The tattooed woman lifted her wineglass across from me and said something I would never have expected to hear from someone her age. “My family spent a couple of years in the mountains of Virginia when I was little,” she said. Her black dress was cut so the incised roses showed on her ample upper arm. “We used to go to the village restaurant until, one night, there was a KKK meeting in the back room. The guys were back there with their white hoods and everything. When I pointed them out to my mom, she took us right out of there and we never went back. This was in the eighties.”
If that date seems far away, consider this. Just a few weeks ago, at the end of October, two women of color in my community of Burlington, Vermont found threatening KKK flyers in their mailboxes. I won’t give whoever targeted them the satisfaction of reproducing the graphics here. Nor was the KKK unknown in Vermont in the past, as this photograph of a 1927 rally shows:
At least in 2015 more than 100 people took to the streets to show how unwelcome the KKK is in our community. I wish I’d been there; I didn’t get the notice until too late. How many Amsterdammers might have said the same if they didn’t participate in the February strike?
Reminders of how even the most extreme racism is alive and well makes me think of the early days of the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. Long-time Nazi sympathizers came out of the woodwork, targeting individuals and spreading fear just like the KKK. The NSB (the Dutch Nazi party) had about 36,000 members in May 1940 at the time of the Nazi invasion, which grew to about 100,000 members at its peak.
In a country of almost nine million, this represents approximately 11%. Given the pressures to collaborate, it is a modest figure. Ironically, the NSB was founded in 1931 on the Hitler platform minus the anti-Semitic portions because it was expected that most Dutch would find them too extreme. Jews were still members of the party until fall 1940. The founder and leader, Anton Mussert, was not considered radical enough by the Germans, who never gave him a position of power.
While most Dutch were anti-German in general and often anti-Nazi in particular, a vicious minority dedicated themselves to making the lives of Jewish people hell, one at a time. Before the Germans legalized persecution and ultimately extermination, the WA (the NSB’s paramilitary branch) began individual harassment and attacks on homes and businesses. They forced restaurants and hotels to display “Jews not wanted” signs. As we all know now, it was one of the first steps.
When I consider those men in hoods in the back of a restaurant, and a flyer slipping through the mail slot of a Vermont woman, I can’t help thinking the NSB isn’t so long ago and far away. And that’s before I examine my own conscience about how I’m contributing to the environment where the person who made that flyer thought he could get away with it. Next time, I hope I’ll be spreading the word about the protest, instead of being someone who didn’t find out about it in time to participate.