Both my parents survived the Holocaust. Reading Art Spiegelman’s innovative and powerful Maus was a searing, moving experience for me. Maus is also unflinching in its depiction of the often very contentious relationships between the survivor parents and their children, giving the work added depth and perspective.
This recent controversy on Maus’s suitability (or not) for Tennessee schoolchildren, though, has reinforced an unease I’ve had for quite a while on the uses and misuses of the extermination of European Jewry.
It should be said that the fact that the Holocaust is treated as such a matter of importance in the United States—which is, after all, a Christian country—is something that needs to be acknowledged. Considering the brutality meted out to Jews over the centuries, this is no small thing. (And the Holocaust and Nazi oppression were not just directed at Jews, of course.)
Was Maus really and truly banned? The McMinn County, Tennessee school board removed Maus from the eighth-grade curriculum. Banning connotes state-sanctioned suppression, which in this political climate is a real possibility. That is not what precisely happened to Maus, though. Much of this current outrage is generated by genuine surprise that school boards can be bluenosed and provincial.
The Holocaust serves as a feel-good, guilt-alleviating mechanism for the United States. This is what gets pernicious. For one, there was hardly a groundswell of concern for the plight of European Jewry here in the 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini had their vocal, public American adherents.
Nazi Germany could not have undertaken extermination on such a grand scale without the overt and covert sympathies of greater Europe. But the Final Solution, obviously, emanated from Germany. Commemorating the Holocaust requires no real introspection, no issues of culpability or guilt, on the part of the American public.
What does require issues of culpability and guilt is America’s brutal legacy of genocide and suppression toward people of color. Doing so brings on paroxysms of outrage, with critical race theory akin to satanic doctrine.
The extermination of the North American native population is our genocide, not Germany’s. No full reckoning of that has been forthcoming. Or the idea that the United States owes Vietnam—with its loss of two million civilians–substantial redress. Suggesting this would be considered an absurdity.
To reiterate, none of this is meant to disparage Art Spiegelman’s masterwork, which is just that: a masterwork. But over the years, the Holocaust—like the depoliticized Martin Luther King–has morphed into civil religion, which all seems very far removed from what my family went through. There is a sad inevitability to this. The insubstantial gesture is one of this country’s tangible strengths.