Nazis I Have Known

As a wave of overt hatred and prejudice is rising in America like the polluted Jersey shore tide, fueled by white nationalists, the Alt-Right, and of all things Neo-Nazis, I’ve been reminiscing back to the simpler times of my childhood, when all of the U.S. of A. could agree that Nazis were bad, and that that conflict fought and won – WWII for the historically challenged – had put an end to that question. We had defeated the Krauts, Hitler, the Nazis, and then, having beaten them, took a victory lap at Nuremberg mostly for moral show, and then hired their best scientists to work for us, put their civic officials back in place (for they did know best how to ‘make their own trains run on time’), and considered the matter finished. Wasn’t it a simpler time?

Growing up outside Reading, PA with a music studio in our basement gave me an opportunity to meet some ‘interesting people’ as Bugs Bunny used to say. I’ve remarked previously about the high priest of a satanic cult (Mom and the Satan Worshiper). In this case, I want to briefly introduce you to Mrs. Schubert: Nazi Apologist. Mrs. Schubert either brought her children or grandchildren for lessons in our basement; those details are a blur and irrelevant. What is important is that Mrs. Schubert had been in Germany throughout World War II and had emigrated to the U.S. after the war with her family to seek new opportunities and economic advantage. She was (to my young mind) an elderly, pulled-back-grey-haired-harsh-voiced-bespectacled matron type that was neither nice nor naughty—just brusque, taut, and imposing. She was never anything but civil to me, and my memories of her are scant and few. However, I do remember one conversation vividly she had with my mother when I was a pre-teen. My mother, rarely afraid to ask the hard questions, inquired of Mrs. Schubert how much she actually knew of what was happening in Germany during Hitler: to the Jews, the gays, the minorities etc.? Mrs. Schubert stiffened and drew herself up, and spoke with an icy and almost comic defensiveness reminiscent of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.

“We knew nothing of it. Nothing. There were rumors of course, but nothing that we knew for certain.”

And then she added with venomous emphasis…

“You think you know what your government does, but you don’t! Your government does vicious things all around the world too, but you don’t know about it, do you? We knew nothing!”

And that ended the interrogation, and she left, and it was never spoken of again. After all, business is business and Mrs. Schubert was a loyal customer. Right, Mom?

What Mrs. Schubert did or didn’t know will never be known, but her defensiveness, and her deflection, spoke volumes. Either she knew absolutely nothing and was ashamed after the fact (which is somewhat unlikely given what we know from history); or she knew something and supported it; or she knew something, but like so many was afraid to speak out. My vote, perhaps naively, will remain on the latter. One thing that is certain: she was an opportunist that found the first available transport to come to America and make a better life for herself and her family, and leave that pesky Nazi-business behind.

But wait! There’s more. Lest you think this a falsely advertised blog post, I want to introduce you to Erwin “the German,” a gym buddy of mine. I don’t remember Erwin’s last name (if I ever knew it). We used to work out together at the Wyomissing Sheraton fitness center when hotels used to have open memberships. This was in the early ‘90s and Erwin was much older than me. That’s because he was a real-life-honest-to-goodness/evilness Nazi. By the time I knew Erwin he was a tall, loud, rugged, portly, slow-moving and half-blind, jovial joy. He made no secret of his past, and his contemporaries often teased him about his past by calling him “Erwin the German” loudly from the other side of the pool. It was meant, oddly, endearingly, and he took it as such. He had joined the Hitler Youth as a boy, and later been stationed on the Eastern Front to counter the Ruskie incursion. He implied he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad. He implied he had killed Russians. But he always talked about his past briefly, somewhat romantically, and without passion. The war had happened, he was an American citizen (still with a thick German accent, as was Mrs. Schubert), and he had moved to the States to become a plumber. He had had a good life in America and seemed to have no regrets.

Erwin died while I still frequented the gym and was mourned by all who knew him as a kind and generous friend. I have no doubt that Mrs. Shubert is also gone. I say Nazis – plural – in this blog title because, whatever Mrs. Schubert’s feeling on the subject of Nazism, it was evident that she was there, was not the target of their evil, and did little to nothing to stop their spread. Guilty by association perhaps. But I’ve written none of this to condemn either individual, but rather to draw a gentle parallel from the past to the present. Both of my Nazi acquaintances had been caught in something both unfortunate and larger than themselves – partly through fear, ignorance, disadvantage, youth or the combination, but when that something larger was defeated, they reverted back to being decent, productive citizens of a free society, and went on to lead fine and benign lives.  I look at all the young men and women in Charlottesville and elsewhere, that have been caught up in the wave of hatred, ignorance, fake news, and economic instability, and as much as I know we need to stop the spread of their ideology and terror, I also know that they are our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and colleagues, and we’re going to have to work together to bring them back into a basic understanding of what it really means to be an American, to live in a free and equal society. And that, of course, will require some punching of Nazis at the outset. But it will also require some measure of reaching out to those who can be reached, forgiving, and modeling a better way to be. Repaying hatred with hatred is not the answer. It will only perpetuate the resentment and violence. Hatred must be met with strength, firstly yes, but then needs to be listening, compassion, and healing. Perhaps if we try this we’ll find ourselves forty years from now with a few more Erwin’s than David Duke’s. It’s just a thought.

Auf wiedersehen,

Jason

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