Anti-Fascist Heroines Then and Now
The torchlit procession and violent rally of neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan members in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, and President Donald Trump’s repeated defense of the racist gathering, mark a turning point in modern America. Trump doubled down last week when he blamed both sides again, denouncing some anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters as “bad dudes,” a day after meeting with the Senate’s lone black Republican, Sen. Tim Scott, whom the White House called “Tom” Scott.
To recap: Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old activist, was killed, and at least 19 more were injured, when a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters on Aug. 12. Hate groups and white supremacists, on the rise since Barack Obama became the first African-American president, are emboldened by Trump.
The history of resistance to fascism is worth recalling at this critical moment in U.S. politics, and also at this time of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The stories of Anne Frank and Sophie Scholl — two young German women, one a Jew, another a Christian — should guide and inspire us in this darkening time.
In 1942, Sophie Scholl, a 21-year-old college student in Munich, and her older brother Hans, a medical student, formed the White Rose collective with a small circle of friends. They decided to produce a series of pamphlets exposing Nazi atrocities and urging resistance to Hitler. The first pamphlet appeared in June 1942, mailed anonymously to Munich citizens who the White Rose members thought would be sympathetic. Leaflets were dropped at bus stops and doorways, anywhere they could be delivered clandestinely. To be caught would mean imprisonment and possibly death.
“Since Poland was conquered, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in the most bestial manner imaginable,” read their second pamphlet. “Jews are human beings too.” They encouraged passive resistance and sabotage, writing in their fourth communique, “Every person is in a position to contribute something to the overthrow of this system.”
The Gestapo (Nazi secret police) mounted a massive search for the leafleters. Finally, in February 1943, Hans and Sophie were caught while distributing leaflets at Munich University. They, their professor and other student activists were interrogated, tried, convicted and beheaded.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Anne Frank and her family were suffering increasing anti-Jewish persecution in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. They had already fled anti-Semitism in their native Germany. The U.S. repeatedly denied visas for the Frank family to seek refuge in the United States. In desperation, in 1942, they moved into a hidden section of the building where Anne’s father Otto’s office was located — what Anne called “the Secret Annex” in her famous diary. They remained in hiding there for two years.
It is hard to believe that Anne Frank wrote her remarkable diary between the ages of 13 and 15. “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions,” she wrote on July 15, 1944. “And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”
Three weeks later, the secret annex was raided by the Nazi SS. Anne, her family and the four others hiding there were arrested and deported to German concentration camps. Anne and her sister Margot were separated from their parents and died in the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945, just weeks before the camp was liberated. Only Otto Frank survived the concentration camps, going on to recover Anne’s diary and share it with the world.
Now, more than 70 years later, armed neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan groups march with torches in the United States, chanting “Blood and Soil!,” a Nazi slogan from the 1930s, and “Jews will not replace us!” Donald Trump, whose father was arrested at a Klan march in 1927, and who himself was sued by the federal government for discriminating against African-American renters, claims there were “very fine people” among the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville.
Soon afterward, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the convicted former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who notoriously and criminally persecuted innocent Latinos, and proudly referred to one of his jails as his “concentration camp.” Also, refugees from six majority Muslim nations have been banned, and protections and support for the LGBTQ community (also victimized by Nazi Germany) are being stripped away.
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” was the quote featured on Heather Heyer’s Facebook page when she died. Like Anne Frank and Sophie Scholl before her, Heather was killed resisting fascism. Let all their stories inspire a new wave of bold resistance.