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Exclusive: Swastikas Spark Backlash at History Festival

Jacob Plitman
September 26, 2017

AT TAXPAYER-FUNDED REENACTMENT IN MICHIGAN

by Jacob Plitman ON SUNDAY, a yearly historical reenactment event in Bay City, Michigan drew men wearing Nazi and SS uniforms who built a Nazi camp and posed with a swastika-emblazoned flag. The presence of Nazi reenactors at the River of Time event, which is sponsored by the taxpayer- funded Bay County Historical Society, has sparked backlash from state officials, the Jewish community, and activists. The annual event, held at Veterans Memorial Park on the bank of the Saginaw river about forty-five minutes from Flint, “showcases a time-line history of North America, Michigan and Bay County,” according to its website. In the past this has included battles between Native Americans and fur traders, Civil War reenactments, and more. But this year was the first time these events featured a World War II “skirmish” between Allied and Nazi forces. The Nazi reenactors erected an SS camp, complete with lightning bolt and deathshead logos, and were photographed laughing and posing with the Nazi flag at the event. River of Time is sponsored by Bay County’s Historical Society. No other sponsors are listed at its the event website. According to an interview with the Historical Society’s Operations Director Ron Bloomfield, 80 percent of the Society’s work is funded through a recently renewed county levy of 9.52 cents per $1,000 of taxable property, a funding arrangement in place for over twenty years. The events at River of Time have thrown taxpayer support for the Historical Society into the spotlight. Marti Murphy, a Bay City resident and activist spoke to me over the phone: “A friend of mine told me the Nazi camp was happening. I asker her to take pictures and she said no because ‘it isn’t right to show children playing with swastikas.’ Then I really knew something was wrong.” A friend provided Murphy with the pictures shown above. He was angry. “My f*****g hometown does not welcome Nazis or Nazi fetishists,” he said. Murphy posted about the event on Facebook, eliciting 57 comments, mostly from reenactors and sympathizers with the event. One exception were several comments from Representative Brian Elder, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, who wrote, “I cannot, remotely, fathom how this decision was made. We have monuments listing the names of our local people killed fighting the Nazis. This is beyond the pale.” Over the phone, Representative Elder said, "An SS death's head is the sign of an ideological unit. The idea that it's appropriate to display those specific soldiers as normal human beings is outrageous. When you choose to display history, you make decisions about what to convey. So if the fear of some is that we get rid of some history unless we sit around with Nazis, that’s b******t. Were some of the German soldiers normal people? Probably. But you should do that accurately in a different way. Someone sitting under the SS flag, that's the very nuts and bolts of the murder mechanism that was the Nazi government. This may have not been malevolent itself but at best a horrific mistake based on ignorance." POLITICIANS AREN'T THE ONLY ONES disturbed by the events. I spoke to Sandy Rogers, director of operations at Temple Beth Israel in Bay City. She angrily disputed that this event was about historical education, and said many community members feel the same way. “These weren’t reenactors. You saw the pictures. Usually the reenactors set up camp, they dress up in the uniforms, they have memorabilia from that time, but they don’t flaunt and get pictures taken with the Nazi flag. “I grew up in Bay City," Rogers continued. "River of Time has always been about American soldiers and the history of our region. There were never any Nazi boots on the ground here. If we’re going to bring in Nazis, let’s bring in ISIS, let’s bring in Al Qaeda, let’s bring in the Klan. Where does it end? My dad fought in Germany. The Historical Society is a tax-funded institution. My taxes are paying for the Nazi flag to be there. I don’t want my taxes paying for this any more.” I reached out to the Historical Society and River of Time event leader Jan Rau for comment. At the time this was published, they had not responded. However, when asked by a local reporter during a recent interview what was to be different at this years River of Time event, Rau replied, “Nothing, this is history and we can’t change it.” She noted that only this year had the event gathered enough volunteers to pose as Nazi soldiers. IS NAZI REENACTMENT akin to sympathizing with them? Many of those replying to Marti Murphy’s Facebook post and otherwise commenting online made the argument that what happened at River of Time is simply part of historical teaching, no matter the apparently gleeful waving of the swastika flag. In response to Murphy’s post, River of Time Nazi reenactor Joshua Tuzas wrote, “ These men do not support or endorse the ideology of Nazism. And to immediately spout a half cock [sic] statement makes you a racist bigot.” Tuzas is a longtime River of Time participant; in 2011 he got married at the event. I reached him for comment over Facebook chat. He wrote, "I feel that the situation was taken out of context. And used to stir a false narrative... it's absolutely not about Nazism." I asked him what he thought about the fact that these images might disturb the Jewish community and others, especially after Charlottesville. He replied, "They have the same imagery at the Holocaust Museum here in Michigan... (seeing it in public is important) so that we don't end up going down the same roads... Once again the men that were there this weekend were not Nazi reenactors. They were portraying German soldiers." In 2010, these questions played out on a national level. That year, images of Congressional candidate Rich Iott circulated showing him wearing an SS uniform at events similar to River of Time. Outrage at Iott was followed by outrage at the journalists exposing him. Defending his work The Atlantic, journalist Joshua Greene wrote, “(Nazi reenactors’) main defense -- it's also Iott's defense -- is that donning Nazi uniforms and pretending to fight is somehow ‘educational’ and reflects only an interest in history. The problem with this defense is that it's categorically false, because these re-enactments downplay or simply ignore the most historically significant fact about the Nazis: the Holocaust.” Jane Harris, president of Temple Beth Israel, agreed. “I don’t believe this is about history. A lot of people are feeling emboldened because Trump is president. I think these neo-Nazis are just looking for additional venues to run around waving Nazi flags.” What will happen next year? Some community members said they plan to investigate the mandate and charter of the River of Time event. Others planned more direct action. Marti Murphy warned that this event will not be tolerated in the future. ”This isn’t about history, this is about fetishizing Nazis. Next year the Nazis will not be back. We’re going to put political pressure on everyone, if they don’t want to act, then people of good will who are anti-Nazi will stop it ourselves. We will not allow Nazis in our town, period." Jacob Plitman is an Associate Editor of Jewish Currents. He tweets @jacobplitman.

Jacob Plitman was the publisher of Jewish Currents from 2017 – 2022, during which time he stewarded the relaunch of the magazine.