It happened on my way from Toronto to Ithaca. After a month in Canada, the weight from this election really slid off my shoulders. Taking the Greyhound is never truly thrilling, and so as I pulled up to the Buffalo station for a transfer, I expected nothing but a long nap. That’s when I looked up and saw her.
It was obvious that her arms with riddled with stick-and-poke tattoos, but I had deeper suspicions. Her tattoos were behind her ears, on her knuckles, all up her arm like cobweb. Thin, inked lines with varied, amateurish thickness and color were masked by her crossing her arms.
My Jewish amygdala kicked in: if you’ve ever seen prison tattoos before, they are easy to recognize. Further, if you’ve done any research on prison and criminality, you might know about the tattoo-happy Aryan Brotherhood and their campaign of prison murders and inter-facility drug dealing.
As we lined up to board the next bus, I found myself standing behind this woman, and that’s when I saw her “88” tattoo behind her ear. As H is the 8th letter in the alphabet, Aryan Brotherhood members use this code to symbolize “HH”, or “Heil Hitler”.
The tattoo confirmed every guilty assumption I had about the woman, who I kept assuring myself could not be a Neo-Nazi. We loaded onto the bus, and the only available seat was across the small aisle from her— at this point, she noticed I was staring at the Luftwaffen Skull tattoo on her arm and tried to keep as much skin covered as she could.
I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Who gave you those tattoos?”
Dumbfounded, she responded: “I was drunk at a party?”
“Somebody did all that at one party?”
“It was a few of them.”
“Are you sure about that?”
She looked at me with a mixture of visible anger and also fear— not of me, but of the people around us. She winced with every question, and I couldn’t blame her. The story she confided in me was wild and extremely disturbing.
After maybe forty minutes of pushing, she admitted that she had been recruited and vetted into an organization called the ATB, which I would later learn is really called the “Aryan Terror Brigade.” She explained that she got into it through an old boyfriend, describing the genuine Nazi uniforms they had gotten from Germany, the marches they went to in the South in their uniforms and the way they were educating members’ children to adopt their ideologies. The tattoos I had already seen were not her only Nazi ink. She even turned in her seat and pulled down her shirt collar slightly, showing me the tip of a massive swastika on her back.
She professed that she had quit the organization when she had “seen a red dot on her chest” from SWAT officers during one of their hate marches. Her hair wasn’t clean shaven, but by the looks of it, it was no more than two months ago.
She looked the most pale when I dropped a bomb on her: “I’m a Jew.”
“I’m so sorry for your family,” she told me. “I’m sorry about Auschwitz.”
Nothing was more stomach-churning than this. A weak apology from an even weaker Neo-Nazi. An apology without knowledge, without even the education that Auschwitz was not the only concentration camp. She actually had relatively no knowledge of the actions of the Holocaust, and yet, emulated it to a T. They burned books together, marched and sieg heiled together. They terrorized and violated minorities into leaving their respective areas and she described the adhesive of this entire operation as patriotism.
I went to the Greyhound bathroom, feeling as though I was going to faint with such grief. I did what any Polish-Jewish son would do—I called my mother. Her words flooded me with calm, and spoke to the true nature of the circumstance.
“You can’t let these people bring you down, we’ve survived it all. Look at her, look at you, who is thriving, and who isn’t?” my mother asked.
I sat back in my chair and looked at the woman. “I’ve been waiting to see what a real Nazi looks like my whole life, and I’m disappointed. All I see is fear and fear-mongering,” I said.
“We have to be afraid, our country is being invaded,” she replied.
“Yes, our country is being invaded. Not by people, but by an ideology. Your ideology. It should have died with Adolf Hitler,” I said.
She looked at me, looking as if she still did not understand what she had truly done wrong.
“But, what do you think about Muslims?”
It then occurred to me that the rise of Neo-Nazism in the United States may indeed see a massive growth in the next four years. Fear of the outside, fear of the proverbial Other. These things are what foster violent hate groups, and during Trump’s administration, we will see less of “Make America Great Again,” and more of “Make America Hate Again.” More than ever, Americans have to not only protect the moral ethos of their country, but their fellow countrymen, regardless of race, religion or creed. Blind of sexuality or gender, America has to find a collective identity, or continue into irreparable division.