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Banned, burned and critically acclaimed: Global reactions to a Holocaust survival story

Art Spiegelman’s Maus has long been a lightning rod for its provocative design and depiction of history.

On the evening of January 10, 2022, the ten-member school board of McMinn County, Tennessee gathered to discuss Maus, the groundbreaking graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that tells his parents’ story of Holocaust survival. After some debate, most of which focused on the use of swear words and one instance of partial nudity in the text, the board voted to ban the book from the district’s eighth-grade language arts curriculum. A firestorm of reactions and media coverage followed, re-surfacing decades of controversy and critique that the book has generated worldwide since its first volume was published in 1986.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book brings readers into the lives of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, and his rebellious cartoonist son, Art. The novel unspools two parallel journeys: Art’s attempts to document, understand and ultimately write a graphic novel about his father’s experiences in the Holocaust, and Vladek’s terrifying odyssey from pre-war Poland to Auschwitz. 

As the novel flashes between past and present — from Art’s experiences pleading with his father to tell him his story, to Vladek’s path to the camps — two figures hover like ghosts over its pages. There is Art’s mother, Anja, who survived the Holocaust with Vladek but took her own life decades later, and Art’s older brother Richieu, who died during the war at the age of six, before Art was born. Throughout the text, Anja and Richieu are ever-present reminders of all that was lost during, and after, the war. 

Maus explores how those traumas haunt the two survivors of the nuclear family — Art and Vladek — whose relationship is both tender and deeply tumultuous. Vladek admonishes Art when he shows up at his home late; Art shuts down his father’s appeals for a closer relationship. In one scene, Art explodes at Vladek when he learns his father burned Anja’s diaries after her suicide. 

“God damn you!” he fumes. “You murderer!” Vladek recoils. “To your father you yell this way? Even to your friends you should never yell this way.”

The novel’s experimental qualities are not limited to Spiegelman’s fluid use of present and past. He also famously depicted all the characters in the book as having human bodies, but the heads of other creatures: Jews are drawn in the book as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Brits as fish, Americans as dogs and Swedes as reindeer. This device, which has fueled decades of controversy about the book, carries with it a subversive playfulness, giving readers some emotional distance from the story while simultaneously reappopriating the antisemitic trope of Jews as vermin, which was common in Nazi propaganda. The cover of the book also prominently features a swastika looming above Vladek and Anja.

But when the McMinn County school board convened, its members were not there to dissect the book’s family psychodrama or its characters’ emotional complexities. Instead, they voiced their objections to a handful of swear words in the book and a partially obscured cartoon image of a topless woman.

“We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history,” one board member argued. “We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

After some back and forth, the board voted unanimously to withdraw the book from the curriculum. Minutes from the discussion were later published on the district’s website. Local media soon reported on the ban, and it quickly snowballed into an international news story, unleashing a flood of headlines and editorials.

“They’re totally focused on some bad words that are in the book,” said Spiegelman, in a CNN interview about the ban. “I think they’re so… afraid of having to defend the decision to teach Maus that it led to this kind of daffily myopic response.”

But was it really just swear words and nudity that made the board uncomfortable? Another person who spoke at the meeting referred to the book’s depiction of Nazi violence, pointing to an image from the novel showing four mice, representing Polish Jews, who were executed in the town square where Vladek lived. 

“It shows people hanging, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff?” he asked. “It is not wise or healthy.”

“I can understand why people would feel cautious about that kind of violence,” said Hillary Chute, an English professor at Northeastern University who co-authored the 2011 book MetaMaus with Spiegelman, which describes Spiegelman’s process and explores the public reception of the text. 

“But the idea that this school in Tennessee is promoting it by showing it seems wrong to me. If they want to use the Holocaust in their eighth-grade curriculum, they’re going to have to figure out what they want because there is no kinder, gentler Holocaust. And that’s part of the power of Maus as a book.”

“Maus doesn’t wrap up the trauma narrative,” she added. “The book is very much about Vladek’s experience and not a watered-down version of it. And part of his experience is the swastika. Its horror and its power.”

Chute suggested the school board’s real objection to the text has much more to do with the horrors it depicts. She compared the charge of promoting violence with concerns about the book’s use of swastika imagery. In both cases, critics decontextualize these images, and portray the text as promoting — instead of testifying to — the violence and Nazi propaganda that Vladek witnessed.

The McMinn County school board’s response to Maus follows a longstanding American tradition of paranoia around comics, and in some cases, all-out censorship. In the McCarthy era, fears of the genre’s “corrupting” influence on youth ushered in a moral panic that was on full display at a 1954 congressional hearing on the links between comics and juvenile delinquency. This gave rise to a set of rules known as The Comics Code, which sought to eliminate objectionable content like sex and violence from comic books and similar media. The Code was finally shelved in 2011.

Biz Nijdam, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia whose research explores the intersection of comics and history, said peoples’ comic-related anxieties, born out in censorship and banning efforts, speak to the medium’s unique ability to engage readers at the visual level. 

“The way that visual media can articulate things that we can’t express with words scares people,” she told me. “And really conservative readers are afraid of what it will do to our children, because of the emotional response it creates in its reader. People can’t really do the work of ensuring that readers are reading things correctly, so instead, they just censor it.”

Art Spiegelman in New York City in 1989. Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images.

McMinn County is not the only place where the pioneering text has struck a nerve. While the book has been translated into at least thirty languages and is celebrated as one of the most influential graphic novels in history, it has also courted controversy all over the world. In its earlier days, Maus was scorned in Israel. It has been censored in Russia, and narrowly escaped the same fate in Germany. In Poland, Maus was subject to a staged book-burning, and its publishers were formally accused of “defaming” the nation.

The cover of Maus, which we cannot show here due to copyright protections, depicts the large face of a cartoon cat, at the center of a massive swastika. Two mice wearing long coats huddle beneath the startling symbol. The book’s depictions of swastikas, on the cover and throughout its pages, have been a top target of censorship threats outside the U.S.

Maus was taken out of bookstores in Russia in 2014, after the Duma passed a law forbidding Nazi propaganda and insignia, including swastikas. Russian booksellers had little choice but to remove copies of the text from their shelves, effectively erasing a work of Holocaust survivor testimony — under the auspices of rooting out Nazi propaganda. 

The cover of the book also caused problems after it was sent to a publisher in Germany, where it is illegal to display the swastika. The publisher asked Spiegelman to remove the swastika from the cover, but he refused. It was only after Spiegelman’s editor found a loophole in the law that allowed for the publication of Nazi imagery in works of serious historical research, a designation given to Maus, that the book was published.

In an eerie twist, Germany’s publication of the book, swastikas and all, made it a desirable object for at least one neo-Nazi who couldn’t find the image elsewhere. In MetaMaus, Spiegelman recalled watching a documentary about Germany’s skinheads and unexpectedly catching a glimpse of a Maus poster in a neo-Nazi’s bedroom. “It was the only swastika he could get, poor fella!” he joked.

Once it was published in Germany, Spiegelman wrote in MetaMaus that its reception was “intense.” He described being confronted by a reporter at a book fair in Frankfurt, who asked him if he thought a comic book about Auschwitz was in “bad taste.” Spiegelman told him no. 

“I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste,” he replied. 

A few years later, Spiegelman traveled to Germany to accept an award for the German edition of the book. “It’s a strange thing for a mouse to receive an award from a gathering of cats, for telling a story of how cats killed mice,” he told the audience. “Giving me this award could be seen as the result of a guilty conscience, a kind of War Reparations to a child of a survivor.”

In Israel today, Maus is largely heralded as a groundbreaking work of historical testimony. But when it was published decades ago, the book’s reception was not so warm. Spiegelman’s Israeli publisher was threatened with a libel suit by the descendant of a character in the book, who Spiegelman depicted as a Nazi-installed Jewish policeman in Poland. At a 1997 lecture about the novel in Tel Aviv, Cornell University linguistics professor Dorit Abusch was met with boos, cries of protest and even a walkout. 

“[The audience] found it very insulting, the combination between comics and the Holocaust,” Abusch told me. “Because comics are perceived as low art, funny, vulgar. And the Holocaust is a very serious and tragic subject. So, the combination kind of disturbed them.”

But opinions have shifted in the country over the years. The website of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, now includes a page about Maus and its educational value. Spiegelman’s exploration of transgenerational trauma and his fraught relationship with his father also inspired a new genre of the graphic novel dealing specifically with Holocaust testimony. 

“If you look at the small library of Holocaust memoirs to come out after that, they’re really all in dialogue with Maus,” the comics scholar Nijdam explained. 

One example is the Israeli illustrator Michel Kichka’s graphic novel, Second Generation: Things I Never Told My Father, which was published in Hebrew in 2013 and reflects on the formative moments in his childhood with a survivor father. Kichka told Haaretz the idea for his book was born out of reading Maus for the first time. 

“I felt a strong connection between myself and Spiegelman from the very moment I sat on a bench in the street and read it from cover to cover,” he said. “It wasn’t just the fact that we’re both cartoonists, but also the similarities between our stories and our father’s stories.”

Spiegelman’s book was also hugely influential for comic artists who didn’t share his family’s Holocaust past, but sought to explore their own cultural histories and identities through the graphic form. Gene Luen Yang, the cartoonist who wrote the 2006 graphic novel and National Book Award finalist “American Born Chinese,” told the Washington Post he first read Maus in his late teens. “Art Spiegelman set the standard for the rest of us… He gave us something to chase after.” 

Since the publication of Maus, memoirs have become a beloved subgenre of graphic novels, establishing a new medium for authors and readers to engage with history and memory.

 Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka in 2017. Kichka’s Holocaust graphic novel, Second Generation: Things I Never Told My Father, found inspiration in Maus. Photo by Roberto Serra/Getty Images

The book’s most dramatic reaction came from Poland. Spiegelman’s decision to portray non-Jewish Poles as cartoon pigs was met with widespread anger and offense inside and outside of Poland, and continues to be a source of controversy today. 

Maus was translated into Polish and published by Polish journalist Piotr Bikont in 2001. Soon thereafter, an angry crowd staged a protest in front of Bikont’s office and set the book ablaze. During the demonstration, Bikont donned a pig mask and waved at the protestors from his office window. 

“As he described it to me, he said he felt like the King of Denmark who wore a yellow star out of solidarity with the Jews,” Spiegelman recalled in MetaMaus. “He put on his pig mask in solidarity with the Poles who were burning the book.”

Even outside Poland, the pig metaphor and the novel’s portrayal of Polish people have generated pushback. They made it all the way to Pasadena, California, where, about a decade ago, a Polish American asked the city’s public library system to take Maus off shelves over its depiction of Polish people. “Maus made him uncomfortable, so he didn’t want other people to read it,” explained an employee of the library in a 2012 article. It’s a criticism that lingers even today. 

Of the Polish reaction, Spiegelman suggested in MetaMaus: “There seems to be something deeply problematic about the Polish ability to assimilate the past. It proves that the book actually hit something alive, a nerve that needs to be cauterized.”

Tomasz Lysak, an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Warsaw, shed some light on that same sensitivity.

“The official line of Polish commemoration is the Holocaust was a great tragedy, but we couldn’t really do anything about it,” he explained. “We were trying to help but couldn’t do too much.” 

Lysak believes part of the response is rooted in a feeling that Poland needs to defend itself and its reputation abroad — it reflects a discomfort with stories that contradict nationally sanctioned narratives around the war and the Holocaust. Critics of the book’s pig metaphor, he added, “could be offended by the fact that most Poles are represented in a way that doesn’t show them in a good light. But we have to take into consideration the fact that this is a Holocaust survival story. And Vladek Spiegelman ended up in Auschwitz because of some actions of Polish characters in the past.”

An excerpt from the 2011 book MetaMaus, which describes Spiegelman’s process and explores the public reception of the text. Photo by Kirk McKoy/Getty Images.

In MetaMaus, Spiegelman reflected on the different cultural responses to Maus he saw while promoting the book and conducting interviews for it at various points in time. In Sweden, Spiegelman described feeling othered — but in a good-natured way — recalling the time a journalist cheerily compared him to Woody Allen. In France, which has a rich tradition of comic art, the book’s graphic form was embraced and taken seriously, with small-time newspapers analyzing the novel’s artistic choices and illustrations. In Italy, interviewers seemed more interested in the book’s tumultuous father-son relationship than in its narration of the Holocaust and Second World War.

It can be hard to parse through the parallels between these objections at first blush. Some people are mad about cartoon pigs. Others are upset about comic nudity. Many are plainly uncomfortable with the book’s depictions of Nazi violence and propaganda, even though they were a central part of Vladek’s experience of the Holocaust. But among those people who criticized the text in the U.S. and Poland especially, you can see a pattern emerge, in which peoples’ discomfort with the history Spiegelman presents is displaced onto the comic form.

Polish critics who rejected Spiegelman’s work seemed unable to see themselves in this story of a Polish Jewish man who survived the Holocaust and encountered both kind and cruel Polish people along the way. For some, the simpler response was to reject the cartoon image of themselves. As Nijdam put it, “Instead of being upset about the history, they’re upset about the pigs.” 

The McMinn County school board’s rejection of the book can also be seen as an expression of unease with a form of storytelling that does not offer redemption through suffering or make heroes out of its protagonists, but rather, presents the history, and its characters, without sentimentalization or embellishments. 

Spiegelman’s honesty, ambiguity and lack of satisfying resolution run counter to the very American (and Hollywood-esque) impulse to search for heroism, or redemption, out of pain. He refuses to refract the horrors of the Holocaust into a cathartic moral takeaway and is untethered to the need to present the Jewish experience in the war with a neat and tidy resolution.  

Spiegelman himself may have said it best in MetaMaus when explaining his decision to present Vladek in all of his complexities: “It had never occurred to me to try to create a heroic figure, and certainly not to create a survivor who’s ennobled by his suffering — a very Christian notion, the survivor as martyr. And that meant a warts-and-all relationship that included being really unpleasant.”

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