Why I Invited the Neo-Nazi to the Jewish Sleep-Away Camp
By the 1970s it was likely that nearly every Jewish child in America had had an opportunity to meet and question, at school, synagogue, at a YMHA, a Survivor, whether of Auschvitz, Belzec, Sobibor, or, a survivor taken in and protected by remarkable, incredibly brave Chriatians. I recall when I first arranged for a survivor to speak at Akiba Hebrew Academy where I taught Humanities; I was 23. I collected Mrs Grubmann, then in her late seventies, at her home, and as we turned onto the campus road she quite deliberately pushed up the sleeves on her thin, steel-grey cardigan. The numbers slapped me so hard my hands jumped from the wheel. In still heavily German-accented English she said, “Young man, please be alert.” Then, softly: “I know. You’ve never seen one before; it’s alright.”
And now, of course, with the very last of them dying out, children of all backgrounds have video and other archives and museums available to them. As horrible as a child can initially feel, children need to confront mass murder. And yet they don’t, typically, get a chance to confront mass murderers themselves, or, at least their ideas and feelings in the person of a neo-Nazi. I provided that opportunity for about 700 kids in the summer of 1977 at a Jewish sleepway camp not too far northwest of Philadelphia.
I was hired as the camp’s Drama Director and we put on some terrific productions. We made a film of The Golem, the original Frankenstein’s Monster story, if you will, and we staged a moving production of the Yiddish classic, The Dybbuk, a 19th Century tale of mysticism wherein a man’s spirit inhabits the body of his beloved after he dies, to keep her from an arranged marriage to a man she does not love.
On the strength of those successes, I approached the camp director with my neo-Nazi-Idea. He and I were similar, edgy, push-the boundaries-souls, and he signed on immediately.
In the run-up to the evening’s event, we posted unsavory but not lurid Holocaust flyers throughout the camp announcing a short film and a speaker. There didn’t seem to be a great deal of interest; after all, these were Jewish kids, mostly teens, teens who feigned or genuinely felt an oh-no-not-this-again apathy. They’d heard it all before.
There was dismissive buzz as the kids came in to the dining hall. We showed a clip from a documentary short, one that, while honest, wasn’t too graphic. Once finished, I stepped to the front and introduced our guest amidst the summertime evening teenage chatter. “Our guest, Hans..he won’t give us his last name…has agreed to share with you the program of his organization, the American Nazi Party. My expectation is that no matter what you hear in the next half an hour you will be respectful and save questions for the end.”
There were a few giggles as well as some deliberately outsized gasps. I then motioned for our guest to step out from the kitchen and join me at the dais. The man, in his late twenties, was well over six feet, perhaps a hundred-ninety pounds. His uniform alone was enough to hush kids fast. The swastikas made even me slightly uncomfortable and I wondered if I’d done the right thing. I felt a tiny twinge of regret as I saw some of our youngest children, the eights and nines, sort of ball themselves up in their seats.
Hans’ light brown hair was close-cropped but not buzzed; his eyes were green, his jack-boots shiny black. There was a slight rumble from the oldest campers, in the back, but many of them were my drama kids and I shot them a look and they settled in. I took a seat.
Hans opened, reading from a paper: “You Jews,” he sneered, “over centuries, you amassed wealth and enough to begin to control the banking in Europe and what we now call mass-communications and you used your wealth to systematically deny, over the centuries, Aryan Peoples their God-given right to exercise their will and power over inferior peoples and races.”
In case anyone in the now stupefied audience had missed a note of the initial venom, Hans repeated the run-on, then launched into a fifteen-minute justification of the holocaust–had it ever truly occurred. The children needed to understand, Hans said, that Jewish-owned newspaper and radio corporations had swelled a few thousand deaths of a few thousand unruly prisoners of war into something not only wholly untrue but, had it happened, would have been necessary to return Europe to its original, rightful rule.
By this point several counselors had begun to make moves to exit their kids from the hall but the director, a very sharp-eyed guy, moved to each of them individually, bent his head, said a few words, and those counselors indicated by their body language that everyone in their charge was to stay.
Hans then spoke of how Jews are responsible for pretty much all of America’s current and recent ills, from
-propping up the “criminal Martin Luther King”, to
-“forcing Israel onto the world”, to
-the Chicago Convention Riots of 1968, to
-the Supreme Court decision on abortion just four years earlier, to
-the “utter licence and lewdness” in film and on television, to
-moves to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens, to
-promoting the “illegal 1972 presidential campaign” of black New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, to
-the Court’s decision fourteen years earlier to “kick my Bible out of our schools”, to
-filling the nation’s public school classrooms with “Jew teachers straight from Jew-run universities”, to
…on and on…and after twenty minutes Hans shared his solution:
“Since this is really a problem about race and about how inferior races think and scheme, we take the so-called ‘African-Americans’ and Jews and other people who are inferior-by-blood and place them in camps like the camps in California used for the Japs thirty years ago. Even your own Jew-President, Rosenfelt, had the sense to do that in a time of war. We are still at war.”
He stopped, waiting for applause that never came. He sat down at a chair near the lectern. The room was hushed. I moved to the podium and asked if there were questions. I looked out over 700 faces. I think, honestly, that some children had aged perceptibly in that time. I was more than nervous. A counselor, Judy, stood, and in a small but clearly outraged voice said, “Jon, how could you?” She turned to our director. “And you? How in God’s name..?”
I said…and I recall how shaky my knees were; my voice, I’m grateful, was firm. “Judy. Everyone. You know, in not too long a time there will be no Survivors. There won’t be so many opportunites for us to meet them, nor with the kind of men who perpetrated those crimes. Some of those crimes were committed against your families.” I paused.
“In the winter I act in a group at Allen’s Lane Theater Company, in Philadelphia. Hans also acts there. He’s in our group at Allen’s Lane. Hans is Jerry Goldberg and he and I and your camp director thought this would be something you would remember and tell your families about. And, if we’re lucky, stick with you in a good way, in a way that will feel better than some of you feel right now. Some of you will have kids within ten years, you know.” I invited Jerry to say a few words, as himself.
To my knowledge, and remarkably, not one family lodged a complaint. In the event, I was back next season.
And here’s teaching’s delicious irony: about fifteen years or so on, a woman approached me in a multiplex lobby. She was holding the hand of a little boy, perhaps five or six. “Are you Mr. Wolfman? You’re Jon Wolfman. You directed me in that camp play about the girl’s spirit.” I placed her face but not her name.
I smiled at her. “The Dybbuk, old, Yiddish play.”
“Yes! And I was there the night you….”
“Uhmhmm.” Her face darkened. “Him. I hated you for that, a long time. Years later I even told my husband how much I hated what you did. But when we had Noah I thought about it, what you did.” Her face changed, brightened some. “And I’m going to tell him someday.” She smiled at her son.
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