Yom HaShoah with a Near Normal Man

Last summer’s wave of white supremacist marches threatened to even reach the liberal stronghold of Berkeley, CA. Jewish leaders cautioned the community not to overreact and confront the neo-Nazis. Indeed, they instructed them to stay home and let the event pass without giving it more attention. This approach was not going to fly for Ben Stern. Stern, a 95-year-old survivor of 2 ghettos, 9 concentration camps and 2 death marches, had fought the Nazis in the US before.

Thirty years after immigrating to the US and living in Skokie, IL he galvanized 60,000 people to march against a planned neo-Nazi rally that had been given the green light as protected speech by the US Supreme Court in 1978. The opposition was so powerful that the Nazi’s decided to stay home.  Now, in Berkeley, Stern wasn’t going sit by quietly. He stood up in his synagogue the Saturday morning before the march and said, “I’m going to face them myself if I have to.” The next morning 700 people showed up at his apartment and accompanied him to the counter protest where he spoke from the podium, bearing witness to his first-hand experience with Nazi terror.

Lessons from a Holocaust Survivor

Ben Stern is a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor. Here's his advice for protesting neo-Nazism.

Posted by AJ+ on Friday, 25 August 2017

Stern’s story is captured in a concise and powerful 28-minute film, Near Normal Man, produced and directed by his daughter, Charlene Stern.  Narrated by Stern himself, the film tracks his life from pre-war normalcy, to the Nazi nightmare and concludes with his successful stand in Skokie.  Stern is a compelling character, at once raw and vulnerable, and boldly determined to take action. Indeed, the triangle tattoo above the faded green numbers on his arm labeled him a “dangerous Jew” from the Warsaw Ghetto. He bought a gun before the Skokie rally and was ready to use it, but shortly after the rally passed he took a hammer and smashed it to pieces.

What struck me most about this film was its ability to express something of the breadth and depth of the Shoah and its enduring lessons in under a half-an-hour. The viewer gets an overview of the rise of Nazism, exposer to the gut-wrenching reality of human brutality through carefully chosen images and Stern’s narration, and a demonstration of how this traumatic experience can be turned into a fight for humanity.   If a school or community group only had a short amount of time and wanted to learn something about the Holocaust, this is the film I would recommend.

The other striking element of Stern’s story is its contemporary relevance.  With “strongmen” and authoritarian leadership on the rise around the world renewed vigilance is needed to protect human rights and the institutions of democracy.  In a 2017 review of the film, former ACLU Director Ira Glasser writes about the, “beasts of genocide and persecution,”

Sometimes those beasts descend all at once, as they did with the enslavement of Africans, and the brutality and inhumanity is unmistakeable from the start. But sometimes those beasts don’t descend all at once; sometimes they sneak up on us, in small increments that can disguise the terrible endgames, and allow ordinarily good people to become accomplices.

Here Glasser is talking about the rise of Nazism in Germany. One lesson Stern took from the horrors of the Shoah is that hate needs to be confronted head on. Appeasing hate lets it grow stronger. Of course, freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy.  This film raises important questions regarding the best strategies and tactics for dealing with white supremacists and other manifestations of ethno-nationalism.  While Glasser opposed Stern’s legal efforts in Skokie to get the Neo-Nazi march banned, he applauds his use of “more speech” to meet hateful speech.  Stern knows, and wants us all to never forget, that democracy and human rights are hard won but easily lost.

To order Near Normal Man for your community go to www.nearnormalman.org. Individuals can donate at the same site and receive a gift DVD for personal viewing.

About the Author
Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change which won the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. For more information about him or the book visit rabbidavidjaffe.com.