Teens from viral swastika photo face Holocaust survivor families

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GABE STUTMAN , JWeekly.com

“It was a long walk from the car.”

That’s how the mom of a Wheatland High School student described returning to campus on March 8 with her son for the first time since he was barred from campus in December. The mom, who is not being named because of a privacy agreement with J., worried that if her child was seen, “people would start talking.”

It all started with a photo, posted to social media in December, of eight Wheatland High teenagers. Some are smiling. One is clutching a bottle of Captain Morgan rum, another a bottle of Bacardi. A male student flashes a middle finger; another a hand gesture forming the letters “W” and “P” symbolizing “White Power.” The students are wearing jeans with their torsos partially exposed; Nazi swastikas and SS bolts are drawn on their exposed skin in black ink.

The image went viral on social media and didn’t stop there; news coverage proliferated across California and beyond. Stories appeared in the Sacramento Bee, on multiple TV news stations, in online newspapers in the UK, and in heavily trafficked clickbait websites like RawStory. The students have long since deleted their Instagram accounts after being flooded with harsh messages.

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Given the proliferation of extremist ideologies in America today — supercharged in dark corners of the internet — it was not altogether unheard of that young people would flash symbols of white supremacy. In parts of California, right-wing extremists like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers maintain a public presence and engage in open recruiting. Flyers advertising Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, were distributed recently in Carmichael, not far from Wheatland.

And yet it was still shocking for high school students to so brazenly, and seemingly without shame, appear to embrace one of history’s most brutal, murderous regimes.

Wheatland Union High School (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Wheatland Union High School (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

The students were judged severely online and suffered serious consequences from their school, but the photo raised a number of questions: Did they understand the significance of these symbols? Are they avowed white supremacists or neo-Nazis?

Put simply, what on earth were they thinking?

For now, all eight have been barred from campus. “They all have faced expulsions of some sort,” according to a mom who attended the meeting, although some will have the opportunity to return in the fall. The students present at the meeting were being homeschooled, the mom said.

The Wheatland Union High School District would not confirm the specific disciplinary status of each of the students, citing legal concerns.

Attempts to answer some of the most disquieting questions spurred by the photo came last week during a meeting between four of the students, two of the moms and members of the Story Project, a Sonoma County-based group of Holocaust survivors and their relatives.

Attending the meeting was not required, but something the moms initiated for their kids, feeling it would be a good learning experience for them. They said their children had no objections to the meeting — the hardest part was returning to campus for the first time.

The students had been ostracized, they said, since the incident. “I don’t think they’ve seen anyone but each other since,” one mom said. “They’ve been pretty ‘outed,’ by this community.”

“I mean, it’s understandable,” the other added. “For a while.”

The media coverage of the photo shined a harsh light on the school and the small city of Wheatland, which feels a world apart from Sacramento, 40 miles to the south. The town of just under 4,000 was incorporated in 1874, and railroad tracks run through its modest downtown. Wheatland is a mix of farmland — with acres of fruit orchards and cattle farms — and military town, located 10 miles from Beale Air Force Base. The high school is populated by locals and the children from military families. On a recent afternoon, two uniformed service members ate lunch at a roadside hamburger restaurant a few blocks from the school.

Downtown Wheatland. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Downtown Wheatland. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

The town has plenty of churches, including a Mormon church across the street from the high school, but no organized Jewish life to speak of.

A small organization operating on a “shoestring” budget, the Story Project of Sonoma County is made up of about 10 people who either fled Nazi-occupied Europe themselves, had family who did, or family who perished in the Holocaust. They travel throughout the state (and beyond, using videoconferencing) offering Holocaust and genocide education programs for students in grades 5-12.

It was their idea to visit Wheatland.

“When this thing broke at the end of December, I thought — this is the ideal community for us to go into and tell our stories,” said Steve Einstein, whose mother fled Vienna on the Kindertransport at age 7, and who brings her worn-out suitcase with him when he speaks to students. “I called the school district.”

He said officials were “hesitant” at first after the deluge of press coverage, but ultimately were “very open” and “very receptive” to the visitors’ presence.

For two whole school days, the Story Project came and spoke to students about the Holocaust and the dangers of religous and ethnic bigotry. The school district paid for the three speakers — Einstein, Elaine Sneierson Leeder and Peter Krohn — to stay in a nearby hotel. Presenting in history classes as teachers looked on from their desks, the speakers eventually addressed nearly all of the school’s roughly 800 students, telling of what happened to their family members using visual aids.

Einstein’s immediate family, he told students, managed to escape Austria, but other relatives were not so fortunate. Krohn, who is in his 80s, showed images of anti-Jewish propaganda used by the Nazis to dehumanize Jews, calling them rats and animals “so that they were easier to kill.” He told of his own escape from Italy as a baby, and his family’s close call upon being interrogated by Nazi police.

Leeder told of recurrent nightmares, a form of intergenerational trauma, stemming from learning about the murder of her father’s mother, sister and brother; all were shot and buried in a mass grave in Lithuania.

They brought evocative props — old photos, a ripped-up teddy bear like the one that may have saved Krohn’s life — and showed video testimony.

Students appeared at times distracted, chatting or resting on their desks, and at times riveted by the material.

“My class was really engaged,” one teacher, Kim Jones, told J. when the first day was out. “I could tell.”

Wheatland students study World War II and the Holocaust in both 10th and 11th grades, Superintendent Nicole Newman said.

In 10th grade they study the war in world history class, and in 11th-grade U.S. history “they learn about America’s involvement in the war and liberating camps,” Newman wrote to J. in an email. She also believes eighth-graders read “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the two “feeder” middle schools.

What was clear was that Wheatland students’ experience with Jews was very limited. Over the two days, Einstein asked students who cycled in and out of the classroom whether they had ever met a Jew. Most believed they had not.

The intimate meeting with students at the center of the controversy took place after the first day of Story Project lessons — it was arranged more or less at the last minute.

The intention of the Story Project’s visit was to address the Wheatland student body as a whole — the eight students in the notorious photo were not on campus and were in fact not allowed to be. But when two of their moms learned about the school-wide visit, they wrote to school administrators and asked, firmly, that their kids be included in some way.

“We heard that you guys were coming, and knew that our kids would want to hear this,” a mom said. “Of all the students in the school,” the other mom said, “we thought our kids” should be involved.

That separate meeting took place in a carpeted student lounge with rows of books, plush leather chairs, plastic tables and college pennants lining the walls. Wheatland agreed to allow J. to attend, with the condition that the students not be photographed, named or interviewed. The four students wore hoodie sweatshirts and sat impassively during most of the presentation. They opened up a bit at the end.

The Story Project members took pains to put the students at ease, admitting that they had done regretful things as teens, too. “There’s no blame, no shame here. No agenda,” Krohn said. “We’re grateful that you’re here, just to listen.”

Einstein added that when he first saw the photo, “I thought about really, really stupid things I did as a kid.”

“What about the ones you do now?” Krohn joked, recalling how he once put fireworks in a mailbox. He said he did it because he “wanted to be accepted by other kids.”

The visitors had 45 minutes to tell their family stories. They had to hurry, cramming their tales into a tight 15 minutes, when each person usually has three times as long to speak.

Leeder told of when she was about 11, visiting Brooklyn with her parents. One night, while she waited in the car, her mom and dad went into a home to speak with a former neighbor from Lithuania. It was then, Leeder believes, that her father learned what happened to his family, including his brother, who was 17 when he was killed, around the same age as the Wheatland students.

“When he came down, he was a broken man,” Leeder said.

Krohn brought the teddy bear, khaki-colored with half-moon ears. He was a toddler when his family fled fascist Italy by train. Before the train departed, Nazis came aboard and interrogated his family, searching for contraband. They came across Krohn’s bear and tore it to shreds, looking for jewelry or money. “I screamed my head off,” Krohn said; it distracted the guards and they moved on.

His mother had indeed brought gold coins — the family’s savings — and hidden them in caramel candy wrappers. “Had they found the gold coins, we would have been toast,” he said. “In some ways the teddy bear contributed to saving our lives.”

The Story Project speakers told of Nazis asphyxiating Jews to death with exhaust fumes, of burning bodies, grinding up bones and leaving remains in pits. Einstein showed a picture of his great-grandmother, “who was taken away by Nazis on a train, never to be seen again.”

The students were reserved during the presentation. They did not ask questions and, when prompted, gave very brief answers. Asked whether they “knew any of this history,” the students shook their heads. One said he had seen “Schindler’s List.”

Had they met a Jew before? They shook their heads. One boy said he had “seen” one.

But the Story Project members prodded them, curious about how the December photo came to be.

Leeder asked: “What was happening that night?”

Silence. Then a boy said, “I don’t know.”

A mom said there was alcohol involved. “They are not hateful people, they just made a horrible mistake.”

A girl said, after looking for the right words: “I feel like it was just us being stupid. And, like, not really knowing what we were doing. I think there was a little bit of showing off for each other.”

“Where’d you get the imagery? How’d you know to draw a swastika and the SS?” Leeder asked.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” a boy said.

“How are you feeling about it now, with all of the consequences?” Leeder asked.

The same boy said: “Regret.” The other students nodded their heads.

It was impossible to deliver a complete picture of World War II and the Holocaust in the hourlong meeting with the four students. The Story Project members did not have time to get into Hitler’s rise to power, or discuss “Mein Kampf,” or the Beer Hall Putsch, the fragile Weimar Republic, the Wannsee Conference, the nature of fascism. They did not get into much about the war itself  — nor the fact that, just 10 miles from where the students sat, at the U.S. military installation opened in 1942, as many as 1,000 Nazi POWs had been imprisoned during the war in cells that still stand today.

At times the students appeared visibly moved, at times disinterested, and at times inscrutable. Leeder described the meeting as an act of “restorative justice” similar to work she had done with prisoners.

“We’re kind of restoring you, and restoring us, and healing me, in the process,” she said. “I can’t talk to the Nazis in Germany. And I don’t know where you’re coming from. But we can talk about how this all happens.”

To return to school, some of the students will have to meet a community service requirement, counseling and an evaluation by school district officials, the moms said. Two of the students said they were involved in umpiring for youth baseball. The others said they were considering working in a food bank.

At the end of the hour, the Story Project members gave each student a copy of the Holocaust graphic novel “Maus.” They thanked the students for coming. They asked if they could give each of them a hug, which they did, and they hugged the moms, too. Then the families left the lounge and began the long walk back to their cars.