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Holocaust graphic novel ‘Maus’ banned in Tennessee county schools over nudity and profanity

From Art Spiegelman’s “MetaMaus” — a 25th-anniversary “Maus” compendium. (Art Spiegelman and Pantheon Books)
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A school district in Tennessee banned the use of “Maus,” a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, in its middle school classes, citing the work’s profanity and nudity in a 10-to-0 vote.

As leaders in conservative areas across the country push for more control over the way history is taught, the McMinn County school board expressed concern that the expletives in “Maus” were inappropriate for eighth-graders. Members also said Art Spiegelman’s illustrations showing nudity — which depict Holocaust victims forced to strip during their internment in Nazi concentration camps — were improper.

“I’ve read it and read through all of it. … I liked it,” said Mike Cochran, a board member who voted to restrict the graphic novel’s use. He said that the subject was important but that “there were other parts that were completely unnecessary,” according to minutes of the meeting this month. He cited scenes in which a father talks with his son about losing his virginity and a woman cuts herself with a blade.

Spiegelman, a cartoonist, wrote and illustrated “Maus” based on interviews with his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. (“Maus” is the German word for mouse.) The graphic novel, drawn in black and white, depicts Holocaust victims as mice and their Nazi oppressors as cats.

The story details the killing of infants, Nazi gas chambers and forced labor, among other atrocities that the German regime committed during World War II. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 after the publication of its second volume.

Why ‘Maus’ remains ‘the greatest graphic novel ever written,’ 30 years later

Spiegelman could not be immediately reached for comment. But when reached by the Daily Beast about the ban, he sent an image of a bookmark he had designed that read: “Keep your nose in a book — and keep other people’s noses out of which books you choose to stick your nose into!”

The McMinn County ban was first reported by TN Holler on Wednesday, though the school board’s vote occurred Jan. 10. The board said its decision was not influenced by the book’s topic, TN Holler reported, but it quickly inspired criticism from across the country amid a national debate over what topics should and shouldn’t be taught in its schools.

The 10 board members who voted in favor of banning the book didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a statement that “Maus” has been vital in educating students about the Holocaust through the detailed experiences of victims. “Books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past,” it said, noting that Thursday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Julie Goodin, a former history teacher who was present at the board meeting, said she had urged members to keep the book in the eighth-grade curriculum. “There is nothing pretty about the Holocaust,” she said. “Are the words objectionable? Yes,” she added. But that is how Spiegelman sought to convey the horror, she said.

Jon B. Wolfsthal, the son of a Holocaust survivor and a former national security adviser to Joe Biden when he was vice president, said the book’s use of nudity and cursing is reflective of the horror of the Holocaust. Trying to sanitize the atrocities “diminishes the scale of the crimes committed,” he said.

His late father, Leon Brook Wolfsthal, was 15 when he was liberated in April 1945 after spending two years in the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany.

“I know he would laugh that people think you can stop an idea by banning a book,” Jon B. Wolfsthal said. “Then he would order 100 copies and have them sent to the public library … to ensure kids could read the book if they wanted.”

Others defended “Maus” on social media. Filmmaker and podcaster Rebekah McKendry called the ban “shameful,” tweeting that “Maus” was “the most detailed account I’d ever read about the holocaust when I 1st encountered them.”

Screenwriter Dan Hernandez tweeted that seeing “Maus” censored “fills me with disgust. I hope my children read it someday and learn what it has to teach.”

Backlash to school books centering on race, sex and LGBTQ people turns into conservative rallying cry

Books tackling race or sexuality have become flash points amid a Republican movement against the teaching of critical race theory, an advanced academic framework that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

GOP politicians across the country have sought to emulate Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign focus last year on “parental control” of education, which revived calls to ban Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize-winning “Beloved.” In November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered a statewide probe of potential “criminal activity” into “pornography” in schools after two LGBTQ memoirs were pulled from some districts in his state. Around the same time in Kansas, a school board near Wichita announced it was removing 29 books from circulation, including Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.,” a history of the white supremacist group.

Critics of such moves, which include members of the Biden administration, have said that the restrictions risk whitewashing history and delaying advancements in racial equality.

Jonathan Edwards contributed to this report.

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