The man behind a World War II party that featured Nazi flags and men dressed in SS uniforms said it was an exercise for actors who play historical roles at fairs and in movies, not a political statement.

His explanation comes days after a leaked photo from the private event was published online by City Pages, provoking a firestorm of protest against the party and the northeast Minneapolis restaurant, Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit, that hosted it.

“By no means do we glorify the edicts of the Third Reich,” said Scott Steben, who characterized himself as a history buff who has landed movie parts as a German soldier. “I understand the sensitivity of the subject matter and everything but it did occur and it is history.”

He said the group screens out neo-nazis or anyone with a criminal record. He also defended the practice of wearing German uniforms, likening themselves to fans who dress up as Star Trek characters.

Two Jewish organizations issued a statement Tuesday saying they would like to help the restaurant find a way to honor Minnesota’s World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors by not associating with German military re-enactors.

“Glorification and/or celebration of Nazi Germany and its military would appear to be incongruous with the nature of a family restaurant and its surrounding neighborhood,” wrote Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas Executive Director Steve Hunegs in a statement. His comments were supported by the Minnesota Rabbinical Association.

The party was held on Martin Luther King Day, but Steben said it was the group’s annual Christmas party, which has been held in January for the last six years at Gasthof’s. The party always gets booked on a Monday because it’s the only day of the week that the restaurant is closed, he said.

The Jan. 20 party drew concern from a Gasthof staff member, who was one of three working that night. The staffer shot at least five photos with his cellphone that show people milling about in German army uniforms with four Nazi banners hanging in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms. Another photo shows a black T-shirt adorned with a Swastika that the staff member was given by someone at the party.

The photos themselves were shown to a Star Tribune reporter by a friend of the staffer. Neither agreed to be identified.

The staffer was fired Friday after he admitted to Gasthof’s owner Mario Pierzchalski that he took the photos and shared them with friends.

Restaurant threatened

Pierzchalski said he’s hosted the party for six years but won’t host it again. He defended the people who attended it, who included men dressed as Italian soldiers and one as an American soldier.

“Those people are very peaceful people,” he said referring to the party goers. “They are not any politicians or any against politics or against the parties here. They are just actors.”

A native of Poland who came from a town, Kozienice, that saw a brutal purge of its Jewish residents during World War II, Pierzchalski said he doesn’t believe in Nazism but cherishes the freedom he found in the United States when he emigrated here in 1993. He said he’s been taken aback by the hostile reaction many people have had to the party, including threatening online comments and phone calls to the restaurant.

“So now we have a lot of bad messages on our phones; they want to burn down the building,” he said.

“We live in a free country...but from the comments I see, a lot of people they don’t see what freedom is. If I break the law, punish me. But we did this for so many years and everything was fine.”

Steben, the party’s organizer, has two acting credits listed on the Internet Movie Database, both of them for playing German soldiers. He said many of the people who gathered at Gasthof’s in January had parts in a recent made-in-Minnesota film, “Memorial Day.”

The 2011 movie starring James Cromwell tells the story of a grandson discovering his grandfather’s military past in a foot locker, learning about past wars and growing up to serve in the Minnesota National Guard. A portion of the film includes recreations of World War II.

The film’s director, Sam Fischer, said he didn’t authorize or endorse the Gasthof party but confirmed that Steben was in his film.

“I love the guys for being a part of the film; I couldn’t have done it without all of the re-enactors,” he said, while calling the party and its Nazi-themed props a “very odd circumstance.”