Natalie Fingerhut is the editor of the New Jewish Press, an imprint of the University of Toronto Press. Charlotte Schallié is a professor at the University of Victoria and the editor of But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust.
The spectacle of some “Freedom Convoy” protesters carrying flags with swastikas this past weekend along the streets of Ottawa is not an isolated incident. It was only the latest brazen act in a recent parade of antisemitic events that amplifies the need for more survivor-centred stories about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights.
The Capitol Hill riot in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, reminded us of the continuing threat posed by the alt-right. But just two days after the first anniversary of the event, on a Shabbat morning where Jews attended synagogue to pray, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex., were taken hostage by an extremist.
Less than a week later, on Jan. 10, Tennessee’s McMinn County School Board removed Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust in which people are depicted as animals, from their eighth-grade language arts curriculum. The alleged reason: profanity and nudity. It is not without irony that reports around the school board’s decision emerged around Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, which this year marked the 77th anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the graveyard of 1.1 million men, women and children, the majority of whom were Jewish. Mr. Spiegelman’s parents were among those saved; his father, Vladek, was the main subject of Maus.
The reasons for banning Maus, as articulated by school board members, are deeply flawed, and of course, have little to do with the real issues at stake: the rewriting of history; the undermining rhetoric arguing that “it wasn’t really that bad,” which so often leads to Holocaust distortion and denial; the overemphasis on the minority of Germans who stood up against the Nazis, even though the vast majority stayed silent as millions were killed. On a more practical note, the censorship of a critically acclaimed, if not canonical text in Holocaust education further politicizes the curriculum and fosters a less aware and less involved student body.
We know this firsthand. Ever since Mr. Spiegelman published Maus as a series in the comic and graphics anthology RAW, the appetite for graphic novels based on lived experience has only grown, and indeed, this May, New Jewish Press will publish a collection of three graphic stories co-created by three artists and four child survivors: But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust. In documenting the testimonies of David Schaffer, Nico and Rolf Kamp, and Emmie Arbel, we were inspired by the unflinching artistry of Maus. With images drawn by Miriam Libicki, Gilad Seliktar and Barbara Yelin, this arts-based teaching resource was designed to reach students and readers using graphic narratives, and in so doing, raise awareness of the Holocaust, genocide, and gross human rights violations. In some small way, we worked out of the hope that these pages full of pain, resistance, loss, trauma and even humour could increase awareness of social justice and human rights protection.
Now, the importance of delivering on that goal has been magnified by the antisemitism that has bubbled yet again to the surface of our current moment – not just in the United States, but also right here in Canada.
To honour our survivors, we preserved their voices and their lived experiences in all of their nakedness and profanity while resisting the need to create a redemptive heroic narrative. Despite the protestations of the McMinn County School Board, it is not survivors’ voices or bodies that are offensive, but the fact that they were subjugated to this unimaginable degree of degradation and dehumanization. That’s why we won’t change a word of our survivors’ stories or tweak an artistically rendered image to avoid being censored or banned: Doing otherwise would deny history and desecrate truth. As Mr. Schaffer writes in the book, “I hope to inspire you to be alert, learn from history, and take action when necessary to protect our freedom and way of life.”
These stories matter. With the history and memory of the Holocaust being trivialized and minimized in current public and political discourse, we need these stories now more than ever.
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