I Own a Nazi Flag

My Nazi flag is sizeable, probably 4-feet by 6-feet. The red background, the white circle, and the black swastika haven’t faded in the 72 years since my grandfather captured it during his service with General Patton’s Third Army and brought it home to Dorchester, MA in 1945. ( Whereupon my grandmother promptly hung it up to air out from the front porch. In Dorchester. In 1945. Oy!)

It’s not the standard Nazi flag in one way, however – the white circle is filled with the names and hometowns of the men in his unit. I’ve always wondered if each man in the unit got his own personalized fabric trophy to bring home, marked with the names of his Band of Brothers.

The Nazis were certainly not shy about manufacturing flags. Every US soldier could have brought one home and there would still be thousands left to burn and destroy. Hundreds to keep in museums as exhibits of megalomaniacal power gone horribly awry.

I am also the owner of a large banner for a Nazi organization for women and an SA* officer’s dagger, which has “Alles fur Deutschland” engraved into the blade. The one in the photo below isn’t mine, it’s for sale on the internet. For a few hundred dollars, you can get your own.

These items live in a plastic shopping bag that has moved from under my bed to the back of the closet and, more recently, back to my father’s house. They are trophies, and artifacts, and have familial and historical importance, but they are also symbols of the deep hatred of Jews. They are not replicas, bought from an online store for some angry white man to carry on the streets of Charlottesville.

My Nazi flag was made for and used by the Nazis. Under the women’s banner, women met in safety, knowing their beliefs, religions, and bodies were not under attack. That banner meant, for them, safety. I tell myself that the dagger was only used for ceremonial purposes, but we tell ourselves a lot of things to keep our minds from the dark places – the places where the dagger could have been used to hurt someone like me.

Neo-Nazism isn’t really all that “Neo”

Being raised Jewish in America during the 1970s and 1980s meant absorbing a keen awareness of the power and presence of anti-Semitism. It was a topic at Pesach seders, Shabbat tables, and Sunday School. This sign, seen at a post-Charlottesville protest, resonated deeply with me.

If you’re a Jew my age you either had family killed in the camps, survive the camps, or miraculously flee to America before the final solution was put into effect. I remember the old people in our synagogue who had faded yet legible numbers tattooed on their arms. They would catch children like me staring at them and turn away, or roll down their sleeve. And if you did not have someone in your family or synagogue with a tattoo, you had a war veteran. My grandfather never spoke to me about his time in the war, but I knew what he had done and what he had seen the Third Army liberated a concentration camp. He saw Jews.

“People don’t think it can happen here, Susan,” I was told more than once, “But no one thought it could happen there either.”  

The Nazis weren’t obliterated from the earth, we learned. We blew up their statues and monuments, put many on trial, and executed the worst of the worst. But many went back to their normal lives in Europe when the war ended. Many fled to other countries, including America. In fact, there was a Nazi party in America until the USA got involved in the war in 1941. After the war, they took down their colors, but they didn’t change their minds.


I was 7 years old when the National Socialist Party of America (Nazis) won their case in the Supreme Court: the Nazi flag was protected free speech and the group had the right to march in Skokie, IL.** The Jewish community pulled together, found support from non-Jews, and ultimately the march took place in Chicago, not Skokie, with considerable counter-protest. They made movies (Skokie with Danny Kaye and Never Forget with Leonard Nimoy) that we watched as a family with discussions during every commercial break and for weeks afterward.

Neo-Nazi marches in the 70s led to the right-wing anti-Semitic hate groups and militias of the 90s, which helped give birth to the white-supremacist anti-Muslim mania of the 2000s. Progressives were so happy to see Barack Obama in the White House that we ignored the bubbling undercurrent of racism in the birther movement and the hatred of the President and his black skin. The country had made a turn it could never go back from, we thought. The racists could never be in power again, we thought.

Know your history. Know your enemy.

Jewish kids in America receive a pretty thorough history lesson about WWII and the Holocaust. I thought everyone grew up with the same knowledge of the Nazis, the same lessons learned:

The way they took power in Germany, not by force, but by force of will.
The power of rhetoric and scapegoats.
The complicity of so many average German citizens.
The horrors of the camps, the terrible mental and physical scars of the survivors.
The signs that were missed.
The opportunities for people in power to act early on that were squandered.

I was so very wrong. It’s hard enough to learn from history when you’ve studied the history. When you’ve never heard the history, it’s impossible to progress from it. The gasping, chest-clutching surprise on social media in reaction post-Charlottesville has revealed how truly blind so many have been to the continuing racism and anti-Semitism in this country.

Do they see now? The white supremacists in the photo below were “protecting” a statue of Robert E Lee, but they were chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

To everyone who has posted the famous Martin Neimoller poem to their Facebook feed or changed their profile photo on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or hashtagged Never Again, do you see? 

Now that you’ve seen, what will you do?

* The SA was the Sturmabteilung, literally Storm Detachment, Hitler's stormtroopers. Read about them here: they were horrible people.
** For the record, I supported the Nazi's right to free speech and, even now, do not believe that banning the symbol is a way to ban the hate. The ACLU defended the Nazis all the way to the Supreme court, as they should have done.

1 comment:

Greg Marcus said...

Thanks so much for writing this. I shared on the American Mussar Facebook page, and my own feed. Really important for non-Jews in American to understand why we can't just ignore them.