Beware of False Patriotism

There has been a fascist streak running through this country since the 1700’s.

A friend of mine recently directed me to an offering in the PBS Short Film Festival entitled A Night at the Garden. From the title, you’d expect it to be bucolic. Images in my head include the sounds of crickets, fireflies flashing amongst the trees, a babbling brook, cows lowing in the distance. Peaceful.

Yeah. This video is not that. Not even close.

The video itself is only 6 minutes long. The rest of it is credits. I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch it. It is terrifying. It’s actual footage of the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s an important film to watch, because history has been repeating itself of late, and since we have more access to misinformation, more of us are vulnerable to this type of false patriotism.

According to Wikipedia, 20,000 people attended that Fascist rally, and when you see the footage, the pomp and circumstance will give you the chills. People marching in lock step, American flags interspersed with Nazi flags. A gigantic image of George Washington, as if he were a god. People giving the Nazi salute to the American flag. Patriotism at its most terrifying.

And wait until you get to the part where the protester runs up on stage and is beaten up by about 20 to 30 Ordnungsdienst, the militia that was organized by the German American Bund to protect them at the rally. They throw the protester to the ground, kick him, and punch him. All this while the speaker looks on and smiles. If the local police hadn’t dragged the poor protester off stage, he may very well have been killed. Instead, they fined him 25 dollars for disorderly conduct (which is the equivalent of $505.66 in today’s money). That must have been a bitter pill to swallow given the conduct of the Nazis that the world would come to know.

At the time of this rally, the Nazis were operating 6 concentration camps. But Americans only stopped ignoring the constant drumbeat of news regarding these camps by around 1944 and by then there were almost too many to count. It’s not that we didn’t know. We just didn’t want to believe or think about it. But when Johnny came marching home with horror stories, there was no more room for denial.

But let’s go back to that Nazi rally on American soil in 1939. This time let’s avert our gaze from the stage. (Yes, please!) Let’s look at the 20,000 Americans in the audience.

One has to wonder how many people in attendance had already joined the German American Bund. This was, after all, pure propaganda, and it would serve that organization well to pack the Garden so people would think that this hatred was the prevailing attitude. Fortunately, Wikipedia tells us that there were 100,000 protesters outside, including WWI veterans wrapped in the American flag.

And this little tidbit from Wikipedia really had me intrigued: “One of the most mystifying disturbances came from a blaring speaker set up in a second-floor room of a rooming house at the southern corner of Forty-ninth Street and Eight Avenue. Shortly before 8 o’clock it began blaring out a denunciation of Nazis and urging “Be American, Stay at Home.” Upon investigation, the room was found untenanted: the voice of these ‘denunciations’ came from a record, timed to go off at 7:55 pm.”

I would dearly love to hear the story behind that.

Mayor LaGuardia hoped that by allowing the rally at the Garden, the disturbing spectacle would convince people that this group was one to be avoided. But he also knew that things were bound to get ugly, so he dispatched 1,700 uniformed officers outside, and 600 undercover officers inside.

There is really no way to know the makeup of the audience. The GAB’s membership rolls were already dwindling. (Hence the need for the rally.) One has to assume that a certain percentage were already members, and that a certain percentage had fallen for the disinformation campaign, and/or were anti-semites who were looking for like-minded friends.

It’s also important to remember that this was 1939, and people had been suffering the effects of the Great Depression for a decade. That’s a lot of disaffected countrymen who were longing to “Make America Great Again.” As we know at present, people are willing to swallow anything if they think it will bring them some relief.

But the attendees that I worry about the most are the very small percentage who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. The posters for this event called it a “Pro-American Rally.” It mentions “True Americanism.” World War II wouldn’t begin in Europe until September, which is a little over 6 months after this rally. And America wouldn’t join the war until December 1941.

But this must have been a really scary time, and one where a lot of people might feel instinctively more patriotic, because they were so afraid. They probably would think that going and rooting for America was a good idea. The poster did not contain Swastikas. The only telltale sign was that all the letters s in the poster are designed like those worn by the German SS. I suspect that those trying to ignore the existence of concentration camps were not likely to look at pictures of those terrorists long enough to focus on the font on their uniforms.

And yet, for those in denial, it would take a special level of moral blindness and an utter lack of independent judgment to walk past 100,000 protesters to go to this rally and still be shocked at what one was walking into. Still, I’d like to think (for our sakes, if not for theirs) that there were a certain number of clueless donkeys who attended that rally and looked on in horror. What must it feel like to suddenly be completely surrounded by people who you are convinced are warped, twisted and crazed? You certainly wouldn’t want to speak up. Here you’d be, expecting to root, root, root for your country, only to discover that this was no baseball game. Under those circumstances, watching someone beaten on stage must have been terrifying.

But please don’t think that this infamous Nazi rally was the only one that ever occurred in America. Far from it. These rallies occurred all over the country. In fact, here in Seattle several rallies were held, albeit with protesters outside. I encourage you to read this fascinating series of articles in Crosscut. The series of six articles is about the forgotten history of the Nazis in the Northwest, and it will make you blink more than once.

Among the things discussed in this series is the fact that one of the local diplomats from Nazi Germany, Baron Manfred von Killinger, was a known Nazi stormtrooper. It was later discovered that he was posted in the San Francisco office to invigorate the already existing spy network in the United States. Later, he killed himself after being charged with implementing the Final Solution in Romania.

It seems that Seattle was lousy with Nazis before the war. In fact, in 1937 there was a Nazi rally at the Masonic Temple, and the Mayor of Seattle was in attendance, and it is alleged that he gave the Nazi salute. I first learned of this disturbing event while I was sitting in that very theater, now called the Egyptian. It was in 2018, and I was there to see Rick Steves do a talk and a prescreening of his upcoming documentary entitled, The Story of Fascism in Europe. This film is not your usual Rick Steves upbeat travelogue. It’s a fascinating documentary that I highly recommend. I blogged about it here.

Crosscut also wrote about Steves’ talk at the Egyptian, and went into more detail about Seattle’s Nazi sympathizers in this article, which was written two years after the series of articles mentioned above. It talked about the Nazi rallies in town, and also that even back then, the NRA was heavily involved with the far right, and would help arm these groups, just as they do to this very day.

It goes on to describe another creepy Seattle/Nazi connection in the form of William Dudley Pelley, a presidential candidate in 1936 who called himself “American Hitler”. He was also the founder of the Silver Shirts, and their headquarters were in Redmond, Washington for a time, right across the lake from Seattle. (Interestingly, Redmond is now home to the Microsoft headquarters.) The Silver Shirts also got a lot of their arms from the NRA and they planned to overthrow the American government. Thank goodness their man was never elected.

According to this article, there has been a fascist streak running through this country since the 1700’s. McCarthyism, with its witch hunt of communists, was fascism pure and simple. But as Rick Steves says, “Fascism is incremental. It’s a slow chipping away of your rights, until one day you look up and you have none.”

Our strongest flirtation with fascism to date was when Trump was elected president in 2016. This article, and thousands of others on the web, make a great case for his unapologetically fascist tendencies. Any time you hear someone shouting about fake news, ask yourself what they are trying to keep you from knowing. It’s a safe bet that these chaos-mongers are fascists. Never let anyone replace your access to professional reporting that is well-investigated and backed up with facts, with their pretty words based on nothing but opinion and rumor.

And, again, beware of false patriotism. We step over its shadows everywhere we go. Sitting in that seat at the Egyptian where known Nazis had sat and saluted both the Nazi and American flags made me want to leap up and run to the nearest shower. I’m sure Germans today feel that way all the time. Or maybe they’ve reconciled themselves with their dark past. I’m sure there are a wide range of attitudes, just as there are in this country.

But if someone is patriotic in the extreme, let your BS antennas go up. I have been saying this for years: A true patriot is one who can look at the country with an unjaundiced eye and criticize it when it needs to be criticized. That person truly wants the best for the country, and would never fall for these rallies that serve up food for thought that has no real nutritional value.

Don’t take the easy way out. Question authority. Exercise the critical thinking skills that so many are trying to prevent us from being taught in schools. These skills, although hard-won, will serve you well. No doubt about it: Nazi flags still fly in America. We need to be ever-vigilant of fascism and resist it at every turn.

After this heavy post, I bet you need a lighthearted palate cleanser. Read my book!

Exploring DC: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This museum is not for sissies.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

Ever since the Holocaust Museum’s dedication in Washington DC in 1993, I’ve been wanting to visit. (And incidentally, check out that website link because it’s a very informative, fascinating site.) I immediately added it to our itinerary when we decided to go to our nation’s capital two months ago. The last time I was in the area was in the late 80’s, after they had broken ground for the museum in 1985, but before they had lain the first cornerstone thereof in 1988. Things move slowly in Washington.

Admission is free to this amazing place, even though it’s not part of the Smithsonian Institution. But if you want to visit in this pandemic era, know that you should plan well ahead of time. They required free timed-entry tickets as of this writing, and they’re often booked solid for months in advance.

However, if, like me, you aren’t quite that organized, don’t despair. There’s still hope. They release a limited number of same-day tickets every day. What you have to do is go to their website at 7 a.m. and try to get tickets before they disappear.

The first morning we tried this, we were surprised at how many people had also gotten up at that ungodly hour to do the exact same thing. My husband kept trying for tickets in the morning, only to see them snapped up by someone else. By the time he had gotten the hang of the process, which only took about two minutes, all the tickets for the day were gone. But we figured out a neat little trick for the second morning.

On that morning, DH logged in again at 7 a.m., but while everyone else was fighting over the early morning ticket times, he went for some that were for mid-afternoon, and he got them! Woo hoo! On a positive note, we were able to get tickets. On a less positive note, we would only have about 3 hours to check it out before it closed for the day, and that’s a whole lot less than this place deserves. (It’s open from 10 to 5:30. Also, be warned that it’s closed on Wednesdays.)

Having acquired the elusive pass into this museum, I could tell almost instantly as we approached it that it would be worth the hassle. The first thing I saw was a quote carved in stone on the outside of the building. It is a quote that I wish I could force every holocaust denier to read.

“The things I saw beggar description… The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering… I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda” -General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, at Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, April 15, 1945.

That set the tone. As we entered and waited in a long line for the elevator, we were told that we would start at the top and spiral our way down, from floor to floor. “A downward spiral, the same path far-right nations such as Nazi Germany always take,” I thought. I have no idea if this was intentional, but it was ever present in my mind during our visit.

Before you get on the elevator, you are encouraged to take an identification card from the tall stack of such cards, separated into male and female piles. One per customer. They look like the kind of cards you had to carry with you everywhere in Nazi occupied territory. Get caught without an identification card, you could be shot on the spot.

Each of these cards contains the 4 page story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. They suggest that you read page one before entering the elevator, and then one page on each of the three floors that house the museum’s permanent exhibit. We did so. It was chilling. I’ll share with you the stories of the two people we chose in the photos below. Just sitting here rereading these stories has made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. They put a human face on each floor.

The 4th floor described the Nazi Assault, and covered the years 1933 to 1939. It explained how Hitler was able to rise to power, and how the entire country was falsely convinced that all their problems stemmed from the “racially inferior” or “enemies of the state.” Does that sound familiar? It should. Not that long ago, our government was trying to teach us to demonize immigrants and hate the press even as we were told to deny the horrifying news because it was supposed to be “fake”.

This exhibit also talks about the unscientific philosophy of Eugenics, which holds that some races are inferior to others. Where did Hitler learn that? From the Americans. Read my blog post about that here. There are many newspaper headlines on the walls, warning of the dangerous path Europe was on, and this floor also explains how so many people desperately attempted to escape, even as the world turned a blind eye.

The 3rd floor exhibit was called The Final Solution, 1940-1945. It described the slow but steady erosion of rights for the Jews. First, little things like not being allowed to have bicycles, then not being able to attend schools, and then increasingly violent persecution. Then separation into ghettos and mass murder by mobile killing squads, death camps and killing centers. It shows you what life was like in the concentration camps in grizzly detail.

Just as the Nazis did, they start you off slow. You enter a room full of photographs from floor to ceiling, showing what actual life was like for the Jews before the holocaust. Family portraits. Trips to the shore. Summer camps. Playgrounds. Holidays. Just your typical family photo album stuff.

Then you learn of the harsh policies that forced people into the ghettos, and then later forced them into the cattle cars that would transport them to one of the more than 1000 Nazi concentration camps scattered throughout occupied Europe. (Did you know there had been that many? I didn’t.) You are presented with an actual cattle car, which you have to walk through in order to see other parts of the exhibit. I knew this would be upsetting, but I don’t think I realized just how intensely the feelings would hit me.

At this point, I had gotten slightly separated from DH, and there were no other people in the immediate area, either. I walked up to the cattle car, but I didn’t want to step in. But then I told myself that no one had wanted to, and dammit, if they had to endure the horrors of the Holocaust, the least I could do was drag my over-privileged, extremely coddled behind into that car for two freakin’ seconds.

By then I was extremely foot-sore and my lower back was killing me, and I felt ashamed, because that’s not even a tiny speck of dust in comparison to the universe of terror, dread and torture that these people had to endure. Get. In. The. Damned. Boxcar.

So in I went. On one level it was just an empty boxcar. Huh. Smaller than I expected. But my imagination quickly populated it with a hundred terrified people who were crying, wailing, sweating, coughing, defecating and vomiting, desperate for water and food and space to breathe, and having no idea what was in store for them at the journey’s end.

It felt so real to me that I nearly dropped to my knees. I didn’t want to appear crazy, though, so I went into a corner and I leaned back against the wall and tried not to freak the heck out. I started weeping. This place was a box full of pain and fear, and yet I realized I was only feeling about one percent of what they had felt, because on some level I knew I could step out of that boxcar and resume my life at any second. Ultimately, that’s what I did. But I will never forget that place. Not ever.

I can tell you that this museum is not for sissies. But I felt compelled to press on, to learn, to bear witness, to prevent it from happening again. (Please, everybody, educate yourselves, and vote.)

We learned about the various concentration camps and sites of mass murder. I read about Babi Yar for the first time. It is a ravine outside of the city of Kiev where the Jews of the city were lined up and shot, over two days, to the tune of 33,000 dead. And then in the months to follow, more people were shot in that ravine, thousands more Jews, as well as Roma, partisans, and prisoners of war. In the end it was estimated that, at a bare minimum, 100,000 corpses were in that ravine. If that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you have no soul.

I was particularly drawn to any description of the Mauthausen camp in Austria, with its staircase of death, because my father helped to liberate it, and I’m fairly certain that he wasn’t sober a single day in his life after that. He died a sad and lonely alcoholic death when I was 8 days short of my 25th birthday. I never got a chance to know or even meet him. So I looked closely at all the photographs of Mauthausen, and the video of its liberation, and wondered if any one of those stunned American soldiers was my father.

I’ve held a certain theory my whole adult life. To wit: even though he wasn’t imprisoned there, my father was also a victim of that concentration camp, and by extension, so was I. The ripple effect of this ugly period in history continues to damage us all in numerous ways.

From there I came upon the shoes. Each death camp tended to accumulate massive piles of them, taken off the prisoner’s feet before they were gassed. This display was just a small portion of a pile of shoes from just one camp, and it was still dreadful to look at. My God, so many shoes. All that is left of so many people.

We then spiraled down to the 2nd Floor, which was called The Last Chapter. It was a floor that restored a little bit of hope within me. It was about the many people in the resistance. It told stories of those who risked death and imprisonment to save people. It talked about the underground, and the many Jews who fought back.

Being of Danish descent, I was particularly drawn to the story of the Jews of Denmark, the only occupied country that managed to save the vast majority of its Jews. 7,220 of them were smuggled into neutral Sweden. Unfortunately, 500 more were deported to Theresienstadt, but all but 51 of those poor souls survived.

The next part of the exhibit was a long wall that listed what the State of Israel call the Righteous Among the Nations. It’s a list of all those non-Jews who risked their lives during the holocaust to save Jews from extermination. The wall includes famous people such as Oskar Schindler (see also the movie Schindler’s List) to people who worked quietly in the shadows, such as Irene Gut Opdyke, a housekeeper for a German army major. She hid 18 Jews in her employer’s villa. These people and their stories should always be remembered. Here are but a few of them.

From there, the museum took on the topic of bystanders who did nothing at all. They didn’t collaborate, nor did they come to anyone’s aid. They simply stood by and looked elsewhere. They comprised the vast majority of the people, and it is that type of behavior we need to avoid if we don’t want these things to happen again.

One of the last things you see in the permanent exhibition is a cast of a wall that still stands to this day in Cracow, Poland. It is made of the fragments of Jewish headstones from a 400 year old cemetery that was destroyed by the Germans and turned into a mass execution site. What a sobering legacy.

After having gone on this downward spiral for hours, I was kind of shocked to enter the sad but tranquil Hall of Remembrance with its perpetual flame. On one wall is this quote from President Clinton, during the dedication ceremony for this museum.

“This museum will touch the life of everyone who enters and leave everyone forever changed – a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope; an ally of education against ignorance, of humility against arrogance, an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lures ahead. If this museum can mobilize morality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality.”

Well said, Bill. But the editor in me wants to know why you said “lures”.

I wish we had had the time to see the temporary exhibits, including Burma’s Path to Genocide, which reminds us that these atrocities can and do still happen to this day, and especially the one called American Witnesses, which tells stories of the people like my father who saw the awful aftermath of the Holocaust firsthand, and the exhibit for children that shows the experience of the Holocaust through the eyes of one particular child. But time is fleeting.

After we left the ubiquitous gift shop, still feeling rather stunned, we realized that we were one of the last visitors in the building, and we watched all the employees leave as we stood in the rain, waiting for our Uber. The rain made me feel miserable, but at the same time it felt like the tears from the victims of our twisted and flawed human past. In that context, my irritation at little bit of cold water flowing down the back of my neck seemed trivial, indeed.

The Complicated History of the Swastika

Choose to be kind.

I’m going to say, right out of the gate, that when I see a swastika, I see hate, intolerance, antisemitism, death, aggression, intimidation, and terror. You will never see me put a swastika on anything, and if I see one, I’ll do my utmost to have it removed, because it triggers and disrespects people. Full stop.

But according to Wikipedia, until this symbol was coopted by the Nazis in 1930’s, it was meant to convey well-being, auspiciousness, prosperity and good luck in many cultures all around the world. You often see it on Hindu wedding invitations to this day. It’s also used in Buddhist and Jain ceremonies. Even the Navajo used it as a symbol of good luck, but they stopped doing so after World War II.

So, to add to their many unspeakable atrocities, the Nazis took a positive symbol and twisted it into something despicable and evil for so many of us. It’s not right and it’s not fair. But the fact remains.

Read that sentence again. The fact remains.

You might have the best of intentions when you use a swastika. You might be the most mild-mannered, hate-free, albeit clueless person on earth. But it doesn’t matter and it can’t matter, because the symbol has been corrupted, with a few extremely limited cultural exceptions, and it therefore should not be used by anyone, aside from of those exceptions, who cares about the people who may see it. It’s called common decency and consideration.

The reason this is on my mind at the moment is that I just read an article entitled, “Swastikas in the raiments create an uproar among Society for Creative Anachronism fans.”

It seems that the new king and queen of the west coast kingdom wore swastikas during their coronation. This society does living history and cosplay from medieval times, and claims to welcome everyone who wants to participate, regardless of race or creed. Their royal highnesses say they meant no harm, and that they were restoring the symbol to its former historically benevolent meaning.

But in real life, the guy is a police officer in Nevada. He knows all about hate symbols and the harm they can cause. So I’m not buying it, frankly.

And even if I’m wrong, even if these people are as innocent as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, what they did was inappropriate. They could have used any other design in the world for their stoles, but they picked this one above all others. I’m glad they apologized and abdicated their thrones. That’s the very least they could have done.

It seems like a no-brainer to me. If there’s any doubt that your behavior might harm anyone, even if it’s “just” emotionally, then don’t do that thing. Just don’t. Choose to be kind.

So now I’m left with figuring out what image to pair up with this post. The post is about swastikas, so you might assume I’d choose a swastika. But see the paragraph above. I’m not out to hurt anyone. So no. Instead I’m going to find something that symbolizes the very opposite of what hate groups have done to the swastika. Because I want to be a force for good.

Stick that on your stole.

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book.

A Hateful, Clueless Meme

A twisted use of a powerful photograph.

You may have seen this disgusting meme floating around on social media. A friend (Hi, Jen!) pointed it out to me, and I was instantly repulsed. The message it seems to be trying to get across is, don’t follow the mask-wearing sheep of the world. Resist. Do what you want. As if not wearing a mask makes you some kind of hero.

This meme seems to be quite popular amongst the foolish people who think that by not wearing a mask, they’re exercising a constitutional right. That is patently absurd. None of us have the right to put the lives of everyone we come in contact with at risk. We all have a responsibility to maintain public health. If that weren’t the case, we’d be pooping on the public sidewalks with impunity. Because holding it doesn’t feel good.

There are certain standards that have to be maintained in order to have a healthy society. You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. Selfishness does not pair well with being a member of a community.

But even more offensive is the fact that this historical photograph has been appropriated to make an ignorant, hyper-conservative meme with its own agenda, when the man in the photograph was anything but a poster child for that ideology.

Let’s start with the one indisputable fact about this photograph. It was taken in 1936, during the launch of a German military training ship called the Horst Wessel. All the witnesses to the launch are giving the Nazi salute except for this one man, who defiantly keeps his arms crossed. That must have taken a great deal of courage.

Historians now think that this is a photograph of either Gustav Wegert or August Landmesser. More and more people are starting to believe it was Wegert, as there’s more evidence that he was working at the time at the shipyard. Alas, if it is Wegert, it isn’t as compelling a story. Wegert never experienced Nazi persecution. He wasn’t imprisoned. He survived the war. He was simply against the Nazi salute because he was a devout Christian. This is admirable, but not particularly exciting.

If this is a photograph of Landmesser, on the other hand, it makes for a fascinating tale. Landmesser did join the Nazi party in the hope of gaining employment, but he was later kicked out of it when it came to light that he was engaged to a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler. They were married, but the union wasn’t recognized under the Nuremburg Laws. They had two daughters. He was thrown in jail for “dishonoring the race.”

He was released from jail in May, 1938 for lack of evidence, as they argued that nobody was sure that his wife was fully Jewish. But two months later he was imprisoned again, and sent to a concentration camp. His wife was also sent to prison, and in fact gave birth to their second daughter there. She was then sent from one concentration camp to another until she finally died in 1942.

Landmesser was released from his concentration camp in 1941, but in 1944 he was drafted into a penal battalion and forced to fight. He finally died in battle in Croatia eight months later. He was 34 years old. His daughters grew up in an orphanage, and later in foster care. His oldest daughter published a book about the family’s persecution for “racial disgrace”.

Whether the defiant man in the photograph is Wegert or Landmesser is irrelevant to the message, as far as I am concerned. It is evidence that somebody was willing to stand up for their principles at a time when a lot of people were being brainwashed and following blindly or acquiescing due to fear. This photograph gives me hope. But when I look away from him and at all the others, it makes me despair. That’s why the photo is so powerful to me. It shows me that I can hold both feelings at once.

The very idea that this picture has been twisted around to make doing the wrong thing, the selfish thing, the life threatening thing seem heroic is disgusting and outrageous, and insults the memory of the man, whoever he may have been, who was brave enough to be on the right side of history.

If you created this meme, shame on you. I added the x to the meme so it couldn’t be copied and used. Not from this blog, anyway. Not today.

Now is the perfect time to stay at home and stay safe and read a good book. Try mine!

You Know Mr. D

Some people are just drawn to fascism.

Yesterday I blogged about an amazing woman, Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who spent quite a lot of time observing, and even interviewing, Adolf Hitler. She warned the world about fascism for years before most people were even paying attention. She was so outspoken about it before that was fashionable that she was actually the first American journalist to be kicked out of Nazi Germany.

Fascism does sneak up on you. That’s how it works. It chips away at your rights bit by bit until one day you look up and you have none. It attacks the media first. It targets minorities as it requires someone to blame. It whips up hate and violence and isolation and fear.

We’d like to think we conquered fascism with World War II when Dorothy Thompson was reporting, but nothing could be further from the truth. In light of that, I decided to read an article that she wrote in Harper’s Magazine back in August, 1941, entitled Who Goes Nazi?

This article is a work of art. The premise is that she is at a party, observing everyone, and based on what she knows about these people, she’s predicting which ones would become Nazis. As she takes you through the room from clique to clique and reveals their secrets, you kind of feel as if you’re watching a black and white movie from the 40’s. You hear her voice over, making her ghastly predictions, as the party goes on and everyone pretends to be pleasant. There’s a tension that’s not being acknowledged. This is society in microcosm.

But the scariest part about it is it could be applied to the present just as easily as that party from 80 years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We have not learned from history.

Ms. Thompson doesn’t name names. She moved in rather influential circles in her time. She wasn’t attempting to shame anyone in particular. She was just identifying types. So she calls them Mr. A and Mr. B and so on. After revealing them to you, she then explains why each one would never become, or perhaps already is, a Nazi. I highly recommend that you read this article. But for my purposes, I’ll focus on Mr. D. Because we all know him.

I think young D over there is the only born Nazi in the room. Young D is the spoiled only son of a doting mother. He has never been crossed in his life. He spends his time at the game of seeing what he can get away with. He is constantly arrested for speeding and his mother pays the fines. He has been ruthless toward two wives and his mother pays the alimony. His life is spent in sensation-seeking and theatricality. He is utterly inconsiderate of everybody. He is very good-looking, in a vacuous, cavalier way, and inordinately vain. He would certainly fancy himself in a uniform that gave him a chance to swagger and lord it over others.

When I read that, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. Because we all know who this describes to a T. We may not have created a monster, but we’ve certainly elected it.

The crux of the article is that happy, confident, wise people don’t go for fascism. It’s those who are full of fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing that feel quite at home with it. So take a good long look at yourself, as well as at the people you surround yourself with, and keep as far away from the dark side as you possibly can.

Okay, so this party is more likely from the 20’s, but you get the idea…

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“The City Without Jews” is a Very Confusing Movie

This film really made me struggle. I didn’t want it to.

Back in 1923, before all the Nazi atrocities reached their horrifying peak, Hugo Bettauer published a novel entitled The City Without Jews. It was a best seller. We are told that it was a satire to show people what would happen if intolerance took hold. Bettauer was himself a Jew, and wanted to write something that spoke out against the increasing backlashes against miscegenation that he was witnessing in Vienna at the time.

In 1924, this book was made into a silent movie, which was recently rediscovered, restored, and has been screened all over the U.S. I looked forward to seeing its debut in Seattle. I was fascinated that at such a fraught time in Austrian history, there was a popular author with such progressive views. (He also wrote about women’s rights and homosexuality at a time when those things were rarely spoken about.) I also hoped it would be very timely in its warnings, given the increased anti-Semitism we are seeing in America and Europe.

Well… um…

I can’t really speak about the book, having not yet read it, but if I hadn’t read up on the movie beforehand, and therefore hadn’t been informed about the message it is supposed to portray, I wouldn’t have drawn that progressive conclusion. Not at all.

Yes, the politicians who vote to have all the Jews removed from this fictional city do come off as buffoons. Yes, the crowds that supported their decisions seem mindless and violent. I’ll give them that. But once the Jews are expelled, and people start to grumble because their city hasn’t been made great again, the Jews are brought back not because the people have somehow rediscovered their moral compass. No, they are brought back because their absence is hurting people in their pocketbook. Jews are treated as a commodity. They come off as a necessary evil.

Several other things made me uncomfortable about the movie, as well.

First of all, there was no indication that ejecting so many people caused any kind of upheaval. The Jews seemed to voluntarily, if reluctantly, leave. No violence. Just some prayers and a tear or two. No talk about losing homes or businesses or loved ones. They trudge down a cold road, on Christmas day, no less, and there’s this feeling of resignation. The richer ones hopped on trains. It was all rather easy and convenient.

Second, even when the people in the city decided that they wanted the Jews back, it only happened through the trickery of a Jew. He sneaks back into town, posing as a Frenchman, and when it’s discovered that the motion is just one vote shy of passing, he gets one of the most racist councilmembers drunk, then drugs him, and drives him around, thus preventing him from being present for the vote. The sneaky Jew prevails.

And if you had missed that message somehow, there’s a scene to reinforce it. The Jew in question is sitting at a table with another man who identifies as Jewish, but was able to stay in the city because he was second generation mixed, so he was essentially “passing”, and he says to the trickster something along the lines of, “Only one of us would be able to do that.” (Meaning trick them into rescinding the law.)  Laughs all around.

And then, of course, all the Jews happily come back, the first one met with innocent children bearing flowers, a cheering crowd, and everything gets back to normal and everyone lives happily ever after. Uh… what?

While watching this movie, I tried to tell myself to stop looking at it through a 21st century lens. I kept reminding myself that it was supposed to be a satire. But I struggled. I really struggled.

I think you could just cut out a scene or two, and this could be shown at a White Supremacist rally as a comedy that lampoons Judaism, right down to their bobbing and wailing in the Synagogue. (And I found it interesting that a lot of the politicians were similarly bobbing while passing their evil laws.)

I know that the author meant well. He even paid for it with his life. A year after the movie came out, he was killed by a Nazi who was then declared temporarily insane, did a year and a half in a mental institution, and then was set free to live his hateful, unrepentant life until 1977.

But still, I struggle. If you’re interested, you can see the movie for free on Youtube. Let me know what you think. I’d be genuinely interested in hearing from you.


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Little Punks All Grown Up

You can never be completely sure of the content of someone else’s character.

Thirty years ago, a friend said to me, “Every time I meet a German male of a certain age, I wonder what role he played in the Nazi Party.” It kind of made my blood run cold, if I’m honest. But now that generation has, for the most part, died off.

But when you think about it (even though these things are on a different scale entirely), there are little criminals in every generation. Sometimes I look at the adults I know and I remember that all of us have gone through the stupid adolescent stage, and that means, purely from a statistical standpoint, that a certain percentage used to be dumb-a$$ little punks.

That CEO may have delighted in keying cars when he was 13. Your postman may have thought it was funny to make sexually harassing anonymous phone calls. Your spouse might have been into shoplifting.

Bullies grow up, too. Some of them outgrow that tendency. Others, unfortunately, become your supervisor. I shudder to think what antics Donald Trump got up to when he was 12. It wouldn’t surprise me if he pulled the wings off flies.

And while certain behaviors should be written off as the foibles of youth, and people really can mature and change, a lot of criminal behavior is an innate part of one’s psychological makeup, and the only reason that person is still out amongst us is that he or she just never got caught. You can never be completely sure of the content of someone else’s character.

Something to think about.


Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!

Trump is the New Hitler

I have a German last name, and because of that I have always taken the events that led up to, and occurred during, World War II very seriously. Growing up, I was fascinated by the Diaries of Anne Frank and all things related to concentration camps. I was proud of the fact that my father helped to liberate one during the war.

I could never understand what would cause a nation to be sucked in by an insane man who spewed nothing but hate. I could never imagine being so afraid of an entire group of people that I would leave even its women and children out in the cold. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could justify depriving a whole religious group of its human rights.

I still don’t understand it. I never will. But now I can see how it happens. The other day, Donald Trump said, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

First of all, the screening system that allows immigrants into the US is extremely rigorous. If you think people just wander over the border willy nilly, think again. Better yet, Google it. If the system had been this stringent when my grandparents came to this country, they’d very likely have been turned back at Ellis Island, and I wouldn’t exist.

Normally, I wouldn’t take anything Donald Trump said very seriously. In my personal opinion, he’s a racist nut job with a bad comb over. But what was terrifying about this current bit of insanity of his was that when he said it, the crowd cheered. They cheered just as the Germans did when Hitler spouted his racist insanity during the Nuremberg Rally. Do you understand what I’m saying? They cheered.

In Germany, at the time, the economy was in a shambles. People were afraid. They wanted someone to blame. So a charismatic man with a bad hairdo came along and exploited their fear and turned it into hate and as a result over 60 million people died in a war that should never have taken place.

By the way, it wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered, thanks to the Elie Weisel Foundation, that none of my relatives had joined the Nazi Party. My family comes from the Alsace-Lorraine region in what is now France. Although this region has been dragged back and forth between France and Germany throughout history, during most of the last century, and this one so far, it’s part of France. What a huge weight off my shoulders!

But can I truly set down that weight? Now history seems to be repeating itself. Trump doesn’t scare me nearly as much as those cheering people in the crowd. Those people, those fellow Americans, do not seem to have learned from the deadly mistakes of history. Those people vote. I don’t want to see what happens if their hatred wins.

trump hitler
[Image credit:]

Free Maheinour el-Masry

Here’s what’s sad. I’m willing to bet that 99 Americans out of 100 have never heard of Mehinour el-Masry, a brave human rights protester who has been jailed by the Egyptian government for exercising what we would consider to be her basic human right to free speech. I only heard of her the other day on the Daily Show, and became curious.

el-Masry was demonstrating outside the trial regarding the murder of Khaled Said, whose death helped spark the Egyptian uprising of 2011. (It is said that he was brutally beaten to death by plain clothes policemen.) Simply by organizing this protest, Ms. el-Masry broke Egypt’s repressive protests law. Now she joins an estimated 16,000 to 41,000 political prisoners who have caused Egyptian prisons to burst at the seams due to the sheer weight of human rights violations.

The last place you ever want to be is in an Egyptian prison. Especially if you are a woman. el-Masry has already experienced beatings and interrogations, and can look forward to being tortured and raped by her captors repeatedly during her two year stay. All for expressing her opinion in public. If that were me, I’d be long dead by now because it never occurs to me to censor myself. I’ve never had to do so. Speaking one’s mind shouldn’t be a luxury.

And who knows what else is in store for her now that she is the ward of an insane state? On April 28th of this year, one Egyptian judge condemned 720 people to death without hearing any witnesses or allowing any lawyers to speak. 720 people. Condemned to death. In one working day. I think that would even make the average Nazi blink.

Why is this not all over the news in America? Are our heads buried so deep in our Starbucks Caramel Macchiatos that we don’t realize there are people in the world engaged in life and death struggles? Are we worried about mussing up our manicures if we sign a petition? It boggles the mind.

To learn what you can do to help Mahinour el-Masry and bear witness to other acts of repression by the Egyptian government, visit the Egypt Solidarity website here.


The Best Museum I’ve Ever Seen

Walking down Andrassy Street in Budapest at high noon can be a chilling experience regardless of the temperature. It’s a beautiful historic boulevard with gorgeous architecture, and you have enjoyed every bit of your Budapest experience up to this point. The food, the people, everything about Budapest is lovely. And then a shadow crosses your path, and it says “Terror”. In English. In big, block letters. And that’s by design. You look up at the building that has created this word and realize that in a not so subtle way, it has also created that feeling within you. It’s grey. It’s austere. It’s imposing. It’s Budapest’s House of Terror, the best museum I’ve ever encountered in all my travels.


This building used to be Nazi headquarters during their brief occupation, and then became the headquarters of a Communist terror organization for 40 years. Untold numbers of people were tortured and killed in this building. It’s a part of history unpleasant to recall, but one which should never be forgotten.

You take a deep breath as you enter because you get the feeling you will need it. When you walk into this building, you are greeted by a huge Russian Tank that isn’t dwarfed by the cathedral ceilings. What does dwarf it, however, are the rows upon rows upon rows of photographs of the people who entered this building and never came out again. It renders you silent. And the eerie music makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up.

Terror Tank

From there you go up to the top floor and work yourself down to the scary basement, which was the one place on earth you did not want to find yourself in that era. That basement looms in your future the entire time you’re in the place.

What is so incredibly impressive about this museum is that it isn’t row upon row of cases of artifacts and dry explanations. Let’s be honest. Halfway through a museum of that type, you tend to stop reading, stop learning, and you just look at the displays and move on. But this museum isn’t only about informing you. It’s about making you feel like you were there. It uses a variety of displays, including video, abstract art, and actual artifacts, so you are never bored.

There are a lot of videos with English subtitles that show people who have survived this building, people who haven’t, and what was actually happening in Hungary during these occupations. There is a room filled with communist propaganda posters that make you really feel how absurd and yet how powerful and scary the adherents to this movement were. Each room has flyers with an English explanation of the display, which is very helpful and informative.

One room had run out of flyers, however, and I wish it hadn’t. The walls were made of these white rubbery bricks. What did they represent? Rendered human fat? I guess I’ll never know, and that made it all the more chilling.

Another room holds banks of listening devices, and really brings home the fact that you couldn’t say anything to anyone, anywhere, ever. They were listening, and they did not have your best interests at heart. How exhausting to have to live under that level of paranoia just to survive.


As you go downward, ever downward, you are treated to a display of the puppet court that could sentence you to death just for being Jewish, and/or intellectual, and/or an enemy of the State. You really sense the feeling of helplessness.

And then you arrive in the basement. The ceilings are low and feel as if they are trying to crush you. Everything is grey. You see the labyrinth of tiny suffocating cells and the torture chambers, and you can almost hear the sounds of people screaming from years ago. As I peeked into one room, which was designed for a type of torture so horrible that I can’t even bring myself to describe it to you, I was hit by this wall of terror so tangible that I nearly sank to my knees. I had to leave. I mean, I HAD to get out of there.

Perhaps the most profound and meaningful experience in that museum is leaving it. You have been transformed. You have gotten a little tiny taste of what life must have been like under a terrorist government. The fear, the futility, the inevitability of it all, the hopelessness, all of that resides within that building. And then you walk outside into the beautiful city of Budapest and see the hustle and bustle, the variety, the joy that is that place, and you are struck by the fact that they’ve overcome. That it’s possible to survive.

As long as you never forget, it’s possible to be free.