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Erasing History: Holocaust Graphic Novelist Art Spiegelman on “Maus” & Wave of Book Bans Sweeping U.S.

StoryFebruary 02, 2022
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As a wave of book bans sweeps schools and libraries across the United States, we speak with the celebrated graphic novelist Art Spiegelman on a Tennessee school district’s recent vote to ban his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from its eighth grade language arts curriculum. The novel, which was targeted for profanity and nudity, tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents who survived the Holocaust. Spiegelman says the bills put forth by conservatives are just a “displacement of their own anxieties” and warns of taking away “access to understanding a genocidal system built by fascists and authoritarians” for youth and adults alike. He also comments on ABC’s recent suspension of Whoopi Goldberg for her comments that the Holocaust was “not about race,” saying Goldberg deserves to stay on air in light of her apology.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our hour looking at banned books. We’re joined now by the pioneering graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.

In January, the McMinn County Board of Education in Athens, Tennessee, voted 10 to zero to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from its eighth grade language arts curriculum. Maus tells the story of Art’s parents who survived the Holocaust. In the graphic novel, he depicts Jewish characters as mice and Nazis as cats. ”Maus” is the German word for “mouse.” The school board claimed it banned the graphic novel because of profanity and nudity. Attention around the ban has resulted in Maus shooting to the top of the best-seller lists, along with other works by Spiegelman, who is one of the most celebrated graphic novelists in the world. The ban comes amidst a wave of book bans pushed by right-wing groups across the United States.

Art Spiegelman joins us now once again from his home in New York.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Art. It’s great to have you with us, unfortunately under these circumstances, though congratulations on what often happens, is that when you have a book censored like this, your book Maus, about Maus and about Mauschwitz — right? — Auschwitz, it shoes to the top of the best-seller lists. You cannot get it in bookstores now. It is hard to get online. It will take weeks or months to get. Can you talk about, first, your response to this banning, and then what Maus is all about, for people who don’t know?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, my first reaction — and I’m still trying to get over it — is just bafflement because of the grounds on which it was banned. And my first response had been, “Well, gee, what are these Holocaust-denying crazies in Tennessee all about?” And as I kind of beaded in on it more, I realized, “No, no, they are not necessarily stupid Nazis. They’re just stupid about what might work for their children in an educational context to let them understand what happened to my family.” What was the second part of your question, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: To tell us about Maus, to tell us — 


AMY GOODMAN: — what happened to your parents.

ART SPIEGELMAN: OK. My parents were both survivors of the death camps, Polish Jews, who hatched me when I was in Sweden while they were there as a displaced couple in Sweden. We eventually came to America, when I was about 3 years old. And so, my father and mother didn’t talk that much about this in a way that I could understand when I was growing up. My father just didn’t want to talk about it at all, saying people don’t want to hear such stories. And he was just building himself, as best he could, a life in America. My mother would let me know things, but in spurts that were absolutely terrifying and not with any context.

And when I got older, after my mother had committed suicide in 1968, when I was 20, I just asked my father more about what happened, and it led to me being glued to hearing his story. It’s one of the first times he and I could sit in a room together and not get into an argument. And here I was rapt in finding out what the story was. It’s as if he had been waiting for me to ask as an adult. And that led, over a period of 13 years, to trying to put this into book form.


ART SPIEGELMAN: I never wanted — oh.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, I’m sorry. Art —

ART SPIEGELMAN: I never wanted —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Art Spiegelman, I wanted to ask you, one of the 10-to-zero voters at the McMinn County school board, one of those school board members said of your book, quote, “It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It’s not wise or healthy.” Your response to the concern not so much about what actually happened, but someone actually telling what happened?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, let’s see. I believe it’s very misguided on their part to do this, and I think that sentence just leaked out of the school board member’s mouth, because they seem to be incredibly focused on a few bad words, like “damn,” “goddamn,” which I always thought of as a kind of G-rated curse word. But also what would leak out was how disturbed they were by some of the images from the past, although they’re trying to focus on an image of what they called a nude woman, and I would prefer to have called — that they had called a naked corpse of his mother in a bathtub. And I suppose it could have placated them if I redrew it with her wearing a bathrobe while in the bath, because there’s a suggestion that she’s naked, and “naked” seems like a more appropriate word for this than “nude,” which has sexual connotations. They tried to focus there, but what would keep leaking out is, “And then there’s pictures of hanged mice and children being killed.” Well, yeah, I mean, that’s the story of what actually happened.

But I would say that in some ways I think it’s just a displacement of their own anxieties. I believe that fewer books about the genocide of the Jews have been banned up to this point than the ones that Mr. Johnson was talking about, about gender and about race, but it’s all under attack.

And I would like to say that unlike Mr. Johnson’s book, this book was never intended for children, so it added to my confusion, because I thought, like, I was making, after 13 years, a thing that didn’t quite have the name graphic novels yet. I just thought I was making a long comic book for grown-ups that could be reread and worked with, because comics offer so much rich possibility for dealing with memory. When you read a comic, you read from left to right. Your eye is always going back to the past, to the panel before, and inching toward the future, which are the panels after the one you’re staring at. And it allows one to understand how close we are to the past, as I think William Faulkner said about the past. It’s never really past. So, I thought children should be protected, and I never intended it to be for young adults, children, whatever. But over the years I’ve had to change my opinion. When I first got an award from the New York Public Library for best young adult book, I was annoyed, because I thought, “Thirteen years to make a book for adults, and here it is getting a young adult award.” And I’ve had to modify my position over the years because I’ve now met many, many children who have studied it in school, who found it on their own, who were given it by their parents, and it actually is received with a degree of real wisdom in their reading, based on the people I’ve talked to, the young people. So, I give up. Comics are for whoever can understand them. Certainly, the school board doesn’t, really.

And I think one of the things that makes the book so powerful is exactly the part of the book they seemed to be especially concerned by, which has to do with not the past, per se, but my relationship with my parents — that is, my link to the past — and my unorthodox way of dealing with them — unorthodox not just as a Jew, but, in general, being part of the underground comics world of the '60s and ’70s, taboo breaking seemed natural to me. I didn't realize that one taboo, among all the others, was being angry at one’s parents. It was a — childhood survivors. At that time they were just inventing the phrase “second generation.” And the obligation that most people in my situation inherited was: “Don’t upset your parents. They’ve already been through enough.” My own anger was enough to overcome that taboo without thinking about it, because I was trying to just find out who they were, who I was, how I got to be here, when the odds were against it, being born after the war by two people who were slated for genocidal murder.

But I think it’s that link, of me talking with my parents, that made the book better as a didactic tool than if I had intended it as such, because it allows somebody a window into finding what happened to the past among other people who also didn’t experience it. And this was, evidently, very effective, because not everybody had a father who threw out their coat — I’m sorry, not everybody had a father who went through the Holocaust, but everybody had a parent, has a parent, that did something equivalent to throwing out a favorite coat because that was his way of taking control. As a result, when — kids would come up to me and say, “God, your conversations with your grandfather were so important for me to read.” And I felt that was a real compliment, because I think at this point I’m the one old enough to be their grandfather, and they just identified with me as the mouse-masked character in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: Art, I wanted to go to your father in his own words, Maus based largely on your interviews that you conducted with your dad, Vladek. This is an excerpt of an interview you did with him in 1972 about his life during the Holocaust. The audio was included in the MetaMaus DVD extra.

VLADEK SPIEGELMAN: But after three days, they took us out from prison.


VLADEK SPIEGELMAN: Everybody who had to go to Auschwitz. And outside was standing a closed bus, without windows, with a roof and a very small — two tiny small windows. In the truck, we were all together — I, mother and women, men, everybody together.

ART SPIEGELMAN: And you were sure what?

VLADEK SPIEGELMAN: We were sure that we are going to be finished. We knew that we are going to Auschwitz.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh. And you knew that Auschwitz was a death camp?

VLADEK SPIEGELMAN: Yes, but we knew that we will go there and will not come out anymore. This we knew, that they will gas us and burn us in the oven.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Did you know about the showers?


ART SPIEGELMAN: Did you? Everybody knew about that?

VLADEK SPIEGELMAN: We knew everything. Late — it was very late in the season. The war started in 1939, and this was 1943 already. And we knew everything what was going on. ’Til ’43, I was in ghettos in hiding. From ’43, when they finished everything, then I came to Auschwitz.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is your father, Vladek, explaining to you what he saw at Auschwitz when he was forced to disassemble the gas chambers.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Hadn’t they heard about the showers before?

VLADEK SPIEGELMAN: They had, but this I have seen when I came over there, how it worked. I have heard much about it, but now I have seen everything. I am telling you only this, what I have seen, what I went through; not this what people were talking, rumors and other things.

From there it was a little corridor. You went into a shower room. It was a big, big shower room, full of showers, maybe 100, maybe 150, maybe 90 showers there. From the ceiling down, it looked like the showers that are coming out water. And the door was hermetic closed. It was a very heavy door, and it was covered with some insulation. But when the people went in there, they closed the door, and the door had also a little window in the middle to look in there to the shower room. So people went in there with the soap and the towel, and they waited for water that will come up from the showers. But instead of the water came gas, poison gas. It poisoned them from half an hour ’til three-quarters. And the German, they looked in there through the window until everybody is dead.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s your dad, Vladek, talking to you back in 1972. And I wanted to go to your family tree, which you illustrate in a genealogical project you published in 2011 in MetaMaus. We’re showing the images you drew of a branch of the Spiegelman family tree in 1939, at the start of World War II, and then the second image shows the same family tree at the end of World War II, with almost all of the names now missing. And you dedicate Maus to your older brother, who you never met, who did not make it out of the Holocaust. Art, if you can talk about all of this and what is being erased when your book is banned, what we lose access to?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, we lose access to understanding a genocidal system built by fascists and authoritarians. And although I never made the book to teach anybody anything but to understand how I got to be here, it’s clearly an important book for now, so I’m grateful for its second life as a didactic tool, because it probably is the best way to teach young people about what happened, in a way that they seem to be able to grasp fully, partially because of the carefully built comics format.

I’m really grateful, incidentally, that you played my father’s voice, because there’s no audio component to the book, except in MetaMaus, of course, that has a DVD. But I tried to capture his voice in the way he spoke English, which was about his third language or so, and how eloquent he could be in his own put-together version of English. And that’s part of the book’s power. The closest I could come is after having shown drawings of cats and mice, with people with cat and mouse masks, at least, to get myself to be able to do the book. To be able to insert a picture of my father that he had taken of himself in a clean Auschwitz uniform as a “souvenir” was as close as I could come to giving you the dissonance between the presentations as I’m envisioning them and the person who’s transmitting the story, because he looks rather well fed at that point, in a very crisp uniform that he put on in a DP camp, where souvenir photos, if that’s the right word, were actually being taken. And it indicates how photography, which is taken as closer to true than a drawing, isn’t necessarily the way that gives one clearest and fullest access to the realities at a time when authoritarianism and fascism, the whiff of those things, is all over our country right now alas. And this allows us to have some kind of access that I believe feels trustworthy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Art Spiegelman, I wanted to ask you — the use of graphic literature or graphic books to explore some of these very profound issues. You mentioned earlier on that it was in the ’60s that you got exposed to the underground cartoon world. Mad magazine, I think, was one of your inspirations. What was most appealing to you about Mad comics and its impact on how you tell a story?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Wow. Well, there’s an artist who profoundly affected me named Harvey Kurtzman, who was the great comics artist and writer and also the editor of a series of comics about war called Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, that told real war stories, very thoroughly researched, in a way that was potent, and Mad, which basically was one of the most effective critiques of the adult world that could be offered to whoever wanted it, children of course included, because it was saying, “The whole adult world is lying to you. And, of course, dear children, we, too, are adults, so you’ve got to learn to think for yourself.” And I think that was a very potent message, very carefully deconstructed with beautiful comics grammar in terms of how panels were organized on pages. And he made me want to be a comic book artist before I could read.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering your thoughts on ABC News suspending the comedian and actor Whoopi Goldberg from The View. I mean, it was an amazing moment on The View, because she’s decrying Maus being banned in Tennessee but did say it wasn’t about race, the Holocaust; it was about man’s inhumanity to man. She afterwards apologized and said she now understood, you know, Hitler talking about Jews as an inferior race. Your thoughts that that’s the fallout from the banning?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, I believe she should have been left on TV, especially after she apologized, but in any case, because I think, in this age, we’re all adult, including Whoopi Goldberg. And I think she had conflicting images of where we’re at right now, in the sense that somehow us Jews have become honorary white in this moment, and that allowed her to get a bit confused about where the issues really are.

And I’ve got to say, I’m a First Amendment fundamentalist, and therefore I’m not as upset about the — I don’t know, I hate using the word, but for now let’s say “cancel culture,” as a way of redressing the great wrongs that Mr. Johnson was talking about in your previous segment. But it’s all kind of ball of confusion, like the attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn over the decades, by Mark Twain, where actually Jim is probably the most — the wisest and most fully realized character in the book. And I think Mark Twain must have been aware of it. He wrote it. And I think that it’s misguided, because the language includes a trigger word in his story, but that’s the word that was absolutely current back then. And therefore, although I love it when I find books on my own, and was indeed a little worried when I first heard Maus was being put into this curriculum, just because I don’t know who’s ready to read this, who isn’t ready to read this, but in a situation like the one that the teachers who were testifying to the board of parents put it, this is things that happened. This book has been shown to be very effective at teaching that. This is a mistake —

AMY GOODMAN: Art Spiegelman, we have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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