Jewish law and legend accord the victims of great suffering - the widowed and the orphaned - an extraordinary degree of compassion and protection. The Torah reflects their special status: "You shall not mistreat a widow or a fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, I shall surely heed them when they cry out to me." (Exodus 22:21-22)

Abraham Ibn Ezra commented that even if only one individual added to the suffering of widows and orphans, the entire community incurred divine wrath if it did not rise up as one body to protect and defend the victims.

When the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish tradition speak of the widow and the orphan, they speak broadly of particularly vulnerable individual whose prior suffering demands that protection lest their wounds be reopened.

Many people who experienced the Holocaust are still alive. They have lost their families; many have lost their mobility, their sexuality and their ability to hope that life can be a good and positive thing because of the horror they lived through in Europe a generation ago.

Those survivors are a unique group of people whose immeasurable suffering must entwine itself inextricably into any discussion of freespeech as it applies to the rights of Nazis to march in full regalia and thereby evoke memories of Hitler's policies and practices.

It is true, as The Post noted in a recent editorial, that the Supreme Court has followed a zigzag path in applying the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. It is not true, as the editorial contended, that such a zigzag path is unfortunate.

Freedoms are rarely absolute. Often one conflicts with another. When such clashes occur, courts must decide which freedom whould take precedence.

As Felix Frankfurter wrote in his opinion in Dennis v. United States in 1951: "Not every type of speech occupies the same position on the scale of values. There is no substantial public interest in permitting certain kinds of utterances . . . those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

In arguing for the primacy of free speech, the Post editorial quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous statement: "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

The argument there is not with hateful thoughts but with the immediate consequences wrought by the public expression of certain hateful thoughts. An equally famous quote from Justice Holmes's 1919 opinion in Schenk v. United States speaks to that vital issue. He wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words that may have all the effect of force."

The justices differ over the magnitude a potential disaster must possess to permit that disaster to restrict free speech. However, the Nazi issue pits basic values of the American system against one another and forces us to confront our priorities and abridge for a few and for a time the right to free expression.

Last April the American Nazi party opened the Rudolph Hess Bookstore on Taravel Street in San Francisco directly across from Congregation B'nai Emunah. A huge swastika stared defiantly at a synagogue attended largely by refugees of Hitler's Holocaust. Sixty percent of B'nai Emunah's members are concentration-camp survivors.

The question is: Which takes precedence - the Nazis right of free speech or the emotional sensibilities and, yes, the physical well-being of this unique group of American?

The story of Tauba Weiss, which appeared in the last April 3 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, is unfortunately not an uncommon one among Holocaust refugees. She sobbed: "I lost four brothers and two sisters. I saw them take my mother away.'

She knelt and put her hands to her neck and described how as a boy her husband watched the Nazis 'chop his father' to death.

"So,' she said through high-pitched cries, 'If you see a swastika you get all hysterical.'"

Tauba Weiss's fears are hardly unique. Similar reactions are stirred in thousands of European Americans by the sight of a Nazi uniform or the sound of exhortations similar to those that preceded the destruction of one-third of the world's Jews a generation ago.

The reflex of many of these people - whether in San Francisco or in Skokie - is instant and unavoidable. Public Nazi demonstrations involve a clear and present danger to the physical and emotional health of these citizens.

The fact that we have, as Aryeh Neier of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a recent Post article, "the freedom to express with all due vehemence our detestation for the Nazis" does nothing to help the already scarred Holocaust victim. If the Nazis were only "enemies of freedom" with evil intent, there would be insufficient reason to stifle them. Unlike any of Neier's other examples, though, a Nazi march and rally would bring severe and immediate suffering on a significant group of Americans.

No, the survival of the country is not imminently threatened by allowing Nazis to parade and demonstrate, but the health and welfare of certain Americans clearly are. Far more is involved than the mere freedom to be vile, as The Post suggested.

In his 1917 opinion in Whitney v. California, Louis Brandeis wrote about three grounds on which suppression of free speech can be justified: ". . . There must be reasonable ground 1) to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced, . . . 2) to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent, and 3) to believe that the evil to be prevented is a serious one."

On all three counts there is reason to justify suppression of the present Nazi activity, especially in places like Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors live.

In Whitney, though, Justice Brandeis also wrote: "To courageous, self-reliant men with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression."

Those words of the Justice also ring true. As long as direct sufferers of the Holocaust survive, the state of emergency justifying the repression of public Nazi demonstrations continues to exit.

The time will come soon, though, when those of us without numbers tatooed on our arms must prepare to defeat in full and open discussion any Nazi menace that rears its head. We must be ready to confront - with truth, reason and calmswastikas, goose steps and outlandish lies.

For now, though, too many of our people have lived through too much to be able to act with such equanimity. Allowing free expression to Nazi zealots would Jeopardize the health and well-being of many Holocaust survivors as surely as any physical assault.

The courageous "widows and orphans" of humanity's greatest tragedy deserve a special measure of protection. Lest our society merit the divine wrath of which Ibn Ezra spoke, we must rise up as one body to prevent their further suffering.