News from McMinn County Tennessee made headlines around the globe Thursday, as the world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day. There the school district voted to ban the use of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s prizewinning graphic novel depicting his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust.
Maus was a central point of discussion during much of my time completing my masters at Hebrew University, not only for the gripping depictions of the Holocaust, but also for Spiegelman’s own emotional struggle as a child of survivors. Spiegelman’s work is a very valuable resource on not only the Holocaust, but also in the field of postmemory and generational trauma, a field that is still in its early stages of development.
The McMinn County school board banned the use of Maus in the classroom, effectively derailing an entire eighth-grade module on Holocaust education. Maus was deemed objectionable due to the use of swear words and nudity (bear in mind, Spiegelman depicts the characters as anthropomorphic mice), as well as violence. One member of the board complained that it showed “people hanging, it shows them killing kids. Why does the education system promote this kind of stuff…?”
When a history teacher tried to respond to the criticism of Maus, the board member continued “I may be wrong, but this guy (Spiegelman) that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy…and we are letting him do graphics in books for students…”
Thus, Spiegelman’s historic depictions of the nudity of Holocaust victims (including his own parents), a key part of the Nazi dehumanization process, was transformed into an attempt to slip graphic sexual content of nude mice into schoolbooks. His childhood trauma was dismissed in exchange for an accusation that he may have worked for Playboy.
Reading the reasoning behind this decision is a bit infuriating, but it led me to reflect on the history of historical distortion that has long thrived in the American south and how it may impact Holocaust education.
Holocaust denial has long been the primary issue that scholars have sought to combat. However, recently there has been a shift in focus. Just last week the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Holocaust denial and distortion.
Today, the chairman of Yad Vashem was quoted as believing “…outright Holocaust denial is today a marginal phenomenon. It’s relegated to the lunatic fringes of social media. But no serious leader, influencer, journalist, or intellectual — except maybe in Iran or other parts of the Muslim world — will deny outright that the Holocaust happened… But we do have a serious problem of Holocaust distortion.”
Now, these references to “distortion” refer to recent efforts, particularly in Eastern Europe, to obscure the guilt of collaborators who assisted the Nazis. However, I believe there is another dangerous type of distortion taking place in the United State, one that makes the actions of the McMinn County School Board quite concerning.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the collective memory of the events of that war were shaped by a generation of writers and film producers who carefully crafted “the Lost Cause Myth,” a depiction of southern culture that largely obscures the horrors of slavery and the viral white supremacy that motivated the Confederate cause. This movement gained considerable ground in the 1920s when many of the statutes glorifying prominent Confederates were erected. Significantly, this movement was its strongest over 60 years after the events in question (today we mark 76 years since the end of the Holocaust). As the eyewitnesses of history aged and passed away, it opened the door for others to reframe history into a less graphic and incriminating picture, much better suited for public consumption. To this day, historians of the Civil War work to undo the distorted history that is the heritage of the Confederacy.
Although the Lost Cause Myth does not hold direct comparisons to the Holocaust, its development is a warning of how historical facts must be protected and preserved. We cannot assume they are established; there is an ongoing battle to remember. It is often said the victors write history, but it is equally true that, given time and opportunity, the losers can rewrite history.
While few Americans would deny the Holocaust happened, many do not understand it. Surveys conducted by the Claims Conference reveal a consistent pattern in the American population. A significant number (often between 40-60 percent) could not name a single concentration camp and did not know how many Jews perished.
If someone is unable to recognize basic facts related to the Holocaust, more vital questions such as why or how the Holocaust took place or what makes the Holocaust unique are also going to go unanswered.
This ignorance leads to a type of distortion, one that is concerningly gaining ground in the American public. The Holocaust is often used in false comparisons within the political debate and the complexity of the subject is further reduced into tweets and memes that are widely spread and reinforce society’s perceptions of events. The facts of the Holocaust are being drowned out in a wave of self-serving political misinformation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in popularizing this type of Holocaust distortion. While there have been offensive attempts to use the Holocaust for political gain for years, distortions of the Holocaust had become much more common in response to pandemic restrictions.
A few examples include:
Governors who implemented lockdowns were compared to Hitler.
Vaccine Passports were likened to the Yellow Star or the Auschwitz tattoo.
Dr. Fauci was compared to Dr. Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death” in Auschwitz for personally sending tens of thousands to the gas chambers and conducting unspeakably cruel experiments on prisoners.
Anne Frank was evoked repeatedly, most egregiously by Robert Kennedy Jr. who suggested avoiding a vaccine mandate was more difficult because you cannot “hide in an attic.” (Of course, this ignores the fact that the Frank family’s efforts to hide were unsuccessful and most perished in the Holocaust.)
These distortions made headlines and sparked outcry and condemnation, but their pattern of thinking also produced thousands of memes comparing almost every aspect of the pandemic to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
Perhaps it is not surprising that flawed historical knowledge can result in such ridiculous comparisons. The classic answer to such a lack of historical literacy is often education. But here too we see Holocaust distortion appearing.
Recently “Critical Race Theory (CRT)” has become a talking point of concern within the United States. The term has quickly been applied to anything that is perceived as a “woke” challenge to public perception of American history related to racism. Legislation in several states has sought to ban CRT, a trend that as a historian, I anticipated would lead to restrictions on freedoms of academic speech and thought. Holocaust education is endangered by such a ban.
Last year, teachers in Southlake Texas were instructed to “present multiple perspectives when discussing widely debated and currently controversial issues.” The Holocaust was deemed such an issue and they were told that they had to present “an opposing viewpoint” in the classroom. Whether Holocaust denial or Mein Kampf was a more fitting “alternate perspective” was not discussed.
A few weeks ago, a debate over an education bill in Indiana led to a Republican senator stating that taking a position on Nazism or discrediting it was “going too far” and teachers had to restrict themselves to “providing instruction on the existence of Nazism.”
Even as social media trivializes and distorts the true nature and horrors of the Holocaust, education “reforms” are challenging taking a moral or objective stance on Nazism, and now, with the banning of Maus, honest depictions of the Holocaust may soon be deemed unsuitable as educational material. By the same rationale that Maus has been banned, other classics like Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank could be next. If you don’t believe that, both have already faced similar criticism for “pornographic depictions and violence.” Those critics were fringe positions years ago, but the unanimous vote in McMinn County suggests there is a danger that such positions are becoming mainstream.
We may believe that the Holocaust is settled history, but the lessons of collective memory and history in the American south remind us that historical memory can be changed. “Facts” can be adjusted to fit a different narrative.
It is not enough to chant “never again” on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must be intentional about what we are remembering. Repeating the number 6,000,000 is not enough, we must remember the horrible and dehumanizing ways in which they died and the racist hateful reasons that motivated their murderers.
Only when the graphic details of the Holocaust are common unrestricted knowledge will Holocaust distortion lose its appeal. Only then are we truly remembering.