Vicki Polin
Social Justice Activist

My experiences with the Klan

With the increase of hate crimes against Jews, I’m reminded of two experiences I had many years ago with members of the Ku Klux Klan.

I grew up as a secular Jew in Skokie, IL.  A town in which had more Holocaust and Japanese camp survivors then any place else in the United States. My parents were both proud Republicans, yet had strong views against racial injustice. 

Back in 1968 during the race riots in Chicago, my parents went back and forth about volunteering to take in a black family who’s home was destroyed.  By the time my parents decided to make the call, all families were already housed.  When one of our neighbors down the street learned what my parents were planning on doing, they said they would have burned our home down if a black family moved in with us.  This was my first experience with racism.  As a child I wasn’t taught to look at the color of peoples skin, or the shape of their eyes. I was taught people were people. 

I think I was eight when I was repeating a racist joke I heard from a friend.  I immediately got a huge lecture from my dad at the time.  He was in shock at the words that were coming out of my mouth.  My father explained to me why making jokes about peoples differences was wrong.  After that, a new rule in our house was implemented. If we were going tell jokes that were deemed racist, we weren’t allowed to use the racist descriptor. Instead of telling “Polish” jokes my sisters and I would have to replace the word “Polish” with the word “Martian”.  I remember rolling my eyes, thinking that was so “stupid”, yet as an adult I’ve always been proud of that life life lesson my father taught me.  My parents did their best to teach us not to learn to hate.

Growing up in Skokie meant I was sheltered from most forms of antisemitism. Looking back at my childhood, I did experience a certain level of Jew Hate, yet it wasn’t blatant until my senior year of high school, when the American Nazi Party wanted to march in my hometown.  

Let’s fast forward to my early twenties.  I had a very dear friend named Jane.  We used to discuss just about everything with each other.  I remember her talking about her aunt and uncle who lived in southern Illinois and had a dairy farm.  I never knew anyone who knew someone with a farm before.  I grew up knowing how to go to shopping malls instead.  The only farm I had ever been to was the Farm at the Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

It was the early 1980s when Jane’s aunt and uncle invite me for a visit so I could learn to milk a cow.  So off we went for a long weekend to Johnston, IL.  I was excited.  I was having a great time up until the last night there, when Jane’s aunt and uncle took us out to dinner to their favorite restaurant.  

When we got to the restaurant Jane’s aunt and uncle wanted me to try frog legs.  I just couldn’t do it, so I ordered chicken instead.  While we were eating they asked me where I was from.  Not knowing anything about them, I said “Skokie”.  At that moment Jane kicked me under the table.  I didn’t understand.  Both her aunt and uncle started looking at me in horror.  They looked at me as if I was the devil.  They responded by saying: “isn’t that were the Jews live?”

Jane kicked me again.  I knew this time she was telling me not to respond.  Jane’s aunt and uncle both looked at each other and said: “she won’t eat frog legs and she’s from Skokie, she must be a Jew”.  It was their way of letting me know they didn’t like Jews.

At that point I knew I was in trouble.  I remember hearing rumors as a child that southern Illinois was really a part of the southern states, and had a very strong and active klan was active there.  

I was terrified.  It was to late in the evening for Jane and I to start our six hour trip back home, so we stayed one last night.  Once Jane’s aunt and uncle went to bed, Jane opened a closet door to show me the white hooded robes.  Jane told me she totally forgot I was Jewish and that her relatives were members of the klan.

I was relieve Jane and I shared a room at her aunt and uncles home that night. I was scared for my life.  I couldn’t sleep at all, as soon as the sun started to come up we left. I remember Jane apologizing to me for her error.  We both started making jokes about our trip, and guessing her aunt and uncle burned the sheets I slept on along with the towels I used.

Let’s fast forward a few years.  It was around the time my dear friend Jane died.  I was an emotional mess.  I was dating Ken at the time.  He was extremely supportive of me, which I’ll be forever grateful.

About a month after Jane died, we learned Ken’s grandfather was dying.  Ken wanted to go down to see his grandfather one last time.  His grandfather lived in Tupelo, MS.  I wanted to give Ken the same support he gave me, so we drove down to Tupelo from Chicago together.  

Ken wasn’t Jewish, yet that didn’t really matter to me at the time.  From an early age I was told that Mississippi was not to be safe places for Jews, yet I figured I was going with Ken, and we were going to be staying at his cousins home — I would be safe.  

Yes, I was naive and too trusting.  Ken really didn’t know that part of his family well since he grew up in a suburb of Chicago.

The Tupelo trip was to far for us to just drive straight, so we spent a night in Memphis, making a stop quick stop at Graceland.  

The next day we made it to Tupelo.  When we got to his cousins home his cousin told us that “they didn’t need to give us a key to their home because they never locked their doors — because there were no “Nigers or Jews” for miles — they all knew they had shotguns so we would be safe”.

Ken and I went to our room and had a very long conversation.  He had no idea his relatives were antisemitic or racist, and apologized to me.  I always wore a Star of David around my neck, and made sure it was under my blouse.  We didn’t have the funds to stay in a hotel, so I did my best not to say “Oy” in any of our conversations that weekend.

The next day we went to see his grandfather.  It was both sad and rejoiceful.  Ken and his grandfather got to reminisce about the past, and got a chance to say goodbye.

After our visit we went back to his cousins home.  The plan was to leave in the morning, yet his cousins kept begging us to stay one more day, so they could show off their cabin.  I really didn’t want to go to the middle of nowhere with folks who clearly didn’t like Jews, yet I finally caved in, and we went the next day.

That night I learned our car wouldn’t make it on the rural roads to get to the cabin, so we had to go in their Jeep.  I’ll admit I was scared, yet Ken kept reassuring me it was going to be ok.  In my mind it felt like we were in some sort of horror flick.

After over an hour of driving in the Jeep we finally pulled up to the cabin.  There was no running water or electricity.  It was the most rural and isolated place I had ever been to before.  I really just wanted to leave. I kept hearing creepy music in my head warning me to leave.  I knew I couldn’t just walk out of there. I’d get lost — or worst.

We all got out of the Jeep and walked up to the front door.  As I walked in and looked around I felt like I was walking into a taxidermy museum.  Dead animals heads mounted all over the walls. I looked to the left.  The wall was filled with all sorts of riffles and assault weapons.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.  I was used to seeing original art work on walls, not dead animals and guns.

The horror show didn’t end there, Ken’s cousins were excited to show me a very special closet.  Inside it was packed with white hooded gowns.  One of his cousins pulled out a special outfit that was their uncles.  Guess he was a grand dragon or something like that.  I just wanted to leave.

Somehow the conversation that day went on to shooting.  Being a pacifist I never held a gun in my life or was that close to so many.  

Ken’s relatives learned I never shot a gun and were eager to teach me.  I took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.  I had no idea what was going to transpire in the middle of nowhere with a Jew and members of the klan, so I thought it was wise to learn how to use a gun.  They pulled some sort of riffle off of the wall and I followed them out back.  

His cousins set up a bunch of cans on a log and showed me what to do.  I did what they said and hit four cans in a row.  I shot that gun like my life depended on it. They took bets I couldn’t do that again.  They set up more cans, and I hit them all.  I was so grateful soon after that we left the cabin and returned to Ken’s cousins home.  

The next morning Ken and I left his cousins home as the sun rose.  I was so relieve we were leaving Mississippi.  Ken and I had some interesting conversations on the ten hour trip back home to Chicago.  As soon as I got home I ended our relationship.  He was the last non-Jewish person I ever dated.

About the Author
Vicki Polin is a feminist who has been a Social Justice Activist since her childhood. Vicki is also an award winning, retired psychotherapist who worked in the anti-rape field for just under forty years. For fun Vicki is an artist and nature photographer.
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