Tennessee’s McMinn County School Board recently banned Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its school curriculum. For those unfamiliar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel depicts Spiegelman’s conversations with his father, Vladek, as the latter shares his experiences surviving the Holocaust. The banning of Maus takes place in an America deeply ignorant of the realities of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Half of American millennials cannot name a concentration camp or ghetto. Hate thrives in ignorance. American Jews are per capita the likeliest minority group to be the recipient of a hate crime.
This trend is hardly confined to the United States. Canadian Jews comprise only one percent of the population, yet remain the victims of sixteen percent of all police-reported hate crime. Nearly a quarter of Canadian millennials have not heard or not are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust. North America is grappling with a shocking lack of Holocaust knowledge and, perhaps unsurprisingly, an accompanying wave of hate.
Curiously, as anti-Jewish sentiment skyrockets, groups perceiving themselves as marginalized are appropriating Holocaust imagery to portray themselves as victims. Images of protestors wearing the yellow Star of David—which Jews were forced to wear by Nazi Germany—have become a ubiquitous feature of anti-vaccination protests around the world.
People who are vulgar or ignorant enough to correlate their own experiences with that of Jews during the Holocaust are not simply hyperbolic—they’re dangerous.
These yellow-badged protestors are part of a larger cultural movement that is inching towards a treacherous understanding of the Holocaust as a universal event. This ‘universal Holocaust’ is one of victims and perpetrators instead of Jews and Nazis. Sanitized of details, it claims every injustice as Nazism and every victimization as Jewish. It champions a history devoid of specificity—obscuring our ability to recognize and combat fascism and white supremacy in the present. This universal Holocaust, spitting in the face of history, is Judenfrei.
On The View, Whoopi Goldberg recently claimed that the Holocaust was “not about race” but instead about “man’s inhumanity to man.” Goldberg—who is not Jewish—was lambasted on both traditional and social media and suspended for two weeks. In the noise surrounding the incident, it’s possible we may have been asking the wrong questions. Was Goldberg wrong? Obviously. A more pressing question might be: How should we teach the Holocaust? Shockingly, we must also ask: How do we ensure that the story of the Jews isn’t whitewashed from the history of the Holocaust?
Answering these questions may be predicated on the texts we champion. Not all approaches to Holocaust education are created equally. The amount of popular literature being taught in schools that distorts or outright falsifies the history of the Holocaust is astounding. John Boyne’s bestselling fiction, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, tells the story of Bruno, the son of the Commandant of Auschwitz. Bruno befriends a Jewish inmate in Auschwitz, and in a case of mistaken identity, Bruno and his friend are both killed in the gas chambers. The book, riddled with historical inaccuracies, depends on a German boy being gassed to elicit reader sympathy. The Nazis undoubtedly committed atrocities against non-Jewish victims. However, Boyne’s depiction of the Holocaust positions Germans as the principal victims of Naziism. Despite the Auschwitz Memorial stating that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust,” the text has become a classroom staple. It is often young people’s only point of contact in learning about the Holocaust.
Race, and with it racism, remains in the eye of the beholder. Whoopi Goldberg’s comment that the Holocaust was “not about race” arose during a discussion of the banning of Maus. If she had bothered to open the first page of the book, she would have read Hitler’s infamous declaration that “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” The point here is not to castigate Goldberg. It is to highlight that her views are a chilling indicator of how mainstream a Judenfrei Holocaust is becoming. To stop it, we will need to prioritize survivor testimonies such as Maus— testimonies that include the barbaric specificities of Naziism.
Maus remains deeply important. Those who have read it will better understand how anti-Semitism and fascism works. In turn, they will be better prepared to fight both. At the very least, the graphic novel may give pause to those who would equate their inconveniences to the Holocaust, their political opponents to the “Gazpacho,” and protestors waving Swastika flags to champions of freedom.