October 27, 2005
The plan was innocuous enough: Meet up with some Jewish Journal colleagues for Oktoberfest at The Phoenix Club, a German cultural center in Anaheim that features a banquet hall, a restaurant and bar, as well as country club-like grounds. We were looking for something truly authentic -- a slice of Munich in the Southland.
I guess we should have been careful what we wished for.
It was a Saturday evening and there were 10 of us sitting together on the edge of the biergarten, which held about 2,000 people. An opulent, modern white tent covered a patio area lined with picnic tables, which were getting snatched up quickly around us. With the heat on to find a place to sit, an older couple and their adult child with Down's syndrome joined us at our table.
Oktoberfest is a two-week celebration held in Munich, Germany, during late September and early October. Beer, food and music are the cornerstones of what is the world's largest festival, drawing 6 million tourists to the city annually. Cities around the world hold their own Oktoberfests, typically modeled after the Munich event.
We'd hoped for more colleagues from The Journal, but the distance put off some, and others seemed disinclined because Jews and plans based on Munich and beer historically don't mix well.
At the Phoenix Club in Anaheim, men were walking around in lederhosen and liking it. (However, the only dirndln -- full-skirted dresses with gathered waists and closefitting bodices -- were ultrashort and being sported by women carrying trays of Jagger shots.) Young families with children mixed with a predominantly senior crowd. The food was mostly authentic -- weisswurst, bratwurst, porkshanks -- so most of The Journal's crowd stuck with the potato pancakes and Bavarian pretzels.
After a second round of the chicken dance, the bandleader from Munich held up his stein to lead a beer chant. We shot back with our own Yiddishly tweaked version: "zicke zacke, zicke zacke, oy oy oy."
And then it happened. We saw a dozen skinheads gathering at the edge of the biergarten, looking for a table.
One of them wore a T-shirt that read: "My boss is an Austrian painter." I doubted it was a reference to Gustav Klimt.
Orange County is known for having a few enclaves of neo-Nazis, and, I suppose, we shouldn't have been surprised that they, too, would seek out an Oktoberfest.
And there we were: a table full of Jews; a Catholic of mixed German, Irish and Mexican heritage, and someone with a visible handicap.
As the skinheads approached our table, they stopped to eye its lack of Aryan homogeneity and then moved on. While the skinheads didn't hang around to intimidate us, their actively growing numbers on the sidelines left some of us with the distinct feeling that safety could become an issue. We joked that we should have worn our Jewish Journal T-shirts, but we were just looking to cover up our discomfort.
We cleared our table and left shortly thereafter. One couple from our group stayed behind, but even the couple with the Down's syndrome child decided it was time to leave, even though it was only 9 p.m., which is usually when Oktoberfest is just starting to come to life.
Despite the fact that there was a security presence, I couldn't shake the feeling that no one would come to help us if were attacked. There was that moment of doubt, that feeling of being alone in a sea of thousands.
Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Orange County, said that neo-Nazis showing up at Oktoberfests has been a problem for some time, but that organizers can take steps to limit their entrance if they wanted to.
"It's not a public event. They can certainly control who can come into their event," she said.
Phoenix Club Vice President Hans Holste told me later that the board and the membership don't want skinheads anywhere near their 45-year-old facility.
"If we would disallow them to come in, there may be more problems than we wish for," he said.
Instead, the Phoenix's approach has been to kick them out only of they're being disruptive. A T-shirt extolling Adolph Hitler, apparently, does not cross that subjective line.
The Phoenix Club wants to keep a safe, family-friendly environment. But how can a family possibly feel safe with neo-Nazis milling about almost every weekend of the festival?
Following The Journal's inquiry, Holste said The Phoenix Club was bringing off-duty police officers onto their security team during Sunday nights and would post rules of conduct at entrances.
Still, ignoring hate groups and hoping they'll behave or go away may send the wrong message. For one thing, it suggests that tolerance applies foremost to the intolerant, such as neo-Nazis, at the expense of the victims of their hate speech or worse.
Thus far the club has addressed the problems in-house. They have not consulted with organizations such as the ADL or the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which are adept in dealing with such situations. That's a shame because the accumulated knowledge and experience of Jewish organizations has much to offer a local German group that wants to show that it, too, believes in "never again."