Holocaust Novel Banned in Tennessee: The Deligitimazation of Jewish Pain

By: Rina Shamilov  |  February 13, 2022

By Rina Shamilov, News Editor 

On January 26, 2022, the Tennessee school board banned Maus, a graphic novel that details the lives of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. It was reportedly banned for expressing “nudity and profanity,” though I think these categorizations are mere platitudes that delegitimize the Holocaust.

I heard about this for the first time in my American Jewish Literature class, where the course objective is to better understand the trials and tribulations of immigrant Jews at the turn of the 21st century. Much of what we will be exploring in this course will relate to the Holocaust because the Holocaust illuminates a detailed and poignant tale of what Jews endured throughout history. Even more terrifying is that the Holocaust bears a constant reminder to the fact that Jews will never truly be safe, despite living in modern times. 

Maus, for its retelling of the Holocaust in a relatable and universal way, has a vital role in the American educational system when providing non-Jewish children (many of whom are the same age Spiegelman was when he experienced the Holocaust) with a flavor of what others went through. Maus grapples with complex themes like abuse and suicide, but it maintains an almost childlike frailty by superimposing mice with human beings.

But banning this novel is not a stand-alone action, rather, it seems to be concomitant with Holocaust denial. According to the Anti-Defamation League, only 33% of the world is aware of the Holocaust and believes that it’s been accurately described through history. 

The main point of contention seemed to be about the nude portrayal of Polish women, which, in my opinion, comes across as absolutely ludicrous because the characters in question are mice! Likewise, there appeared to be a concern about vulgarity, though there were only eight swear words. A book that is commonly accepted in American public schools is The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a historical fiction novel that details the lives of African Americans in Flint, Michigan. This book, too, contains swear words though it is not banned. So, why is a Jewish novel barred? 

Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, analogized the Tennessee ban to “Orwellianism,” and Neil Geiman tweeted that “[t]here’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.” Both prominent authors are implying that the ban is indicative of deep-rooted antisemitism that is seldom addressed in the American political arena. Jews have a target on their backs and it seems to be starting with the ban of an important piece of literature that reflects one of the most important events of their history. 

I think that this ban will only help further the erasure of Jewish pain instead of underscoring the significance of the history we want to never forget.