The red, black and white swastika flag flashed across my television screen, dwarfing the made-for-TV Chicago headquarters of Frank Collin's Nazi party. I was watching "Skokie," tonight's 2 1/2-hour dramatization of the emotional confrontation between a handful of self-styled storm troopers and the Jews of Skokie, Ill., where the Nazis planned to march. Three years ago I covered the story and sat in Collin's real storefront headquarters.
Hitler stared from a faded photo; a huge swastika covered one wall. Windows had long been boarded for security. It was not one of those days when Collin was holding forth at press conferences in brown shirt and jackboots. No one was there but his ragtag band of 12. In the gloom, a fat, stolid member, with remarkably dirty fingernails, was going about the humdrum of hate -- folding decals that said "Keep Neighborhood White, Ban Spics."
Collin, a smallish man with dark hair, was saying he "welcomed" the four-part TV series "Holocaust" being shown that week because it would "make people sick of the Jews and their perpetual complaining."
Just then a party member rushed into the room. "Frank, we got problems." He was clutching a 12-gauge shotgun. Another raced up the stairs from the basement, slamming his hand against the butt of a 30-caliber rifle he was loading. "The niggers are at the front door," he announced. "I'll get nine or 10 of 'em if they come in here." Four others rushed to their battle stations with bats and billy clubs. I cowered behind the mimeograph machine. I could hear chanting outside but couldn't see out. Maybe hundreds of anti-Nazi protesters were out there. At any moment, I thought, someone would lob a Molotov cocktail and I would go to my flaming end, underneath a picture of Hitler and the swastika.
"If they come through that door, blast 'em," yelled Collin. He hopped onto a chair to peer through bunker-like slits and switched on a siren.
Finally, a policeman pounded on the door and told Collin to knock off the siren. I took that moment to dash out -- and found only seven black pickets from the Martin Luther King Movement marching in a circle.
Those pickets were only one outcry in a swirl of protest and anger, public debate and private terrors generated by that planned Nazi march in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. For months the town, which had 7,000 Holocaust survivors, staved off the march with prohibiting ordinances. Elderly Jews with blue tattooed numbers on their arms -- indelible remnants of Auschwitz -- battled young Jewish lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union who argued that the First Amendment stood for everyone, even Nazis. The Illinois ACLU division lost 30 percent of its membership, Collin garnered free publicity, and the survivors reminded people of the horror:
"My older brother died at the start. We were locked up, we couldn't look out. On the fifth day he passed away. One day the SS man promised a loaf of bread to an inmate who could find a mouse alive. One man caught a mouse. The SS man injected it with gasoline. The mouse died. From that day on he made himself a picnic. Every day he picked five Jews, injected gasoline into their bloodstream. And they died.
"This went on for quite a long time."
A man named David, then 55, told me this story. He would not give his last name because after one newspaper account, his family received threatening calls from people who claimed to be Nazis. His mother, his father, a sister and a younger brother went to the gas chambers at Treblinka. David and two sisters survived.
With David and his family, in their comfortable pine-paneled den in Skokie, was Erna Gans. Her blue eyes were expressionless as she recited her litany of death. Gans, who was 16 in 1939, remembers walking the streets posing as a non-Jew "because it was safer than staying at home." One day as she returned home she saw a truck full of prisoners. In it were her mother and her little brother. "I went toward it -- but my mother motioned that I should not come close. I never saw them again. Later, my father and I were put in camps. I was the only one who survived."
Gans was among those working to halt the march. To them the swastika was a symbol of genocide that must not appear on their streets. She and others spoke of a new wave of anti-Semitism in America. They could not dismiss Collin's band as a group of ineffectual misfits: "Hitler started with only a few and everyone thought he was crazy."
In the end, the courts ruled that Collin could march, but he elected to stay on his own turf rather than go to Skokie. An anticlimax, perhaps, but by then the confrontation had forced people to examine both the constitutional absolutes and the intractable defiance of the survivors, born of terrible remembrances. The complexities of this special confrontation are well caught in "Skokie." The ACLU lawyer quoting Justice Holmes' famous definition of the principle of free thought: "freedom for the thought we hate." Older Jews asking, "Must one defend the right to speak for those who, if they came to power, would deny the right of freedom, indeed of life, to others?"
And what of the psychic injury of seeing swastikas and storm trooper uniforms in their little town? Of hearing this man, Collin, shouting "Too bad Hitler didn't finish the job!" Danny Kaye, the picture of authenticity as a survivor in the TV movie, repeats the single-minded refrain that they had to protest -- even though the wisest course may have been to deny Collin the publicity he sought by ignoring him. But they ignored the Nazis once before and could never do it again, Kaye says. It was a thought I heard over and over in Skokie.
A colleague of mine wrote back then that he did not believe the survivors would suffer psychic injury if the Nazis marched: "I think the Holocaust survivors are very tough." Yes, tough, but I saw anguish reborn as they remembered and explained.
The mere mention of the Nazi party brought angry tears to Abe Fraiman and Mark Weinberg as they huddled in 39-degree sunlight with 2,700 other Christians and Jews at a Skokie unity rally in 1978. They pulled up their sleeves, unbuttoned their shirt cuffs, pointed to the numbers on their arms. Weinberg said, "They arrested me in 1943. They beat me up. I hang myself but they got me well. Then the Gestapo took me again. I was beaten very badly."
In a sub-theme, television's "Skokie" captures with amazing fidelity the dimension of survivor guilt. Many survivors tried to shield their children from their past, often creating a wall of silence. Three years ago, I watched a news show about Collin with Kurt and Sveren Steinweg. Sveren's sister died of typhus three days before they were liberated. "I kept her by my side, dead, three days. Then I gave her up. I crawled to the Red Cross ambulance." The Steinwegs sat in their Skokie living room, offering cheesecake and cognac, a world apart from yesterday's nightmares.
For three decades, most of the survivors tried desperately to "fit in," to forget. They stayed close, creating a "family" to replace their real, obliterated families. Their children grew up in America, but often felt like displaced persons, isolated from other children by a past about which they know little. As one child told me, "I grew up thinking Jews simply didn't have grandparents."
In "Skokie" the Danny Kaye character and his 16-year-old daughter confront the past only after Frank Collin attempts to march in Skokie. The mother, played by Kim Hunter, is the one real flaw in the drama. She seems a hysterical Hollywood version of those I met in Skokie who had for so long buried the past.
George Dzendza plays Collin with control and a telltale maniacal gleam, but Collin could have been fleshed out if the filmmakers had borrowed from real-life interviews with Collin. He is a man who smiles proudly when someone says he looks like Hitler -- and rants that the FBI "doctored" his files despite well-documented evidence that his father was a Jew named Cohn. Dzendza makes Collin out to be more calmly shrewd than he ever appeared that afternoon in his South Side headquarters. This is partly because of Dzendza's imposing size. Collin, barely 5-foot-7 in real life seemed to be a very little man ruling a dozen other little men, fanning the flames of hatred with some success in his working-class all-white neighborhood, where Martin Luther King was booed and spat upon. A man who emerged from his bunker-like headquarters and seized a brief moment, made people think and, in the end, united people behind the Holocaust survivors more than ever.
Their gesture of resistance was understood by most, even those who championed Collin's First Amendment right.
"In a few years we will be gone," said one survivor who sought to halt the march. "We must let our children know we will stand up. We listened to our leaders in the ghetto who said the Nazis would not do what they did. No one ever believed that people could do this to other human beings. We must keep things safe for our children."