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Monday, April 15, 2024
Writer’s Circle: Naming Evil


My father recognized his name immediately. But that wasn’t surprising. As a holocaust survivor, having fought in the resistance during World War Two, and arriving in Canada in 1952 when anti-Semitism was a fact of life, remaining politically aware was a matter of survival.

But I spent my formative years in the 1960s and early 70s when social change was the mantra of every respectable young person. They were weird and wonderful times; youth were hyper critical of traditional institutions but oddly innocent and optimistic at the same time. Civil rights protests, peace demonstrations, and women’s rights marches filled the growing media presence in our lives, and in our consciousness. And maybe that’s what also made us feel arrogant, worldly, and self-righteous beyond our experience or real understanding of the world.

The name belonged to a man that was in my Sociology class at the University of Toronto. He was older than the rest of us; gaunt, sullen, and weary. He was also in my tutorial group with whom our left leaning Italian TA loved to challenge us, and we rose to the occasion, often continuing our debate at the local pub after our sessions ended. It was on these occasions we learned that the man liked to drink, ultimately ranting and raving about unidentified enemies, tricksters who robbed him of his pride and power, and governments that conspired against their citizens. The day after one of these outbursts, the man hesitantly came into our lecture hall and asked if he could sit with me. John expressed his desire to get to know me better and hoped that he had not offended me. He looked pitiful, and although he was at least six feet tall, he appeared slight and vulnerable.

But when I asked him why he thought he offended me, the power of his name left me speechless. At first, I thought the name was just a coincidence but he unabashedly confirmed he was the John Beattie, the founder of the Canadian Nazi party, and the man responsible for the re-emergence of organized neo-Nazi activity in Canada since its demise after World War two. He was the man The Toronto Star recently claimed was the most hated in Canada.

I remember fumbling over my words. “I’m Jewish,” I declared. “My parents are holocaust survivors and I don’t want to know you, I know everything I need to about you.”

He nodded in agreement. “I’ve abandoned Nazism and have disbanded the party,” he claimed. “I’ve been beaten up numerous times, served six months in prison, and am considered social pariah.”  He went on to tell me that he has been consumed by self-loathing and the only relief he has found was at the bottom of a bottle. John also was eager to let me know that he was actually not a racist but foolishly allowed himself to be used as a pawn.  He was ashamed to admit that ‘they’ simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

I felt disgusted. “What do you want from me,” I demanded.

“I don’t really know,” he said quietly.  “Maybe I just wanted you to know who I am, just a damaged human being, not a demon.” He stood and went to sit at the back of the lecture hall.

John and I spoke a few more times that semester. I saw him as an impotent being that had made a terrible mistake. I didn’t particularly like him but there were times I pitied him.

I can still remember that sanctimonious sigh I often released when my father spoke about the real prejudice and hatred that still existed in the world, and his warning not to confuse idealism with naiveté.  But the day I brought that name into our house I saw a look that rarely crossed my father’s face; not anger or frustration or resentment or even the sadness that sometimes overcame him. It was an expression of utter defeat. It first shocked me, then cut me to my core, and finally angered me, all within an instant.  It was more than a simple rejection of my ideas but a look of utter failure in him not being able to raise a daughter of whom he could be proud.  I experienced a whole life worth of insecurities in a single moment; coursing through my veins like a violent storm.

When I told my father that I met John and of his story about a conspiracy, how pathetic he was, and how I believed he was paying for his mistakes, it was my father who was now speechless; visibly crushed. He shook his head. “After everything, you’ve learned nothing,” he mumbled and walked away.

I was sure that it was him that couldn’t possibly understand, that it was his hate that coloured his judgement, and that he was living in the past. I convinced myself that I resided in a new world that he simply couldn’t comprehend.

My father passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Shortly after his death I came across an article about John Beattie. He was running for office, as the deputy reeve in Minden, Ontario. The article stated that while Beattie claimed to renounce Nazism in 1972, he continued to promote his racist views; on his radio show, on YouTube and other forums where he spreads hate. He also hosted ‘Aryan Festivals’ at his home which celebrated the growth of white pride.

I now know why my father experienced such disappointment when I spoke of John Beattie. He had learned the hard lesson that he had hoped I would have understood. If we confuse ourselves by believing that atrocities are only committed by monsters that are very different from ourselves, we can more easily abdicate our responsibility or fail to act. “Never again” can’t be achieved if we don’t remain vigilant. The Holocaust as all genocides, all terrorism, is not an accident in history or an aberration. They are manmade and we must not shy away from identifying or make excuses for evil wherever it may exist.

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