Banning books about the Holocaust is a dangerous step towards revising history

An education board in Tennessee has removed Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus from its syllabus because of ‘objectionable language’ and nudity – as if history was just a series of facts

Rupert Hawksley
Friday 28 January 2022 09:18 GMT
Art Spiegelman, creator of Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel ‘Maus’
Art Spiegelman, creator of Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel ‘Maus’ (AFP via Getty Images)

Stories occasionally emerge that are so odd you are wary of writing about them for fear of being duped. You read them and just think, this can’t be true. How I wish that was the case with the news that an education board in Tennessee has removed Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Story, from its curriculum because of “objectionable language” and nudity.

I would be delighted to discover that I have been fooled. But it is all there in the minutes of a meeting of the McMinn County Board of Education, which took place earlier this month, and it makes for grim reading.

The 10 board members voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel – which uses illustrations of cats and mice to depict the Holocaust – from the eighth grade curriculum, citing its “vulgar and inappropriate” content.

One board member said: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff [...] It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.”

Another added: “We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there [...] We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

It should hardly need pointing out, of course, that you can’t convey the full horror of the Holocaust by sanitising it. That is sort of the point. If you remove the graphic parts, you are not teaching, to borrow the board member’s phrase, “graphic history”; you are, in fact, revising history and that is dangerous.

Learning about the Holocaust is not supposed to be a comfortable experience. The great triumph of Maus is that it is accessible without denying reality. By making the main characters mice, Spiegelman is encouraging children’s empathy, while also giving himself the room to tell this tragic and terrible story in the most unflinching way. All of which makes the objections to nudity more preposterous. I wish I didn’t have to spell this out but we are talking here about mice; nudity is not an issue you expect to be raised.

History is not just a series of facts; in order to understand history, we need stories and emotion. You don’t comprehend the evil of the Holocaust simply by learning that six million Jews were killed, but by reflecting on the lives, the complexities, of those people. The scale of the atrocity is best conveyed by detail and that means allowing the victims to have their stories told.

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Which is why this board member’s objections to Maus are so absurd. “A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father,” he says, “so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite, instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.”

The cussing, in this case, was little more than “god damn”; and I would hazard it would scarcely register as potty-mouthed for today’s readers. Crucially, we need to understand that Holocaust victims were fully-formed, flawed humans, not just numbers. Focusing on manners, rather than the simple, brutal fact that Maus is a story of a family going through something which most of us will thankfully never experience, so wilfully misses the point it is scarcely believable.

This is not just about Maus, of course. It is about the censoring of information and it can never be tolerated. For what starts with censorship dressed up as decency can quickly become something else entirely, where a small number of people – in this instance, an education board – have the power to decide what is and isn’t acceptable. What we learn should not be constrained by the whims and sensibilities of others.

It is perhaps best to leave the final words to Art Spiegelman himself, who, when approached for comment by The Daily Beast, sent a picture of a bookmark he designed. “Keep your nose in a book,” it reads, “and keep other people’s noses out of which books you choose to stick your nose into!”

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