. But then, after a while, I noticed that the father kept falling behind, and the two sons had to help him, tugging him along with them by the hand. After yet another while, the father was no longer between them. Soon after that, the bigger one had to tow the smaller one in the same manner. Later still he too vanished, with the bigger one merely dragging himself along, though recently I have not seen even him around anywhere” (153).

Here Kertész narrates the deconstruction of the family unit in the Lagers—a detail that is not thoroughly studied in textbooks. Further, from the beginning of the book, Kertész narrates his special bond with his father. Through this lengthy passage on the destruction of the family unit, readers can comprehend Kertész’s sense of loss about his father, who had perished during the Holocaust. He need not contribute immediate personal details of his experiences to convey his longing for his father in this passage. Moreover, Fatelessness merges elements of memoir and diary. While aligned with a memoir insofar as the text is written in past-tense and first person, Kertész’ experiences feel new and re-lived. Through jumping between tenses, Kertész exemplifies how his experiences have and will continue to linger in his memory: “I would only be able to start a new life, I ventured, if I were to be reborn or if some affliction, disease, or something of the sort were to affect my mind” (256). Kertész communicates that he does not have the luxury of moving on from the atrocities; he must continue to live in a world where such an atrocity could have happened, and he must carry his past memories with him forever. Through Kertész’ testimony, the tragedy is demystified as an isolated incident remote from today’s world. Through the diary– and memoir-like aspects of the text, Kertész brings readers into the past by reviving his memories and reminding them that the Holocaust is not a closed chapter in history. Thus, memoirs are a useful educational tool in showcasing personal, living accounts of the Shoah.

A traditional diary contrasts with a memoir because the prospective lens permits the diarist to include minor details that might otherwise have been rendered irrelevant or discounted. Diaries also allow readers to follow the diarist’s thought-process. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition was published in 1996, over 50 years after Anne Frank wrote her diary. Unlike a traditional memoir, this version of Diary is full-length, unfiltered, and fixates on minor details of her life, such as her favorite meals, activities in hiding, and her longing for love. From Anne’s perspective, readers must grapple with Anne’s hopes for the future which tragically never came to fruition, for she perished in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 at the age of 15. For instance, Anne states, “In the future I’m going to devote less time to sentimentality and more time to reality” (30). Anne is a well-articulated and educated young woman with large aspirations, and readers are forced to contend with the reality that her future was never realized. Like a memoir, a diary illuminates the truth value of the text. For instance, although Anne comments about enhancing her text and writing style, Diary is often considered non-fiction, for it details Anne’s life and situation. As a piece of literature, though, Diary reveals a thoughtful writing style. It is valuable as a piece of artistic, historical, and intellectual writing, exemplified when Anne paints a picture of her longing for and deprivation of humanity: “I long… to cry! I feel as if I were about to explode. I know crying would help, but I can’t cry” (181). Anne yearns to cry—a simple yet defining human act. Anne’s desire to be a free and educated woman is communicated in her Diary, and her frustration, often released on her family, is expressed through her words. Anne’s Diary ends abruptly after she expresses her concern that the Annex will be raided. Anne’s Diary thus leaves readers feeling hopeless in relation to the young life that was lost. The Diary of a Young Girl is a useful educational tool to expose readers to the reality of the Holocaust for many educated and hopeful youth like Anne. Like the other texts discussed, Anne’s Diary illustrates that Anne or any of the children that were murdered during the Shoah were not mere statistics—each had a worthy and rich life with a detailed, personal story.

An aspect of Holocaust literature characteristic to memoirs is the maintenance of a truth-value. Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1980) and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1992) are graphic novels that resemble an untraditional memoir. These novels document Art’s father’s narrative before, during, and after the war. The text’s self-reflective nature is exemplified in the plot: it depicts Art’s interviews with his father, Vladek, about his Holocaust experiences to gather material for his graphic novel, Maus. The novel portrays Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Before the Holocaust, animal comics were used as antisemitic propaganda targeting Jews (Klaehn 61-81). Art uses the trope of funny cartoon animals to illustrate the perverted relationship between Jews and antisemitic propaganda during the Holocaust. Although the novel has light-hearted moments, such as Art and Vladek’s constant bickering, it does not feature the funny aspects of cartoon animals, and rather utilizes the stereotypical relationship between cat and mouse to exemplify the powerlessness of the Jews and predatory nature of the Nazis. In fact, during painful and traumatizing memories, the mice are shaded black to reflect the ominous nature of the Nazis’ crimes (Maus I 87). Cartoon animals are also utilized to communicate the incomprehensible tragedy of the Holocaust in a comprehensible way. For instance, readers can understand that when Vladek, portrayed as a mouse, is shielded with a pig mask, he is hiding his Jewish identity in order to survive. This example also shows how Art’s portrayal of races as animals is precarious. During the war, Vladek considered himself as both a Pole and a Jew, so the animal distinction between races and ethnicities is not necessarily definitive. The animal illustrations do not, however, suggest that the Nazis were acting like animals or the Jews were treated like animals (Wilson). Both of these deceptive and simplified narratives would suggest that animals have the ability to treat other animals as the Nazis treated the Jews, and that humans treat animals the way the Jews were treated by the Nazis. Ironically, the novels highlight that humans are capable of such crimes and humans were the victims of such crimes. For instance, in Maus II, Vladek exhibits casual racism toward an African American man, highlighting that despite his traumas, Vladek is a troubled and imperfect human being (99). In another instance, Vladek observes an SS guard at Auschwitz throw a Jewish man’s cap and force him to run after it. Subsequently, the guard shoots the man for trying to escape. Vladek offers Art an explanation for such monstrous behavior: the guard wanted to prevent someone from escaping in return for an extra day’s vacation (Maus II 35). Both these examples demystify the tragedy, for they demonstrate that the Holocaust was a human-caused and effected crime. The perpetrators were not inherently evil, animalistic people, which is ironically communicated through the animal illustrations. However, the narrative does not, excuse or justify the monstrous acts carried out by the SS officers; rather, the narrative showcases that human beings are capable of unthinkable acts of violence. This message is particularly useful in Holocaust education because it demystifies the Holocaust as an isolated, singular incident.

Holocaust literature also makes educational processes present-focused by reviving individual experiences of the Holocaust. Through artistic exploration of personal narratives and human struggle, poetry has the ability to communicate such themes in a revived and relevant manner. Dan Pagis’ “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car” (1981) takes readers into a moment’s monument—a Jewish person being transported in a cattle car to a concentration camp:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

From the title, readers feel a sense of desperation and impermanence. The speaker is in a sealed, inescapable car, and their testimony is written in pencil—an erasable form of communication. The title evokes the policy of the Final Solution, the complete elimination and erasure of the Jewish people. This theme is further communicated throughout the poem, which culminates in the line, “tell him that I” (6). The unfinished final sentence demonstrates that the rest of the speaker’s story was erased, either because of the pencil’s impermanence or because of their inability to finish the sentence. It remains important to study the policy of the Final Solution, which is taught in traditional historical education; however, by using artistic expression to communicate the Final Solution and focusing on one individual, readers are able to understand and imagine how each person may have been affected by the Holocaust and the Final Solution. This poem urges readers to transmit testimony in order to prevent memories from being erased or forgotten. Additionally, by illustrating the perpetrators and victims as human beings, this poem serves to demystify the Holocaust as an isolated incident. For example, the poem contains an explicit biblical parallel to the story of Cain and Abel, wherein Cain murders his brother Abel. Cain and Abel are representative of an Aryan and Jewish person respectively, for Abel is described as being the railway-car with Eve while Cain is not in captivity. These men are brothers, challenging Nazi propaganda that there is an inherent difference between an Aryan and a Jew. Additionally, Pagis emphasizes that Cain is the “son of man” (5), placing the responsibility for the crimes on man rather than a monstrous perpetrator. By reinforcing human beings as both perpetrators and the victims of the Holocaust, the poem communicates the importance of studying the Holocaust while simultaneously demystifying it as an unimaginable event that could never reoccur. As is evident in Pagis’ poem, poetry has merit as part of Holocaust education because of its ability to speak to historical events, artistically illustrate human struggle, and focus on individual narratives.

Theatre plunges the audience into interpersonal relationships and human struggles, and thus, it is another form of Holocaust literature that can be a valuable educational device. In particular, documentary theatre places audiences in an active role and implicates the interconnectedness of events. Peter Weiss’ The Investigation (1965) is a piece of documentary theatre, which is structured as a trial of SS officers. Although there is no specific reference to a historical concentration camp, the play delves into the selections, punishment, torture, executions, gas chambers, and crematoria that align with historical accounts of Auschwitz. Modelled after Dante’s Divine Comedy, the play begins on the platforms of the camp and culminates in one of the darkest elements of the Shoah—the crematoria. Like Dante’s witness of the she-wolf at the start of Inferno, near the beginning of the play, 3rd Witness expresses that upon seeing the “hundreds of ragged figures, many of them starved down to skeletons… [we] lost all hope” (43). As an educational tool, the play highlights bystanders’ lack of questioning in occupied Europe, and thus places the blame on them as well as active perpetrators (Wilson). The relentless questioning of the witnesses by the defense urges the audience to consider the lack of questioning about the dehumanization and segregation of the Jews before and during the war. In particular, the play concentrates on victim blaming. For instance, after 9th Witness discloses that the victims were forced to perform some of the early killings, the defense responds, “So the prisoners were killed by their own people?” (226). Even after the Holocaust, victims were blamed for crimes they were forced to commit. The witnesses continue to be accused of falsifying their experiences, contributing to the crimes, and exaggerating their memories throughout the play with little protest by the Judge and Prosecutor. The play ends with 1st Accused stating, “We ought to concern ourselves with other things than blame and reproaches that should be thought of long since atoned for” (313). The form of the play exposes the audience to the lack of sympathy towards the victims and the denial of facts, arousing a sense of frustration in the audience and compelling them to transmit the testimony of the Holocaust. Documentary theatre is a useful tool for Holocaust education because it provides the audience with an immersive experience that places the audience in an active role throughout the performance and urges them to continue their education and educate others.

For the purposes of education, it is important to abide by historical facts about the Holocaust with accuracy. Although literature encapsulates fictional accounts, there is value in investigating how Holocaust literature works to educate readers on particular historical elements of the Holocaust. Ka-Tzetnik 135633’s House of Dolls (1953) is a useful educational tool about the Lager system, and in particular, prisoner privilege within the camps. For instance, Harry becomes the camp physician at Niederwalden because of his background studying medicine. As the physician, Harry receives extra rations, exemption from hard labour, and the occasional cigarette. Nonetheless, even the physician “doesn’t belong to himself” (225), for he is a racial prisoner like the other Jews. Daniella, as a member of the Joy Division in the camp brothel, is exempt from hard labour and is given larger rations. However, she must attend weekly invasive medical examinations and if she receives three dissatisfied “reports” from guards, she would be “led out, usually with an arrival of a new transport, to the execution square” (174). Similarly, Fella, one of the previous Joy Division labourers, negotiates a position as the Kalefactress’ maid, which spares her from hard labour, small rations, beatings, and rape. Being vital to the operation of the camps, Harry, Fella, and Daniella receive special treatment, aligning with historical narratives of privilege within the camps.

Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” (1946) illuminates a historically accurate phenomenon that occurred within the camps: the Nazi’s maintenance of the illusion that there were no mass killings, even for those led to their death. The narrator, whose job is to facilitate leading people off the trains and into the gas chambers, states, “They do not know that in just a few moments they will die, that the gold, money, and diamonds which they have so prudently hidden in their clothing and on their bodies are now useless to them” (14). In fact, the SS prioritize keeping the victims unaware of their fate to minimize resistance: “Now we swiftly clean up the remaining dirt: there must be ‘no trace left of the Schweinerei’” (10). By removing all evidence from the platforms, the next victims could be swiftly ushered to their death. In another instance, a wounded and inquisitive elderly man is met with a soldier’s deceiving response: “In half an hour you'll be talking with the top commandant! Only don't forget to greet him with a Heil Hitler” (12). Historically, the Nazis were known for trying to deceive their victims. For instance, a sign stating “Arbeit Macht Frei,” translating to “Work Sets You Free,” was placed outside the main gate of Auschwitz, which contained the largest extermination camp. Further, outside the gas chambers, there were signs in several languages instructing people to prepare for a shower; inside the gas chambers, there were false shower heads on the walls (Schulz and Soumerei 184). Borowski’s story aligns with the historical record that the victims were deceived regarding their systematic execution, which provides a vital educational element to the story.

Another closely documented historical element of the Holocaust is the victims’ starvation. Primo Levi’s “Cerium” (1975) clarifies that hunger was the primary factor that led to mass cooperation of prisoners with their oppressors. Levi describes his hunger as “a need, a lack, a yearning that had accompanied us now for a year, had struck deep, permanent roots in us, lived in our cells, and conditioned our behavior” (140). Levi’s account of the hunger he experienced, which conditioned his behaviour, helps explain why victims continued to work for their oppressors. Privileged positions in the camps often came with the promise of more rations; prisoners took on these positions in an attempt to satisfy their persistent hunger. In fact, Levi documents that while he was a chemist at IG-Farben during the Holocaust, he “forced himself to ingest and digest” (145) fatty acids, sanitary cotton, and glycerin, all of which had “extremely unpleasant side effects” (145). Through Levi’s explanation of the hunger that he experienced at Monowitz, readers are able to grasp how the prisoners’ actions were shaped by their hunger and survival instincts, and how their hunger prevented regular resistance or escape.

Lager and ghetto life are thoroughly researched and discussed in historical texts. However, there is less research and commentary on non-traditional narratives, like the experiences of individuals in hiding. Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965) focuses on a young, Jewish boy hiding in the Polish countryside during the Holocaust. The boy experiences torture, sexual assault, forced labour, and is deemed a “Gypsy-Jew” (181) by the Polish villagers. The book highlights the extreme difficulty faced by Jews in hiding during the war. Although the Polish people were also persecuted by the Nazis, they willingly turned in hidden Jews because of antisemitic tropes, such as the Jews “mercilessly [kill] Christian babies and [drink] their blood” (181). The book not only displays the experiences of Jews in hiding, but also educates readers about the mental, physical, and emotional struggles of children during the Holocaust. For instance, the book emphasizes the boy’s initial child-like innocence in the face of discrimination and torture. The novel contains a short, third-person introduction, followed by the boy’s first-person narration for the duration of the text. By framing the book with a structure parallel to that of a fairy tale, the boy’s innocence is communicated to the reader. As the boy’s struggles escalate, his child-like innocence continues to guide his narration, observed when the boy ponders the difference between himself and the villagers: “I wondered what gave people of one color of eyes and hair such great power over other people” (172). The adults around the boy regard him as sub-human, while he observes that his eye and hair colour are their only differences, illuminating the cruelty of the genocide. Ironically, the only characters to show the boy sympathy or kindness are two Nazi guards, who do not send him to a concentration camp and aid him in escaping a German base. Perhaps most notably, the novel holds bystanders accountable as complicit in the genocide. For instance, in one of the Polish towns where the boy hides, he sees cattle cars shipping several hundred people to a concentration camp. Children are thrown out of the windows in an attempt to spare their lives, but the villagers abduct, rape, kill, and turn in the children. Through the experiences of people on the cattle car—a small detail during the Holocaust and an underexamined historical accuracy—this novel successfully implicates the villagers as bystanders and complicit in the crimes.

As the subject of historical fiction, Holocaust literature has a responsibility to communicate truthfully about historical realities experienced during the Shoah. Misleading, unverified, and false information in Holocaust literature can be dangerous, for it opposes Holocaust literature’s purpose as an educational tool. Despite the success of Heather Morris’ wildly popular novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), it is riddled with historical inaccuracies. The Tattooist of Auschwitz centres Lale Sokolov’s inspiring true story of his resilience during his imprisonment at Auschwitz. Wanda Witek-Malicka’s article, “Fact-Checking The Tattooist of Auschwitz” (2018), uncovers some of the inaccuracies of the novel. For instance, she points to the section in the book where Lale observes people being murdered in busses with Zyklon B. Although moveable gas chambers were used in some concentration camps, “the murder of prisoners in a bus allegedly changed to a gas chamber does not find confirmation in any sources” (Witek-Malicka 9). In addition, Morris embellishes and romanticizes Lale’s story. For instance, when Gita responds “I do” to Lale’s inquiry if she trusts him, he responds, “One day you will say those two little words to me under different circumstances. In front of a rabbi, surrounded by our family and friends” (196). As a religious Slovakian Jew, Lale would not have made this reference nor expected Gita to understand it, because exchanging “I do’s” is not a part of the Jewish wedding ritual. Despite the book’s historical inaccuracies and embellished narrative, the novel presents itself as a historical document—devoid of human struggle and regard for personal narratives. The book treats Lale’s story as a series of events, reducing his inner thoughts to clichéd remarks. For instance, instead of describing what it felt like to care of oneself in Auschwitz, a line reads, “Lale prided himself on his appearance, and his living situation did not prevent him from looking his best” (185). This quotation is an obvious, simplified remark about the living conditions at Auschwitz that can be deduced from a history textbook. It does not venture to describe how Lale felt about struggling to upkeep his personal hygiene as a desperate attempt to grasp onto his humanity. The story is heavily based on Lale’s remarkable story as the tattooist in Auschwitz. As an educational resource, however, the novel consistently falls short of communicating the historical realities of Auschwitz and Lale’s internal narrative.

While Holocaust literature highlights historical elements, including the Lager system, covering up the mass killings, the hunger-driven conditioned behaviour, and narratives of people in hiding, it also provides a platform to meaningfully communicate personal narratives, which demystifies the tragedy as an isolated incident, educates readers on the historical realities of the Holocaust, and places responsibility on readers to resist indifference. However, it is the responsibility of the educator to ensure that the literature taught is historically valid. It is important to be cautious of Holocaust literature such as Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which do not fulfill this educational role to accurately portray the historical realities nor dive into crucial personal narratives of the Shoah. Nevertheless, none of this literature is indifferent to the genocide, for it brings readers into a dialogue with narratives of the Holocaust. A literary education stimulates and even begs readers to continue investigating the Holocaust because the educational experience invites them into personal narratives, preventing the learning experience from ending in the classroom. By engaging with Holocaust literature, readers enter into positions of care with the narrative (Wilson), and thus, the educational experience can serve as a jarring awakening that compels readers to contend with and further investigate the Shoah.


Works Cited

Borowski, Tadusz. “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” This Way for the Gas, Ladies

and Gentlemen. Viking Press, 1967.

Frank, Anne. Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Anchor Books, 1996.

Ka-Tzetnik 135633. House of Dolls. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Kertész, Imre. Fatelessness. Translated by Tim Wilkinson, Vintage, 2006.

Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Landeau, Ronnie S. The Nazi Holocaust: Its History and Meaning. I.B. Tauris, 1997.

Levi, Primo. “Cerium.” The Periodic Table. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Schocken

Books, 1984.

Morris, Heather. The Tattooist of Auschwitz. HarperCollins, 2018.

Pagis, Dan. “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car.” Points of Departure. The Jewish

Publication Society, 1981.

Klaehn, Jeffery. “I Gave it All Up to Draw Comics: Autobiographical (And Other) Tales About

Creating Comic Books.” Inside the World of Comic Books. Rose Black Books, 2007.

Soumerai, Eve N, and Carol D. Schulz. Daily Life During the Holocaust. Greenwood Press,

2009.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. Pantheon Books, 1980.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books,

1992.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 2006.

Wiess, Peter. The Investigation. Marion, 1965.

Wilson, Jean. 3X03 Discussions. ARTSSCI 3X03, 8 May 2019, 29 May 2019, and 12 June 2019,

McMaster University. Lecture.

Witek-Malicka, Wanda. “Fact-Checking The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” Memoria, Nov. 2018, pp.

5–15.

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