Ben Stern, now 95 years old, was still a teenager when the Nazis invaded Mogielnice, the small town outside Warsaw where he and his family lived. Swept up in the Nazi extermination nightmare, Ben endured two ghettoes, nine concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and, near the end of the war, two death marches before being liberated, a few months shy of his 24th birthday, by the American army in the spring of 1945. He weighed only 78 pounds. Near Normal Man is his story, a half-hour documentary film produced and directed by his daughter Charlene. The film premieres on Feb. 13, at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival.
When I agreed to watch this film before its release, I thought that I had seen many such films, and doubted that I would find anything new or noteworthy in this one. I was wrong. I found this film especially moving, largely because of Ben Stern’s extraordinary articulation, from beginning to end, with a conclusion that for me was both surprising and inspiring, and distinguished this story from so many others.
The part of the story that was similar to others was the portrayal of the tsunami of the Nazis descending upon ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and the brutalities that followed: the herding of people into crowded outdoor prisons called ghettoes, their transportation like cattle to places where death was the only release, the separation from everyone Ben knew and loved, and whom he would never see again, and the struggle against immense odds to survive. Those parts of the film, especially as narrated by Mr. Stern with sensitive, painful, articulate recall, were agonizing to watch, and can never be watched too often to remind us of what can happen when human brutality is unrestrained. It happened to Jews in Europe during WWII; it happened to Native Americans in the United States; and it happened to Africans kidnapped from their homes and taken to, in effect, another planet of unimaginable evil. And it has happened to others, is happening still, when hatred based on religion, ethnicity or other tribal impulses overcome the bounds of humanity and let loose 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. When Hitler moved against the Jews, he did not do so in the beginning with candid policies of murder: first, he wanted Jews to leave and launched persecutions to encourage them to leave; when not enough did, there was confinement to ghettoes; and when that didn’t work, there was the “final solution”—extermination. People who might not have been able to stomach the systematic mass murder of their neighbors were prepared to accept it by learning to accept lesser brutalities, so that what was once unthinkable became normalized. Evil triumphed and gained acceptance in small degrees.
Meanwhile in America, while we were at war with the Nazis and Japan, we were fearful enough to conduct our own ethnic pogroms against American citizens of Japanese descent. We also started incrementally: first with curfews, then with forced sales at bargain prices of businesses and homes owned by people of Japanese descent and then, by herding them into camps, remotely located far from where they once had lived. It never reached the stage of extermination, but the acceptance of what we did to our neighbors out of fear projected onto people of different skin color and ethnic ancestry was nonetheless inhuman and prejudicial. Later, nearly a half-century later, too late for the people victimized by our fear and our prejudice, what we did was characterized by then-President Ronald Reagan, no bleeding-heart liberal he, as “an act of racism and war hysteria.” And so it was: although the program was sold as a way of keeping us safe, not a single charge of traitorous behavior was ever made much less proved against anyone incarcerated for the duration of the war in those camps. Yet it was widely supported and upheld at the time by most Americans and by the United States Supreme Court. And as we face our own demons today, our own unleashed beasts of fear and prejudice, that is why Ben Stern’s story is profoundly relevant, why it is not merely historical but contemporary.
Ben Stern’s story becomes unusual after he survives the Nazis and marries a concentration camp survivor he meets in a displaced-persons camp while still in Europe, and in 1946 they come to America, where they raise a family and where they thrive. Then the story gets complicated. In 1959 they move to Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, with a population that, after WWII, was about 60 percent Jewish. Eighteen years later, in 1977, a small but virulent neo-Nazi group located in Chicago, and infamous for its repeated clashes in Chicago with civil rights advocates and for its opposition to school integration, decides to take its campaign to the suburbs and writes to about a dozen Chicago suburbs for permits to parade and demonstrate in their streets. One of those suburbs was Skokie.
Most of those suburbs just ignored the letter, or responded lethargically. Skokie responded like a bull to a red flag, and understandably so. Populated by a large number of concentration camp survivors, the idea that black-shirted would-be Nazis sporting swastikas would be marching in their streets, past their homes, was a reprise too much to bear. Many hid from the prospect, but Ben Stern did not. He stood up to organize an effort to prevent them from coming: not again was he about to tolerate what for him was a life-shattering experience. And that is where I came in.
The effort to resist the neo-Nazi group, constituting at most two dozen people and with sick irony headed by a man named Frank Collin, born Frank Cohn, himself Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor, initially focused on laws designed to bar them from coming to Skokie. The details of that ought not to burden this review, so I will omit them. Suffice to say, the laws passed by the town of Skokie were essentially the same as the laws passed in many towns, including Southern towns and including Chicago, to ban speech they hated, often including civil rights demonstrations for racial equality in schools, voting, etc. And the American Civil Liberties Union often represented many groups banned by such laws from parading. In Chicago, the ACLU of Illinois had often represented the NAACP and other civil rights groups, as well as Frank Collin and his neo-Nazis, in challenging such laws. Almost always, those laws were struck down as violations of the First Amendment, and it was those kinds of cases that freed Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues to conduct their demonstrations for equal voting rights in hostile Southern towns, and that allowed people protesting the war in Vietnam to march. So when Skokie reacted to Collin’s application for a permit to march by passing precisely those same kinds of laws, and Collin came to the ACLU as he and civil rights groups had previously in Chicago, seeking to challenge those laws, the ACLU took the case, as it normally took all such cases. And the ACLU won the case, as it had for many other clients of varying views, striking down the laws Skokie had passed to ban the neo-Nazis from marching down their streets.
The reason, legally, was straightforward: if Skokie could pass laws to ban speech it hated, then so could towns in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia pass the same laws to ban speech they hated, namely, blacks and whites marching together for an end to Jim Crow laws. If the First Amendment prevented one, it prevented the other. And if it didn’t, then any government, local, state or federal, could ban any speech it disliked, or felt threatened by. Imagine that power in the hands of, say, Joe McCarthy or Richard Nixon or, just to stay current, Donald Trump. The First Amendment works like an insurance policy: it protects us from the abuse of power, when people who hate our views are in power, but in return we have to tolerate speech we hate. Legal restrictions on speech are like poison gas: they seem like a useful weapon when we control it, and have a nefarious target in sight, but when the political wind shifts the poison gas can blow back upon us. To the extent the First Amendment prevents that, it does so by denying to all governments the power to ban speech it hates. And today, that includes Donald Trump.
And where do I come in to this dispute? I was a high official of the ACLU during the tempestuous Skokie case four decades ago. I strongly defended what the ACLU did then, and still do, for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph. I fear living in a country where the government gets to decide which speech to permit and which to ban. And I fear living in a country where the majority gets to decide that, because I remember when if it had been put to a vote back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, many, perhaps most, of the demonstrations organized and conducted by Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been banned. Rights, including the right to speech, cannot depend on the outcome of elections; they must be protected against such outcomes. If that isn’t obvious today, it never will be.
As you might imagine, I frequently defended the ACLU’s decision to take the Skokie case. But early on in that dispute, despite being a leading defender of the ACLU’s decision to take the case, I resolved never to lecture those who had endured, and still endured, incalculable pain and anguish, on why the First Amendment compelled the result it did, or why the absence of enforceable constitutional norms helped make what happened in Germany possible, and why Jews were better protected here because of enforceable constitutional norms, even though such norms can under certain conditions be swept away. Or why a court decision contrary to the one we sought, and obtained, would have been harmful to the rights of Jews and other vulnerable minorities. I would explain all this to others, did so endlessly, but I would not presume to lecture those who, like Ben Stern, had suffered, and suffer still, in ways I could only dimly imagine. Nor would I lecture blacks in the South who had witnessed and suffered savageries I could only understand from afar about why it was necessary and even protective to permit a defanged Klan from parading in the streets with their sheets and pillowcases, rubbing salt into psychological wounds that were not mine. And so I hesitated to review this film, not wishing to dilute the majesty of Ben Stern’s life with lectures about the First Amendment. But as I watched the conclusion of this remarkable film, Ben Stern surprised me again.
Ben Stern’s efforts to legally bar the neo-Nazis from coming to Skokie in 1977 were unsuccessful. But that didn’t stop him. Just because the neo-Nazis could speak didn’t mean people couldn’t respond. Ben Stern remembered 1939, and he would not submit quietly or silently to the spectre of swastikas in the streets where he lived again. Haunted by ghosts I could not possibly imagine, he even bought a gun, though he was firmly against guns. But he did more than that. He persuaded people living in Skokie not to hide in silence behind closed doors, as some had counseled. Instead, he organized a massive counterdemonstration to confront the neo-Nazis if they came. It was a brilliant response and a perfect remedy for a country with strong First Amendment rights, and the courage to use those rights. It was precisely the response contemplated by the First Amendment—to respond to hateful speech not by granting government the power to ban speech but by organizing more speech. Stern had the citizens of Skokie and their supporters ready to greet the neo-Nazis with a huge counterdemonstration. And in the end, the neo-Nazis never came. Afterwards, Stern took the gun he had purchased, a gun he was ready to use if the neo-Nazis turned violent, and shattered it with a hammer, scattering its remnants.
Stern’s organized resistance has many inspiring predicates. In 1857, in the only case the Supreme Court ever ruled on the constitutionality of slavery, it upheld it in a decision that is disgusting to read even today, 160 years later. I cannot imagine how it hit slaves and free blacks in non-slave states. In a brutal, inhuman decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that blacks were “subordinate and inferior beings” and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Those who advocated the abolition of slavery, both black and white, had every reason to feel crushed. But Frederick Douglass, the most famous black abolitionist of that time, responded this way:
The Supreme Court is not the only power in this world. We, the abolitionists and colored people, should meet this decision, unlooked for and monstrous as it appears, in a cheerful spirit. The very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the complete overthrow of the whole slave system.
In other words, Frederick Douglass did not give up, would not give in, and it was he, not Chief Justice Taney, who would in time prevail. Vince Lombardi. the famous football coach, once said “I never lost a game, sometimes time ran out.” But in the fight for liberty and social justice, time never runs out. When you get thrown for a loss, you get back up and keep playing. Frederick Douglass kept playing, and his cause prevailed. Ben Stern kept playing too, and he’s still playing. Progress is never a straight line. The moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but along the way it gets bent back, too. Resilience and persistence prevails. Frederick Douglass was an inspiration of resistance, and a triumph of humanity. So is Ben Stern. He not only survived, he remained human. His life, his perseverance, his integrity of human values during a time of beasts, inspires us all. Ben Stern rocks. See this film!