Published originally in Newsweek.[New York, NY – January 27th, 2022] Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel depicting Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, has condemned the actions of a Tennessee school board who decided to ban the book due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity. Spiegelman called the ban “a harbinger of things to come.”
The graphic novel—which was serialized from 1980 to 1991—tells the story of the cartoonist who was born in 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War. He is speaking to his father, a Polish Jew, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. The graphic novel famously portrays Jews as mice and Germans as cats.
Spiegelman made the comments in a CNN interview on Thursday, January 27, which is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust saw the state-sponsored genocide by the Nazis of 6 million Jews across German-occupied Europe.
The Jan. 10 vote by the McMinn County School Board, which only garnered widespread attention on Wednesday, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The board voted 10-0 to ban Maus from all of its schools, citing the book’s inclusion of words like “God damn” and “naked pictures” of women, The Guardian reported. The controversial vote comes against the backdrop of multiple battles in school systems across the U.S. as Republicans crackdown on curriculums over teachings about the history of slavery and racism in America.
Tennessee is a ruby-red state and has been won by every Republican presidential nominee since 2000.
Reacting to the ban, Spiegelman told CNN Thursday that the move by the school board has “the breath of autocracy and fascism” about it.
When the CNN news anchor said the move by the Tennessee school board might imply that many people don’t see the Holocaust for what it is these days, the cartoonist and author said: “I think of it as a harbinger of things to come.”
“That’s disturbing, that’s terrifying, which makes it more the more troubling if you don’t want to teach it and don’t want to use the tools available to discuss it,” the CNN anchor said.
Spiegelman added: “I’ve moved past total bafflement to trying to be tolerant of people who may possibly not be Nazis, maybe? Because having read the transcript of the school board meeting; the problem is bigger and stupider than that.
“They really genuinely focused, reading this 20-minute document—they totally focused on some bad words that are in the book. Like ‘damn it I can’t believe’ that the word ‘damn’ would get the book jettisoned out of school on its own, but that’s where the genuine focus seemed to be.”
Spiegelman added that the “nudity” cited by the school was a small image of his mother after she slashed her wrists in a bathtub.
“So it [the nude drawing] is seen from overhead and you can see it’s a tiny image so would really have to want to get your sexual kicks by projecting on it, it seems like a crazy place to get them,” Spiegelman said.
“I think they are so myopic in their focus, and they’re so afraid of what implied and having to defend the decision to teach Maus as part of the curriculum it led to this deafly, myopic response,” he added.
Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress, accused the McMinn County School Board of “whitewashing” the Holocaust.
“We have two problems it seems when it comes to understanding the Holocaust. One, the murder of 6 million Jews is demeaned by the many who invoke the Holocaust or use Nazi symbolism to serve their political agendas. A number of Republicans are guilty of this, but so are Democrats including Robert F. Kennedy this week,” Rosen told Newsweek.
Rosen was referencing Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine activist, and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, who apologized on Tuesday for comments at a Washington rally suggesting things are worse for people in 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic than they were for Anne Frank, a teen who died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Rosen added: “Then there’s the whitewashing the Holocaust, as this Tennessee school board has done in banning a beloved graphic novel that has served as an educational tool for decades. Both are forms of Holocaust denial.”
The U.S. Holocaust Museum on Twitter released a statement about Maus.
The museum wrote: “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. On the eve of International #HolocaustRemembranceDay, it is more important than ever for students to learn this history.
“Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today. “
The museum then directed those who are looking to teach about the Holocaust to its site, which has lesson plans and resources.
Newsweek has contacted the McMinn County School Board for comment.