Mr Willis and the Holocaust

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Mr Willis and the Holocaust

  1. 1. Mr. Willis & the HolocaustI abhor violence. Some people do not. I abhor despots and dictators and mindless zealots.Some people gravitate to them, or become one.The year was 1965. An age, at least for eighth graders at Tavan Elementary School, ofinnocence. We were no different in 1965 from many kids today. We longed for rolemodels, symbols, identities, and a sense of belonging, to what we didn’t know. Thosewere similarities. The differences? There were no guns, no drugs, no "gangs" in theschools or on the streets. We had little to fear in 1965, except the occasional "knucklesandwich" from the class bully.It’s true that by 1965 we all had experienced the killing of a President and we hadwitnessed the shocking murder of his assassin beamed into our living rooms via "live"network TV. In our simple, straightforward world, there was no doubt in our minds thatLee Harvey Oswald had done the heinous deed. Life, just like television, was black andwhite. Good guys, bad guys; white hats and black hats; no shades of gray.Pictures of that war in Southeast Asia, the war to halt the insipid spread of communism,the anti-American counter-revolution, and the "Negro problems", like TV dinners, werejust beginning to become staples of our television dinner fare. In 1965, we were wellinsulated from much of life’s ugliness in our lily-white neighborhood at the edge of eastPhoenix. 1
  2. 2. In September 1965, a group of eighth-grade boys, wanting an identity, wanting to belong,returned after the long, hot summer enamored with the spit, the polish and the wide-eyedexcitement of the pomp and power exhibited by the Nazi Third Reich. They were justkids, wannabe bullies, a few of them underachievers, none that you would call serious"trouble makers." They sought and created their new identity in "A.M.N.O.," theAmerican Nazi Organization. Their leader, a small wiry Italian kid, chose as their hero:Benito Mussolini.Between classes, the members of AMNO saluted each other with an upraised arm and amilitant "sieg heil", proudly displaying on their chests their homemade pins, a black eaglewith the initials "AMNO" emblazoned in red. The behavior of the members of this off-campus "club" didn’t seem to catch the attention of our teachers. Was it benign neglect?Or was it that they saw it as mere "child’s play"? I noticed and I was incensed.Incensed at first because they began to bully their classmates with words proclaimingtheir superiority and they acted like, well jerks. Incensed that the so-called "ring leader"touted his Italian heritage by professing an adulation of Mussolini’s militaristic lust forpower and glory. All I knew about Mussolini was that he was a thug who had helped withhis buddy Adolf, to plunge the entire world into war, a war that caused untold death anddestruction. Seventh grade U.S. History had been my forte! The boys of AMNO 2
  3. 3. represented to me the evil in the world, and in a black-white world, a clash seemedinevitable.Now, there was nothing "saintly" about me, or my family. Certainly I displayed a self-righteousness and idealism typical in adolescence. (I have been told by some that thesetraits have emerged at times in my adulthood.)The word ‘holocaust’ had not yet entered my vocabulary. Yet, I had a hatred for AdolfHitler and everything he stood for, which equated to a dislike for anyone who stood forhim. This issue to me was then and remains today fairly clear cut. Wars were fought, andsoldiers and civilians died. Pogroms were waged and innocent people were tortured,maimed and killed. How can such horribly barbaric inhuman insanity be glorified?My Dad quit high school to join the Navy in late 1944 to fight against the tyranny ofdictators. The war ended before he was sent overseas. Fighting for your country was theunquestioned patriotic "thing to do." It was unquestioned in Germany, too.In 1965, when kids had fights in school they used fists. In my neighborhood you didntneed to worry that someone would pull out a knife or a gun. It started during 1st periodmath class. I didn’t go looking for a fight. During class, I watched two members ofAMNO belittle a classmate. I glared at one of them, which quickly drew their attention tome. I became the target of their spitballs and their derisive comments and gestures. Themath teacher, who had lost control of his classes sometime in 1963, continued to write 3
  4. 4. formula after formula on the blackboard, being ignored by most of students in the roomand ignoring much of what took place behind him. The taunting eventually subsided toonly an occasional spitball being launched in my direction. The bell finally rang and weall headed for the door.AMNO’s ring leader hit the door before me and turned towards me once he was outsideon the sidewalk. His taunts began and I verbally responded, with what insightful retort, Idon’t remember. I towered over him, and I knew I could win in a verbal match, but I wasnever one for fisticuffs. In a split second, the ring leader’s attention shifted behind me andI turned. One of his buddies, a tall gangly fellow, was within inches of my face and withone swift punch to my head my black horn-rimmed "Barry Goldwater" glasses flew frommy face and I was down. I quickly staggered to my feet, dazed and hurt. There were nomore punches. My homeroom teacher, Mr. Rennie Willis had appeared out of no whereand the crowd quickly dispersed. My one fight at school had lasted a milli-second and Ihadn’t even gotten in a punch.I never went to the Principal’s office that day nor were we suspended from school. Afterbriefly talking to both of us, Mr. Willis sent me on to the rest of my classes. I would soonfind out that he would handle the situation in his own special way.The next day, we were surprised and elated that Mr. Willis had set up a movie projector.Movies meant a "kickback" day. Mr. Willis said that there would be no note taking today, 4
  5. 5. no daily quiz, just place everything under your desk and watch the movie. He saidnothing more. Cool! The projector started. It was a scratchy black and white film. Therewere some groans. No color, one AMNO member grunted. A Swastika soon appeared onthe screen. I looked around the room. The ringleader of AMNO grinned at his buddies,and began to move his arm in an upright position. Mr. Willis placed his hand on the boy’sshoulder and told him to watch. The boy’s smile disappeared.For three days, all eighth grade students at Tavan Elementary School watched with horrorthe "heroism" of the Third Reich. The gas chambers, the emaciated bodies, the mounds ofhair and teeth and eyeglasses and personal effects. Naked women running in the streets asbullies with emblems displayed proudly on their chests taunted and humiliated them infront of neighbors and friends. The ashes, the shoveling of bodies into mass graves, theexecutions of real people: a jarring, jolting awakening from our "Leave It To Beaver"mentality.The first day one of my female classmates left the room in tears and vomited outside onthe sidewalk. The members of AMNO, their demeanor visibly changed, "slunk" lowerand lower into their chairs, their bravado diminished, their swagger curtailed.I don’t know if Mr. Willis received permission from the principal to show us those films.There certainly were no permission slips sent home for parents to sign, and I never heardof a parent protesting the showing of the documentary. The students came every day for 5
  6. 6. three days and watched films taken of the Third Reich by its members as a testimony totheir "superiority" and entered as evidence at their trials at Nuremberg. Sometime duringthe three days, AMNO quietly disbanded.Steven Spielberg, for a time, lived in my neighborhood in east Phoenix. An old friendreminded me that Spielberg was that older kid that lived next door to him who used touse the neighborhood kids as background "extras" in his 8-mm movie productions. Idoubt Steven Spielberg ever knew Mr. Willis, but I know that he knew kids in ourneighborhood like the kids who belonged to AMNO. Speilberg has talked in interviewsabout the anti-semitism he encountered as a boy growing up in Phoenix, in ourneighborhood.In 1965, Mr. Willis made us judge the difference between "right" and "wrong", betweenhumanity and inhumanity. Today, Steven Spielberg and others have continued in askingus to remember, to judge, and to never let the past become our future. I admire theirfortitude and conviction, and thank them. Remembering the darkest side of humanity,helps us strive for the brightest. #### 6
  7. 7. About the AuthorTed DeCorte is a husband and father, a writer and composer, who resides in Henderson, Nevada, a bedroomcommunity of Las Vegas. A native of Phoenix, Ted graduated from Scottsdale Arcadia High School. In highschool and college, he moonlighted as a percussionist for a singing group that included at various times:Lynda Carter (“Wonder Woman”) and Dianne Kay (“Eight Is Enough”/”1941”), and penned country-rockballads for Nashville.Ted graduated from Arizona State University with a B.S. degree in Sociology. After moving to southernNevada, Ted earned his keep in such fields as banking, real estate, education, and insurance. He worked forthe Muscular Dystrophy Association – Jerry Lewis Telethon, as a college and high school social studiesinstructor & high school administrator, and for the House of Representatives as a district director for a U.S.congressman. He received a M.A. in U.S. History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he wasa member of Phi Alpha Theta and Phi Kappa Phi honoraries.Ted has been active in his community serving as an assistant scout leader and on the boards for his church,the Clark County Health Underwriters Association, and the Center for Creative Therapeutic Arts. He hasalso served as chair for the Impact Lecture Series, the Congressional Award committee, the SouthernNevada Job Fair, and on the Clark County Democratic Central Committee.In 1991, Ted peered into a empty bag of potato chips as the “dad” in a humorous, yet short-lived, “VegasChips” television and print media advertising campaign that proclaimed “You Gotta Hold ‘em.” He waspaid in, what else, bags of potato chips! 7

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