Nazis in Chicago by
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Prompted By Prejudice

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Antisemitism is on the rise throughout the world for many reasons. The Former Guy, who won the election in 2016, made it acceptable to say whatever dark things one might have only imagined in days gone by. People somehow thought it was great that he “said it like it is” – no filter; being rude and uncouth is now in vogue. He has opened Pandora’s Box and it will be difficult to put those hateful demons away again.

On page 1, Boston Globe, 11/11/23

Since Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, 2023, hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims have been on the rise in the US; against Jews, around the world. The situation darkens daily.

But antisemitism dates back thousands of years. Jews have always been viewed as “the other” and singled out throughout the millenia for persecution and exile. Queen Isabella of Spain, of Inquisition fame, banished the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Recently, in Dubrovnik, we saw the second oldest synagogue in Europe. The expelled Jewish population, who thought they would make their way to the Ottoman Empire, stopped in Dubrovnik, an important trading route along the way. There they were allowed to stay by the Catholic population, given their skill sets and knowledge base, and they built their house of worship. The population was eventually decimated by the Fascists during WWII, and today numbers only 30. A rabbi visits only once a year, but the structure remains and is used by the few locals, a reminder of the history and what has passed.

Dubrovnik synagogue

One isn’t born hating others. It is learned from family, community, those around you. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote for a song in “South Pacific” when an American GI falls in love with a native girl on a Pacific island, but is reminded by his colleagues that it won’t work out: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Growing up in suburban Detroit, in the parish of Father Coughlin, the “Radio Priest” of the 30s, who preached antisemitism on the radio during the rise of Fascism, was not always a comfortable place to be. I had a few minor run-ins with ignorant boys in high school. One, sitting next to me in homeroom in 9th grade, noted that I missed school on the High Holidays. The day after Yom Kippur, he asked me where my nose was. I pointed to it: on my face. Later that year, backstage, during a play rehearsal, an 11th grader called me a “kike”. I’d never heard the term. I had to go home and ask my mother what it was before I could get angry at him. He said it without malice. I believe he echoed something he heard at his own home. We actually were friends. Thinking back, I believe he was trying to get a rise from me, an unfortunate way to do it. But that was an example of learning a word without understanding how offensive it was. He didn’t get the reaction he wanted because I didn’t know it. Poor judgement all around.

Many years later, I worked in an office in downtown Chicago in 1978. Famously, the American Nazi party wanted to stage a rally in the suburb of Skokie, which had a large Jewish population. The residents did NOT want that to happen, but the ACLU backed the Nazi’s freedom of speech and assembly, as guaranteed in the Constitution. The case went to the Supreme Court and their right to rally was established, though they never did march through Skokie. Instead, on July 9, they staged their rally in Marquette Park in Chicago. It was a lovely, sunny day. I had lived on the north side of town for about three months. I was working hard to establish myself at my new job and new career in sales. I often went to my office to do paperwork on the weekends, as I was in front of clients during the week and that is how I happened to be downtown on July 9, oblivious to what was going on. In those days, I didn’t read a local newspaper.

I spent a few hours in the office and came out into the sunlight. It was a beautiful day and I decided to walk the three miles back to my apartment. I was always in my head, not paying too much attention to the world around me. Suddenly, I was in the midst of a screaming bunch of angry men, wearing brown shirts and arm bands. I absolutely could not believe that in 1978 I was in the midst of a Nazi rally with these horrid people screaming antisemitic chants in my face as I scurried past them. I was shaken to the core. I took it personally.

I sobbed for the remainder of my walk home.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Dave Ventre says:

    I remember the Nazi march in Skokie, even though I was then in NJ. It was also the subject of a TV movie.

    Many years later, in Evanston, some nazi group decided to march around the Tech building at Northwestern, where I worked then (and now). My Jewish friend and co-worker Stacy (yes, that Stacy) was despondent and terrified. I found her crying at her desk. I knelt next to her, hugged her, and told her that if they came into the building, they would have to kill me to get to her. I was quite serious. This made her feel a bit better. Together, we went to a window and watched the bastards sad, infuriating little rally.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    OH Betsy, I’m so sorry you had to walk through all those Nazis, and sorrier they were there at all–and that they seem to be marching openly in the US again. After all we know–unbelievable. The epitome of hate and genocide. There was a time I thought that was ancient history and would never happen again. But the long history of persecution of the Jews is appalling and not over, nor is the hatred that causes attacks on innocent people around the world believed to represent some “other”. So much work to do to build peace and understanding.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      SO much work to do to build bridges and overcome the fear of the “other”, Khati. Like you, I thought we had made progress, but it seems we are moving backwards. What a horrid situation. Thank you for your sympathy. I live in a bubble where I no longer feel it, but see it on the news and on social media. It remains very frightening.

  3. Betsy, what a scary spot you were in.
    And today anti-semitism is on the rise again, and we live in fear with two young Israeli cousins now fighting in Gaza.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      It was an awful moment in my life, Dana. And now things like (think Charlottesville with “fine people on both sides” are happening more frequently. Scary times, indeed. I feel for you and your cousins. The director of the Rose is Israeli. Her aunt and cousins were murdered on Oct 7. Her husband flew to Israel the next day to get her aging mother out of harm’s way, but she lives in fear constantly and will fly there as soon as the semester ends – we just had an opening 10 days ago, have a rescheduled board meeting this Wednesday (it was supposed to be days after the Hamas invasion, but she was in shape to lead it then). We all grieve with her. She has long been an advocate for Palestinian rights and regional peace, for all the good it has done her now.

  4. Awful.
    And the anti-Israeli protests on college campuses was more than disturbing.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Betsy, I was also around for the Nazi rally threat in Skokie. I know technically the ACLU was protecting first amendment rights, but there was a huge population of Holocaust survivors in Skokie. It was so painful.

  6. The one time my heart was warmed by the odious and racist leadership of the “anti-bussing” movement in Boston in the early 1970s was when the KKK and some guys wearing Nazi paraphernalia showed up to join in their demonstrations. These otherwise despicable leaders told them to “get the hell out of town” before dark or they wouldn”t be fit to leave after that. The KKK and the Nazis didn’t appear after that–just the usual bigoted hooligans.

  7. Betsy:
    I sympathize with you and all the Jews who have faced antisemitism.
    I, myself, have had a cross burned on my lawn, a Mogen David with the s,,,word carved in the middle on my school desk, and have faced antisemitism in my profession.

    As for the American Nazi influence (including the Dulles brothers) I suggest Rachel Maddow’s two books which have added a lot to my knowledge.
    As for the current antisemitism, I am horrified but not too surprised.
    My synagogue, Mt. Zion, is an exemplar for defending human rights.
    But it is also practical enough to have locked doors, and limited communications without knowing the caller or writer. In our Chabad sessions before October, we discussed the meaning of the Amalekites. Later, we realized that we did not have the ultra-orthodox meaning from Jerusalem.
    I have spent a good deal of time corresponding about this issue.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I am sorry but not surprised to learn that you, too, have faces antisemitism in your work and community life. The current ramp-up is very distressing. Local synagogues everywhere must hire security. Brandeis is a particular target of course. We live on in troubling times.

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