How To Spot a Neo-Nazi in Germany

‘Is this him?” my boyfriend, Jan, asked skeptically, showing me a photograph of a soft-faced man smiling angelically against a background of timber roofs and spires. We were lying in bed on a Sunday in my Kreuzberg apartment, too lazy and comfortable to head out into the bracing Berlin cold, and having just learned that the neo-Nazi with the Auschwitz tattoo whom we had encountered in a swimming pool was a member of the National Democratic Party, Jan was trying to find out the name and identity of the man in question. And there he was in that photograph, looking harmless, sweet even. His face was the same one I had seen in the pool, and yet it wasn’t. The face I had glimpsed was the face of evil. The man in this photo was Mama’s little darling. It didn’t compute.

By an unusual twist of coincidence I happened to be there on that day, although it was my very first time at a *Spassbad* (a German creation, like a cross between a swimming pool and an indoor water park) since I had moved to Germany a year before, and probably Marcel Zech’s first time since he had gotten his tattoo of a concentration camp. I was there with my son, as well as Jan and his two children. We had arrived early on that rainy weekend morning, heading straight for the slides. After we all had had our share of shrieking fun, we retreated to the lounge chairs. The children splashed in the wave pool. At one point, Jan got up to tell them to be careful; upon his return he mentioned casually to me, as he settled back into his chair, “There’s a Nazi in the swimming pool.”

There’s some context for that casual mention. I’d told him at an earlier point in our relationship that I still did not quite know how to recognize a Nazi. I was looking for skinheads, but kept confusing them with punks. Nazis looked different today, he’d said, pointing out one while we strolled through his bourgeois neighborhood in northeast Berlin one sunny afternoon. I had turned around to see a young couple in combat boots, ripped biker clothing, piercings and tattoos. The kind of kids I’d seen before on the street in San Francisco or New Orleans. Not the association I would have made. Rockers, maybe street kids, but not Nazis. “How’d you know for sure?” I’d asked. “How can I know for sure in the future? Is it something specific?”

“I just do,” he said. “It’s a combination of things. Although what they are doing here I can’t possibly fathom. They’re certainly not welcome in this part of town.”

A few weeks later he pointed out another one to me, and again it occurred to me that I would never have made the identification on my own. I found my own ignorance unnerving. How could I ensure my own safety and that of my son if I couldn’t even identify a threat to us?

In early autumn, Jan and I had taken a little road trip through Germany, and on our last night we’d stopped in Weimar en route back to Berlin. On the way to our hotel we noticed that cops had blocked off most of the streets; the reason for that became clear when we realized that the window of our room looked out onto the square that served as the regular meeting ground for Pegida protesters.

We left the hotel hurriedly, hoping to have our dinner somewhere far from the ugliness, wondering nervously if there would be silence again upon our return. We moved quickly through the throng of people in the square. I felt the hot buzz of shared anger among them.

I tried to keep my head down and avoid direct eye contact, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I looked up to catch a brief glimpse of hard-set faces and aggressive gaits. When they walked too close to me I got scared, irrationally, as if I thought they might know something about who I was or where I was from. But in those brief moments in which I had glanced around me I’d noticed once again that those people had no identifying marks; nothing by which I might know them out of context. That realization was still chilling.

Jan paid to park the car in an underground garage that night, mumbling something about the risk of damage to the vehicle in an atmosphere that struck him as decidedly antisocial. I was so happy when we got back in the car the next day and headed toward Berlin — so deeply, disproportionately happy to be driving toward my safe little bubble again, so relieved to think I’d soon be back with my left-wing friends, breathing the air of tolerance and diversity.

Well, so I told myself, as we crossed the border into the province of Brandenburg, and Jan pointed out the regional slogan, “Discovering New Perspectives,” and laughed in the driver’s seat next to me. “That was the best they could come up with,” he said with a smirk. The old perspectives weren’t so great, apparently, and the promised new ones, he said, have yet to be discovered.

I remembered that my best friend in Berlin, Sophia, had grown up in Brandenburg. She had described the region to me as a vast pile-up of depressed villages and towns surrounding Berlin, kind of the way the banlieues, the large suburbs, surround Paris. She had told me she avoided class reunions because she did not care to see what had happened to all the aspiring Nazis with whom she had gone to school. Like anyone else who had failed to fit into a predominantly right-wing culture, she had escaped to Berlin.

When the two of us took a trip to the Ostsee together last summer, we encountered a man just outside of Rostock whose right-wing proclivities she was able to identify merely via a symbol on his hat. I did not recognize the logo at all, but she knew immediately, as a result of those obscure markings, what he stood for. Once again I felt myself relax only once I drove onto the ring, that highway that surrounds Berlin. This feeling of being safe in a bubble has shrunk over time for me. I suppose similar bubbles in other parts of the world have done the same for others. And what is this bubble I speak of anyway, but a sort of delusion to which I, and many others I know, cling for comfort? The bubble feels safe only when you don’t keep bumping up against it, fearing that any small movement might cause it to pop. Ever since I moved to Berlin I’ve had this feeling of the bubble closing in on me, in a way. There’s less air left in here.

The Nazi that my boyfriend spotted in the pool was the same guy in the photograph. Marcel Zech has popped up in news reports all over the world by now. But on that day he was just a guy enjoying the weekend with his kid and some friends. I would notice those friends later on when I learned how to tell a Nazi from a punk, a rocker or a street kid. “How do you know?” I’d asked Jan, peering in the direction of the pool, and he’d answered, clearly this time: “Iron cross on his ankle, black sun on his arm, Reich eagle on his chest, und so weiter! At least he didn’t put a swastika underneath the wings, he just left that spot empty.”

I got up and walked casually to the edge of the pool, waving to my son as he splashed happily. I looked for the tattooed man whom Jan had mentioned. As we were in Oranienburg, a small city in Brandenburg, most of the people attending were heavily tattooed, so it was initially difficult to pinpoint the person to whom Jan had been referring. But then, so suddenly, I thought my heart had stopped. There was a slab of human flank right in front of me, thick and spilling over the edge of some bathing suit trunks. I saw the quote first. “Jedem das Seine.” I had seen it before, on an entrance to a concentration camp, in that same old-fashioned German script. But then, I saw the drawing of the entrance to Auschwitz right on top, sprawling across a meaty lower back. I blinked, looked again. There it was: the barbed wire, the distinctive entry gate, even the brick detail.

I rushed back to my chair. “He’s got a concentration camp! On his back!” I said breathlessly. “And the quote! Oh my God! Did you see that, too?” Jan hadn’t seen it. He looked over in the man’s direction, squinting with effort. But he wasn’t wearing his glasses, and couldn’t quite make out the image. “I’m sure it’s not quite like that,” he said, trying to calm me down. “Besides, ‘Jedem das Seine’ is free use. It’s not like ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ It’s part of everyday German language.”

I was horrified, indignant, boiling with humiliation, anger and fear. I looked around me, trying to see if others had noticed, if they, too, were talking among themselves in shocked and horrified tones. But the people around me appeared serene and relaxed. They moved calmly around Mr. Nazi as if he didn’t exist. I knew there was no way they hadn’t noticed that tattoo, not when it occupied the entire lower half of a massive torso. I concluded that either the people in this part of Germany accepted this as normal and appropriate or they didn’t quite care enough to point it out.

But perhaps I was wrong, perhaps I am the wrong person to make any kind of evaluative statement about northeast German society, since I am an American, and therefore I seem to have higher standards when it comes to this sort of thing. You see, I kept thinking: What if this had happened in the States? Would a guy like this even make it out alive?

“Shouldn’t we do something?” I said to Jan angrily, practically hissing at him.

“Well, there’s nothing to be done. It’s not illegal. If there was a swastika there, I’d call the cops immediately, but I can’t call them for ‘Jedem das Seine’! That’s just ridiculous.”

“I can’t just sit here and do nothing, I can’t!” I said. “I need to do something!”

And I know why I needed to do something. Because the moment I had realized that a man like that could frolic undisturbed while the tattoo on his back expressed support for the genocidal campaign that had eliminated all of my grandmother’s relatives was the moment that I felt quite possibly the smallest and most powerless I have ever felt. It was as if all of a sudden I was Alice and I had drunk the potion on the table and shrunk to the tiniest size imaginable, and the space around me was now booming and cavernous. And this seemed to me to be at the very core of what was wrong with all of it: That I was the one who felt small and this guy got to feel big. Again I asked my boyfriend why we had to sit there and just let it happen, and he responded by lecturing me about a free and democratic society, later segueing into a warning that if I started something he was certain to get beat up, and I should stop being selfish and think of our children, whom he, at the very least, had no desire to traumatize that weekend.

I love my boyfriend, but I think I scared him that day. I think the depth of my emotions scared him. I think he assumed they would make me capable of deeply irrational actions. But all I wanted was to do anything, anything at all, that would have reversed the effect of the potion I had consumed! Oh, of course I’ve always known that people like Marcel Zech exist, and I’m even somewhat okay with the fact that they do, democratic principles and all, but you see, I had always seen them as small, oh so small — insignificant cockroaches, their legs flailing futilely about. That fantasy is gone now.

At that point we had a fight, my boyfriend and I. He yelled, he said some things he would later regret, and I saw the fear (fear of me!) in his eyes and forgave him. We sat down to lunch with our children, only two tables away from this man and his group of thugs, who were all similarly decorated with eagles and crosses and suns. And when my son asked me what was wrong, I told him simply that there were some bad people there who believed Hitler was right.

“Well, Mom, you should just ignore them!” he said, giving me the same advice he’d heard me dispense about schoolyard bullies. I looked at him and wondered painfully what kind of lesson I was teaching him that day, to look the other way instead of confronting evil, and asked myself again if I was willing to sacrifice my relationship with Jan in order to try and change that. Then I sighed and nodded and pushed my food around my plate.

We left the pool a few hours later. Those hours crept by for me as the children laughed and screamed and splashed, because each hour was another in which the tattooed man grew bigger and prouder. I imagined his chest puffing up. At one point he walked right by me and I looked straight into his eyes and held his gaze (which is simply not done here in Germany in any situation, ever); he looked back at me with minimal surprise, but the rest of his expression was pure triumph, and if I thought I couldn’t have felt any smaller or any more helpless, well, I was wrong.

That fight between my boyfriend and me didn’t end there. It raged on later that evening. It flared up again at Thanksgiving dinner. I’m still not quite sure where we stand on all this, except that we love each other and we don’t want our different perspectives on this experience to ruin that. But it is a shock to both of us, I think, that we identify ourselves as being on the same spot on the political spectrum, and yet find ourselves practically drawn to opposing sides as a result of this encounter.

I’ve calmed down since then. We can almost joke about it now. “Any update on our Nazi?” he asks jokingly sometimes. Marcel is our Nazi now, like a mascot, or an ugly pet. But maybe I misunderstood my own emotions that day; maybe I communicated all wrong. I don’t actually care about Marcel Zech. Others now do, because there was another Berliner at the pool who must have felt as infuriated as I did, and he had the guts (because this is illegal in Germany) and presence of mind to take a photo and post it on Facebook, with the caption “Such people are able to move about unmolested in Oranienburg….”

This photo came to the attention of several journalists, who proceeded to investigate. The story hit the papers shortly afterward. Jan sent me the first link, in which it was reported that multiple members of the pool staff had been notified about the man’s presence but had chosen to actively ignore the issue until one of the managers agreed to eject him from the premises. This happened shortly after I’d left the pool, apparently. I’m sure Marcel enjoyed those five or six hours he spent there until then, regardless.

I found many other articles about Zech. First he was in all the German papers; then he made the international ones. It was discovered that the tattoo had been noticed before, at a lake outside Berlin last summer, and had been discussed on the radio. But no one had ever taken a photo of it. Now it was out there, in all its chilling ugliness. A few days later it was reported that the owner of the tattoo had been identified as a member of German Parliament. I guess that’s when it was considered worthy of TV news.

Seeing all those reports made me want to write about Zech as well. I felt there was something still missing from the conversation that I could add, namely that the conversation shouldn’t be about him, but about the society that enables him. Friends of mine were quick to warn me that writing anything would make me a target; they supported me wholeheartedly and understood my outrage, they even shared it, but none of them was willing to lie to me and pretend that taking on this issue did not have consequences. A colleague working in media urged me to change my name and withhold all personal information if I did decide to publish anything.

I thought about something else then, about how ever since I’d arrived in Germany I’d been on the receiving end of the same message: that it was about time for people like me to get over the Nazis, because everyone else already had. Only four weeks ago I had sat down to get a haircut, and my hairdresser, after ascertaining that my name was indeed Jewish, as she’d suspected, asked me pushily if I didn’t agree with her that it was time Germany put away the Nazi conversation for good. “I don’t get this obsession with Hitler,” she said crankily as she ran a comb through my wet hair. “It’s gotten to the point where I’ll vomit if I see one more advertisement for a book or film about the Holocaust.” I don’t think she liked the total silence I offered her as a response. I remembered her as I toyed with the idea of putting down my thoughts on paper. It was safe to assume she’d be most displeased with my efforts at starting yet another conversation about Nazis.

This is what I mean when I say Marcel Zech doesn’t matter, because the people who want to pretend he doesn’t exist are the actual problem. The ones who make themselves small for him and his ilk, they’re the ones who actually need to pay attention to this conversation. Nazis still have a kind of real power here. People think twice before confronting one, afraid of the physical consequences, but they’re even inclined to refrain from expressing their opinion from a distance, because who can guarantee their safety? Evil still rules via terror, just like it did all those years ago, and the rest of us are still duly enslaved, even though it’s difficult to admit it. We retreat to our bubble and rant and rave, but in the end no one I know, and maybe not even I, will have the courage to show these people that they can’t get away with their message of murderous hate. So, no, it’s nowhere near about time that I just get over it.

Deborah Feldman is the author of “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” She has been based in Berlin since November of 2015, working on a documentary film, researching a novel, and assisting with the translation of her work into German. Shortly before she departed the U.S., she applied at the German consulate in New York for the return of the citizenship that was revoked from her Bavarian-Jewish ancestors in 1938, but has not yet received a meaningful response from any relevant government institutions. She will, however, continue to insist on one.

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How To Spot a Neo-Nazi in Germany

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