As a young P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in World War II, Bill Schleppegrell flew more than a dozen combat missions in Europe before he was shot down by Nazis and imprisoned for the final months of conflict.
Echoes of that long-ago life are sounding again as Schleppegrell sees Nazi symbols and chants being invoked by a resurgent white supremacy movement that recently took to the streets of Charlottesville, Va.
“I’ve seen this coming,” said the 93-year-old former Hibbing High school teacher.
That same unease is gripping Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel of St. Louis Park. After Charlottesville, she couldn’t sleep because she was so upset by the images of KKK hoods and Nazi flags.
“I’m back in Germany,” she said. “This is something that is unbelievable.”
In the aftermath of the melee in Virginia, many political, religious and business leaders in Minnesota and across the country have responded with outrage and condemnation. But no one may be feeling more anger and fear from the sight of Americans waving swastika flags than the World War II veterans who battled the Nazis and the concentration camp victims nearly killed by them.
Meisel is a survivor of Stutthof, a concentration camp in Poland, where 60,000 people were killed. She watched her mother enter the gas chamber and survived having guards tear out her hair and pry off her fingernails before she and her sister escaped a death march and were liberated in Denmark.
Decades later, in her St. Louis Park apartment, the 88-year-old widow and civil rights activist is deeply worried about the Charlottesville violence. She said she has seen other signs of anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the years, but this rising hatred feels different to her, and she draws parallels to the beginnings of Nazi Germany.
“That’s how war happens,” she said. “It starts with small things sometimes ... what we say to each other. Children are not born with hatred. They’re born with love.”
A teaching moment
While the neo-Nazi and racist rallies have taken place far from Minnesota, community leaders warn it could happen here.
The neo-Nazism “completely contradicts our state’s history,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “We have thousands of Minnesotans [who were] killed fighting Nazis.”
Merrill Burgstahler of Minnetonka nearly was one of them. He spent 221 days in combat while serving in the 777th anti-aircraft battalion in the 6th Armored Division. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated Buchenwald, a German concentration camp where at least 56,000 people died.
Now 94, he can’t forget seeing Buchenwald as a 22-year-old soldier in the days after its liberation in 1945. The image of claw marks at the gallows where prisoners tried to break free before being hanged haunts him. So does the smell of the camp.
“I can’t convey to anybody that smell between death, feces and starvation,” he said of Buchenwald. “No one knew how bad these big camps were. The world had not seen abuse to this level.”
Burgstahler returned to Buchenwald with his wife, Shirley, in 2010. There, German government officials firmly pledged: “This will never happen again.”
Now, he’s not so sure. Watching with alarm, he said the new ranks of American neo-Nazis are dangerous “troublemakers” who should study the past.
“I’d like to treat them like my children, sit them down and tell them what I saw,” he said.
In the den of his Minnetonka apartment, Burgstahler keeps symbols of the war — six battle stars and France’s Legion of Honor — and reminders of the toll, including small wooden shoes that a French boy sitting on the hedgerows of Normandy gave him in gratitude.
“What are you going to do about it?” he said of the resurgent right wing. “I’m just a guy who spent many hours on the front lines. This cannot be allowed to rise up again.”
‘It’s so frightening’
Judy Baron only needs to look at her left arm to see a reminder of the horrors of Auschwitz and later the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The blue tattoo of her prison number — A13459 — inked when she was 15 years old, has faded with time. But the painful memories of watching her mother and two sisters die haven’t.
“It was hell,” she said. “I can’t imagine how I survived.”
Now 88, Baron, who lives in Golden Valley, said it makes her sick to watch images of young, white men holding torches and yelling anti-Semitic phrases.
“It’s so frightening, especially for someone who has lived through it,” she said. “This is how Hitler started. We all know how it turned out so we better do something about it. That’s exactly what they did — marched with fire and yelled, ‘No Jews! No Jews!’ ”
Schleppegrell said he’s been concerned ever since seeing and hearing President Trump’s campaign speeches last year, when the candidate whipped up crowds with angry talk.
“I don’t know if it’s the younger generation that’s involved that just don’t understand what our country has gone through to save ourselves from people like him,” said Schleppegrell, speaking of Trump.
Schleppegrell’s early missions in World War II were mainly dive bombing railroad yards, bridges and factories, releasing two 500-pound bombs on each mission to cripple parts of the Nazi war machine. On Jan. 1, 1945, Schleppegrell flew toward a target north of Saarbrucken, Germany, when he was hit. He heard a sickening thud, and could smell gunpowder, according to a detailed account of his wartime experiences in the Legionnaire, a publication of the Minnesota American Legion and Auxiliary.
He bailed out and parachuted to the ground, where he was captured by German soldiers. Months later, after Schleppegrell endured frostbite, solitary confinement and at times being caged like an animal, the war ended and he was freed.
Fellow vet James Kangas also fought Nazi Germany from the air.
“I guess it’s pretty obvious to the older generation what’s happening,” said Kangas, who was a gunner on a B-17 bomber with the 8th Air Force. He listened to Hitler’s speeches as a schoolboy in Meeker County, and has been distressed by the political disruption brought by the Trump administration.
“I see anarchy coming because political parties no longer can share power or even discuss it. It’s mob rule,” he said.
‘Reliving bad times’
Lyle Bradley, a veteran from Andover, said he’s heard of neo-Nazis in the United States before, but he’s more disturbed about current events.
“We should allow freedom of speech, but when it comes to tearing apart the country, that’s when it’s gone too far,” said Bradley, 93, who was a carrier pilot in the Pacific.
Another veteran, Mel Dahlberg, a paratrooper from Jordan, was wounded twice fighting Nazis in Germany, once while making a combat jump into France.
“People just don’t want to stop and think about what the other side thinks,” he said, adding that seeing the Nazi symbols used in the Charlottesville protests was “just reliving bad times again.’’
“It’s a shame we have to fight like that, and bring all these old memories back.”