My grandfather was a Nazi. Now I say ‘Never Again’


It was an understandable question from the hiring team at Never Again Action: “Why are you interested in this job?” The Jewish-led movement fighting the U.S.’s cruel immigration policies is less than two years old; the salary they were offering me to be their new press director was a fraction of my last one. And I’m not even Jewish.

When our government rips families apart and puts children in cages and the president dehumanizes them as an “infestation,” alarm bells go off. People of all backgrounds and faiths are (or ought to be) outraged. And Jewish people in particular bring a powerful historical imperative to this reality in the cry never again.

But for me, it’s personal. You see, I am a German immigrant. It’s not just a history lesson – it’s my flesh and blood.

Eyewitness to Kristallnacht

My grandfather was a Nazi. When I type that sentence, I immediately want to qualify it, to say he wasn’t an ideologue and he joined the party more to protect himself from local authorities than out of genuine conviction. But that sounds as convincing as the Trump supporters who swear they are not racist. The truth is that, on his deathbed, he told my father that he didn’t agree with Hitler about the Jews, but other than that, he thought the Führer was right. Yeah, my grandfather was a Nazi.

He was a prisoner of war on the Western Front when my father, age 13, his three younger siblings and my grandmother fled the oncoming Russian army in the east and became refugees, ending up in my mother’s hometown, Höxter.

My mother’s father, meanwhile, was initially exempt from military service because he was the town’s baker. He was avowedly “nonpolitical,” steadfastly refusing to join the Nazi party despite repeated pressure from party officials. This eventually irked them enough that he got shipped off to the Eastern Front and ended up a Russian prisoner of war. He wasn’t a Nazi, but he didn’t do anything to stop them either.

My mother remembers Kristallnacht and the morning after. She was 5, but it was such a traumatic event it was impossible to forget. She remembers some of her father’s employees who were members of the Nazi paramilitary (the Sturmabteilung) coming out of the shop to watch the rounded-up Jews be marched down the street. She remembers her mother imploring them to come inside, telling them they could watch from behind the windows, just please not in the street.

Moral hindsight instructs us to act where our forebears failed to

This image – of my grandmother pleading with her Nazi employees to limit the spectacle – haunts me. Unwilling to protest the persecution paraded in front of her, but not wanting the neighbors to think our family approved of it; trying to bargain with the SA men, but not challenging their support for the barbarity.

It’s an image of inner conflict and ultimately of complicity. And I wonder, What would I have done?

More importantly, what do I do now in face of my own era’s human rights abuses? Moral hindsight is 20/20, for sure, but it has real value if it instructs the present and moves us to act where our forebears failed to.

The question of action – what am I called to do here and now? – is the same one that motivates Never Again Action. My, their – our – commitment is to rise up to the defense of the persecuted the way we wish the German people had during the Third Reich.

That question has had particular urgency during the Trump years. The deliberate cruelty and overt racism of Trump’s immigration policies made the moral imperative for action obvious. And precisely because of my family history, I was hyper aware that there was no bottom in terms of atrocity if the regime was left unchecked.

Feet on the ground

I hung a sign in my bedroom window the morning after Trump was elected that says, “Resistance is our civic duty,” and while I protested many outrages during these last four years, defending the humanity and human rights of immigrants was my biggest concern. I was among those at JFK’s Terminal 4 on the morning after the Muslim Ban was enacted, and I got arrested in the action that prevented Ravi Ragbir’s deportation. I’ve attended countless organizing meetings in these years, and helped plan multiple direct actions.

In the summer of 2019, Trump vowed to round up “millions of illegal aliens.” I feared we were witnessing an escalating campaign of ethnic cleansing, something that demanded immediate response.

That response came from Never Again Action, which formed in that moment for exactly that reason. On June 30, 200 people shut down the Elizabeth, NJ ICE detention center; and on July 16, the newly formed group shut down [ICE’s Washington headquarters]( By the end of the summer, they had organized some three dozen direct action protests.

I was deeply moved by all this and felt an immediate connection to it. “We owe it to our ancestors who gave us a sacred mission: Never Again for Anyone,” NAA’s website says. My own commitment to Never Again felt like a mirror image of this vow. As the descendent not of those who were persecuted, but of those who enabled the persecution or failed to intervene to stop it, I was motivated by the same history and with the same urgency.

That summer and fall, I also took part in numerous protests of U.S. immigration policy (mainly through the NYC-based direct-action group Rise and Resist). Looking to convince others of the same moral urgency to act, I designed and led a study group on Christian ethics and immigration for my church last January and February. I attended my first Never Again Action protest in March outside the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, where ICE detainees were on a hunger strike to protest lack of protection against the coronavirus.

The disproportionate toll that Ccovid-19 is taking on incarcerated populations (both in the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement) adds another uncomfortable historic echo. “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center,” a NAA projection action reminded people (typhus in Bergen-Belsen). Much of the immigration justice organizing of 2020 has focused on the demand to release detainees because of the lethal threat of the virus behind bars. My car has had a homemade #FreeThemAll sign in the back window since that March action.

Trump may be gone, but racism isn’t

While overt white nationalism may no longer be encouraged from the White House after January 20, the massive state apparatus of detention and deportation used to drive out and keep out brown- and black-skinned people will still be there. In fact, immigration policy and scapegoating have gone hand-in-hand throughout our history. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the National Origins Act (1924), for instance, stoked the same nativist prejudices as Trump’s Muslim Ban.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the case about Trump’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count. The Constitution requires that the “whole number of persons” in each state be counted; so this case, which will decide who has political representation for a generation, literally asks whether 11 million people in the U.S. are “persons.”

The future is ours to write

As long as some people are considered persons while others are an infestation – an image that both Trump and the Nazis used repeatedly – marginalized communities will always be in danger and fascists will always find fertile ground on which to sow the seeds of hate and destruction.

For me, and for Never Again Action, the imperative of action does not stop at parallels to Nazi Germany. For me, the historical invocation isn’t about a one-to-one mapping of the 1930s and 1940s onto our era; it’s about understanding that the combination of nationalism, racism, and state capacity to sweep up whole segments of the population can escalate to horrific violence more easily than we’d like to believe.

And most importantly, it’s about recognizing that it is up to ordinary people to intervene. I believe I have a responsibility to help write a future in which my grandchildren have a different story to tell than the one I have.

Dorothee Benz, PhD, is a writer, organizer, and strategist who has spent decades on the frontlines of social justice struggles in the United States. She started working with Never Again Action in November 2020. Follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

My grandfather was a Nazi. Now I say ‘Never Again’

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