By: Lauren Salerno
One of the key consequences of book banning is erasure. When we decide that some things are too uncomfortable to talk about, we risk losing the memory of how things happen. We lose context, we lose people, we lose the truth.
That seems to be the case according to a recent study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The New York Times summarizes, “Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.”
I’m sure it is also lost on many that one of the actions taken by the Nazis during this time was to ban and burn books deemed “un-German.” When the goal is to control the message, art and literature always come under attack.
Ironically, some of the books that have been challenged or banned in the United States are the very ones that could help us piece together what happened during this unimaginable period of human history.
Here are five banned books to read right now if you don’t know much about the Holocaust, but want to learn.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel’s memoir about his experience surviving the Holocaust is a modern classic. He speaks of what it was like in the beginning, his family forced to identify themselves by wearing yellow stars, losing small freedoms, until the day they were rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. Wiesel describes life for him and his father inside the concentration camps and what it took to survive. In 2017, the Conejo Valley Unified School District adopted an opt-out policy where parents could object to reading materials in the core list. While no books were actually taken off the list, enough parents opted-out their children from reading Night that the teacher could not effectively teach it to the rest of the class.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Sophie’s Choice is about a Holocaust survivor caught between an abusive lover and a writer who is determined to uncover her painful past. Through the narrative one can see how the experience of the Holocaust manifests in scars both physical and emotional. The book was banned in South Africa in 1979 for no given reason. In 2001, the book was pulled from library shelves at a high school in La Mirada, California for its sexual content. The decision was protested by students and later returned to the school library.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Diary of a Young Girl is another first hand account of life in Nazi German told from the perspective of a Jewish girl. The text is, in fact, the diary that Anne Frank kept while she, her family, and others were in hiding in an apartment attic in Amsterdam. She details what those two, quiet years were like until the apartment’s inhabitants were found and taken to the concentration camps. Anne did not survive, but her father, Otto Frank, advocated for her diary to be published. The reasons for banning or challenging Anne Frank’s diary largely have to do with the sexual content in the book. This was the case most recently in 2013, when a parent from the Northville school district in Michigan called Frank’s descriptions of her body “pretty pornographic.” Though in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee commented that the book was “a real downer.”
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars is about a Jewish girl in Denmark who assumes the identity of a German family’s daughter and hides with them. It takes a look at the large networks of people that worked to evacuate Jewish people out of Denmark to Sweden and the immense danger this presented along the way. In Washington state, the book was banned because it contained the word “damn.” There was also a case in Turkey at Tarsus American College where the book was banned after the Turkish Department of Education read just one paragraph with no reasoning or attention to protocol.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Based on a true story, Maus is a graphic memoir of a son trying to learn more about his father. In the book, Art Spiegelman interviews his father about World War II, the persecution he faced as a Jew living in Poland during that time, and his experience in Auschwitz and Dachau. It weaves back and forth between the story his father tells and the present day as the family grapples with this heavy history and the loss of Art’s mother. In 2012, the book was challenged by a public library patron in Pasadena, California for its depiction of Poles. In Russia, a law passed in December of 2014, had bookstores pulling the title from their shops as the cover art contains a swastika. While the content of the book is actually anti-Nazi, the sweeping language of the law itself, which forbids Nazi propaganda, was enough for the graphic novel to be taken off shelves even though no formal complaints had been filed against it.
Lauren Salerno works in Youth Services at the Ovitt Family Community Library. She is passionate about developing a new generation of creative thinkers and confident do-ers. Her process art program, Artopia, was listed in best practices for nurturing creativity in children by the Association for Library Service to Children. When Lauren is not making a mess at the library, she is a writer of speculative fiction and creative nonfiction. Her writing can be found in the Los Angeles Times, xoJane, MiTú, and The Rattling Wall. She loves monsters, Star Wars, and Pokemon GO. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and a tiny dog. Find her on Twitter @ParanormaLauren.