Birgitt Peterson was pictured Friday night with her arm stiff in the air, raised in what appears to be a Nazi salute. The 69-year-old had been at a Chicago rally for Republican front-runner Donald Trump, a campaign event that was indefinitely postponed because of safety concerns, and the Chicago Tribune’s photo of her gesture spread quickly online.
But the scene wasn’t entirely what it seemed, Peterson and her husband, Donald, later told media outlets.
“Absolutely I’m not a Nazi, no,” she told the New York Times. “I’m not one of those.”
Donald Peterson echoed his wife in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, saying: “We’re not skinheads. We’re not Nazis.”
Birgitt Peterson told the newspaper that she was “surrounded” after she and her husband left the rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion on Friday night.
“They were calling us names like ‘skinheads’ and ‘Nazis’ and stuff like that,” Donald Peterson told the Huffington Post. “There was a girl holding a sign that said Hitler equals Trump, so we went up to her and said, ‘That is really stupid.’ ”
During the exchange, a woman called Birgitt Peterson a white supremacist, she told the Tribune.
According to Peterson, the Ku Klux Klan — whose former grand wizard, David Duke, has encouraged listeners of his radio show to support Trump, saying he considers the candidate to be the “best of the lot” — was also mentioned during the conversation with the protesters.
Peterson says she is a U.S. citizen who emigrated from West Berlin, the Tribune reported. So she was irked when protesters compared Trump to Adolf Hitler, and she raised her arm in an attempt to teach a lesson, she told the Times.
“They said Trump is a second Hitler,” she said. “I said: ‘Do you know what that sign stands for? Do you know who Hitler really was?’ ”
“I make the point that they are demonstrating something they had no knowledge about,” she continued in her Times interview. “If you want to do it right, you do it right. You don’t know what you are doing.”
Tribune photographer E. Jason Wambsgans, however, told his newspaper that he didn’t capture any shots of protesters making the salute and that he didn’t see it occurring.
In interviews with the Huffington Post and the Tribune, Donald Peterson also said that his wife was trying to teach the crowd.
“My wife was responding to them and making this a teaching moment,” Peterson told the Huffington Post. “I’m all for their right and support them for protesting, but you don’t call people Nazis or say Trump or people who support him are the equivalent of Nazis — that is asinine. That is ridiculousness.”
The account from Donald and Birgitt Peterson differs from that of Michael Joseph Garza, who wrote on Facebook that he was also pictured in the Tribune photo. Garza wrote that he was trying to help Peterson leave the area and had waved his hand to clear a route for her.
“Go?” he claims she responded. “Back in my day, you know what we did —”
And that’s when she gestured in the Nazi salute, he wrote.
“I went up to her and said: ‘Ma’am, please leave. We have understood you. We have made a [path],’ ” Garza told the Tribune in an interview. “She said: ‘Go? Back in my day, this is what we did,’ basically, and then she hailed Hitler.”
In the aftermath of the photo, some suggested the woman was Portia A. Boulger, a 63-year old from Ohio. Boulger, however, told The Washington Post that it wasn’t her. She also debunked the rumor in posts on social media, saying that she had cut her hair and no longer resembled the woman in the image.
Trump raised eyebrows last week when he asked thousands of supporters at a rally in Florida to hold up their right hands and “solemnly swear” to cast a vote for him. The act drew comparisons to a Nazi salute, including one from former Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman, a Holocaust survivor.
“Well, I think it’s ridiculous. I mean, we’re having such a great time,” Trump said, noting the size of his crowds. “Sometimes, we’ll do it for fun. . . . They’ll start screaming at me: ‘Do the swearing! Do the swearing!’ I mean, they’re having such a great time. . . . Honestly, until this phone call, I didn’t know it was a problem.”
Days later, during a GOP debate on CNN, Trump mentioned the “Today” interview, saying: “It shows the total dishonesty of the press. We were having — on a few occasions, again massive crowds. And we’re talking and I’m saying: ‘Who is going to vote on Tuesday? Who is going to vote?’ The place goes crazy. Then I say: ‘Hey, do me a favor. Raise your right hand. Do you swear you’re going to vote for Donald Trump?’
“Everyone’s laughing. We’re all having a good time. That’s why I have much bigger crowds than Ted (Cruz), because we have a good time at mine. But we’re all having a good time and the next day, on the ‘Today’ show and a couple of other places, not too many. Because when you look at it, everyone’s smiling, laughing. Their arms are raised like this. They had pictures, still pictures of people and they tried to equate it to Nazi Germany.
“It is a disgrace. It was a total disgrace.”