Panel examines censorship in Nazi Germany and now with an eye to the future


On Oct. 4, The Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center and the Cranston Public Library hosted  a panel discussion that compared censorship under the Nazis to the rash of book challenges in America today.

The panel members for “The Freedom to Read: Challenges to Intellectual Freedom Then and Now” included Westerly Public Library Executive Director Brigitte Hopkins and Associate Director Bill Lancellotta; ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown; and Michael Bryant, professor of history and legal studies at Bryant University.

The banning and mass burning of books in Berlin and across Germany on May 10, 1933, by the newly empowered Nazi Party, was a powerful precursor to the unfathomable horrors of the next 12 years. Many of the books burned that night were taken from the research library of Dr. Magnus Hirshfield, a gay Jewish scientist who dedicated his career to supporting the LGBTQ community in Berlin.

Hirshfield taught his students to study and treat LGBTQ patients with dignity and respect, a concept practically unheard of during that time. His publications were viewed as “obscene” by the Nazis, who saw the LGBTQ community as an aberration that should be eradicated.

The issue of literary censorship has now come home to roost in our own backyard. Earlier this year, R.I. Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro, a Democrat representing Westerly, introduced legislation in the R.I. House of Representatives to remove graphic novels with “obscene” content from Rhode Island libraries. If passed, the law could hold library workers liable for distributing “indecent” material to minors.

As in the case of Hirshfield, charges of obscenity have historically been used to censor queer voices; most of the books targeted by Azzinaro’s bill feature LGBTQ characters or themes.

Westerly’s Town Council drafted a motion in support of the ban, but area residents gathered in opposition at the June council meeting. Just 20 people spoke against the ban, but their voices were loud enough to convince the Town Council to the motion.

More than just opposing the legislation, these who spoke up showed their elected leaders that they would not allow their rights to be eroded by extremist politics.

While Westerly may be a small-scale example, it would be foolish to dismiss it as a fluke. According to the American Library Association, the rate of book bans and challenges nearly doubled in 2022, suggesting a concerted effort by politicians and far-right political groups to take all content they deem “inappropriate for children” off the shelves.

Targeted books include “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which has been challenged for depicting Anne’s infatuation with a female friend, and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” which was banned by a school board in Tennessee supposedly because one panel shows a nude body – in mouse form.

Spiegelman argues that these charges of “obscenity” are really just thinly-veiled excuses not to face the true scope of the Holocaust, opting instead to teach a “kinder, gentler” version of the truth.

The Holocaust center hopes the panel discussion will shed light on the lessons of the past so that they may help guide our future.

GIOVANNA WISEMAN ( is director of programs and community outreach at the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence.