RACISM BEGINS AT HOME

“I’m sorry coach, but I can’t play this game.”

A star quarterback had pulled Coach Norbert Ehrenfreund aside just as the championship game was about to kick off.

It was autumn of 1945. The war in Europe and Japan was over, and U.S. soldiers were still stationed in Germany, waiting to acquire enough points to go home. The 71st Infantry Division commander organized a football league to keep troops occupied and had uniforms sent over from the United States. Winners would get a week’s leave and free trip to the French Riviera.

Nuremberg Stadium was the site for this championship game, now renamed Soldiers’ Field. This was the site of Hitler’s annual Nazi party rallies, where cheering masses saluted wildly during his bombastic speeches on the “master race.”

A gold-plated swastika adorned Zeppelinfield grandstand until the U.S. Army conquered Nuremberg in April, 1945.

Now in the U.S. zone of occupation, Soldiers’ Field hosted everything from the summer G.I. Olympics to baseball games, headline entertainment, and these army football games in the autumn of 1945.

Hitler arriving for the Nazi Reichsparteitag (Reich Party Day) ceremonies c. 1937 (left) and Jewish American entertainer Jack Benny performing for U.S. troops in the same venue, summer of 1945 (right).

“Why can’t you play, you injured?”

Norbert led the quarterback away from the line to speak privately. Everyone wanted to win that trip to the French Riviera, the stakes were high.

The quarterback hung his head. “There’s a guy out there on their team. He’s a (N-word). I can’t play with him.”

Norbert looked over the opposing team. Despite army segregation (until 1948), there was indeed a Black player on the opposing team.

“So what? What if he is?” The referee was getting impatient, signaling to hurry up.

Then it all came out. The quarterback came from a small town in Georgia. He fought in combat against the Nazis and distinguished himself as a good soldier, but he was a racist through and through. His parents had prohibited him from playing with Black people.

Norbert pleaded with him, “He is an American, just like all of us. He risked his life for our country. Think of the American flag, the American constitution, what do they stand for — a country that respects people of all colors and creeds! We fought this war so people could be free from prejudice, free from being despised and abused because of their race and religion. To refuse to play based on your own racial prejudice, would be to say that it didn’t mean anything that Americans who died here died for nothing.”

Norbert pointed to the huge platform at the top of the stands.

“That’s where Hitler stood when he made his speeches spouting Nazi propaganda of racial hatred.  If you refuse to play in this game based on racial prejudice, it would be like saying he was right, and all those Nazis were right and his spirit would be up there, smiling and cheering your decision.”

Norbert recalled, “I can’t remember all I said at times, I got out of control and was perhaps too emotional, but I know it was a good speech. Maybe the best speech I ever made because I was speaking from the heart.”

Gradually, the quarterback began to listen earnestly, he was softening.

“If I play, will you promise me you will never let this get out to my hometown or my parents?” Norbert then asked what would happen if it did get out.

“My dad would beat me. He would beat me real bad.“

Program booklets from U.S. Army football games in Nuremberg, 1945.

The game went on, but the 71st Infantry Division did not win and go to the Riviera. They lost 20-14. Turns out, that Black quarterback was a star.

Across town the Nuremberg trial, which would show the world the terrible consequences of racial prejudice, was just about to start. Norbert Ehrenfreund was discharged to begin his civilian job as a cub reporter for The Stars and Stripes, an Army newspaper. His assignment: covering the trial.

Norbert Ehrenfreund, back to camera, at work in “the slot” at The Stars and Stripes news desk in 1948, Pfingstadt, Germany. He served as both reporter and copy editor for the American newspaper during the Nuremberg trials. Photo from The Nuremberg Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, ©2007).

Twenty two years earlier in a small German town, eleven-year-old Gustave Schwenke was in his father’s tailor workshop doing homework.

It was 1923, five years after the end of WWI, and Germany could no longer make reparation payments from having started the war. Hyper-inflation had brought on political instability, just as Adolf Hitler was just beginning to rise in power.

A customer came to call for his suit which had been ordered a week earlier for 8,000 Reichmarks. Now just days later and with hyper-inflation at a peak, 8,000 Reichmarks would buy only one pound of butter. When Gustav asked what caused the inflation his father said, “the Jews,” so Gustav hated the Jews, even though he didn’t know any.

Germany, 1923: banknotes had lost so much value that they were used as wallpaper. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Unemployed at twenty, Gustav became a Nazi and joined Hitler’s SA police force, the paramilitary group responsible for burning down synagogues, smashing and looting Jewish stores, and violence toward the Jews throughout Germany, in November, 1938. 

Gustav’s father, whose tailor business had collapsed, got him the job. He was also in the SA.

Both Gustav and the quarterback in that division championship game had learned about racism at home. They adopted their fathers’ prejudices, as many young people do.

SA policemen break Jewish store windows on Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” November 8-9, 1938. Photo from Yad Vashem.

My first exposure to racial integration came in seventh grade. After six years of uniforms and Catholicism, I begged my parents to let me go to public school. At 12 years old, I knew there was more beyond this small school and parish community that I wanted to be a part of.

The campaign began at our nightly dinner table. I argued that I could learn to play the guitar and be in theater productions, or any number of extracurricular activities not offered in our Catholic school. Eventually, I won my case.

What came next was eye opening: race riots—in Boca Raton, Florida. By the mid-1970s, tensions escalated with a federal busing mandate. Black students from the neighboring town of Delray Beach were bused in, and they were not happy about it. These kids had to get up an hour earlier and take a much longer ride to and from school every day, for starters.

On the day this 1975 riot occurred, Black kids in the high school arrived to racial slurs painted on gymnasium walls. Violence and fear spilled over to the middle school where I was in 7th grade. Everyone was sent home early.

That year, my mother had been volunteering weekly in the middle school clinic. She told me some of the Black kids who were sick, came to school without breakfast and couldn’t be picked up to go home because their mother had to work. My mom felt sorry for them. By recounting her experience, she helped me start to see just how fortunate I was. This was my first real understanding of white privilege. My mom asked how I would feel if it was me in those shoes.

The world needs more people like Norbert Erhrenfreund—and like my mother.

Norbert Ehrenfreund was a witness to the Holocaust in the 71st Infantry Division, coached their football team after the war, then had a front row seat at the Nuremberg Trials as cub reporter for the U.S. Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

He was so taken with the rule of law at Nuremberg that upon returning home, changed careers and went to law school. Drawing on his legal background as a San Diego Superior Court judge for more than 30 years, Ehrenfreund reveals how the precedents set at Nuremberg continue to affect human rights, race relations, medical practice, big business, and modern war crimes trials. The Nuremberg Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, ©2007).

Gustav Schwenke’s family story is recounted in American journalist Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945,” (The University of Chicago Press, ©1955).

Seven years after the end of World War II, Mayer spent a year in Germany getting to know and interviewing ten ordinary citizens about their views of Nazism in its aftermath.

Nine of these men, Mayer wrote, “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. And they do not know it now.”

“As an American, I was repelled by the rise of National Socialism in Germany. As an American of German descent, I was ashamed. As a Jew, I was stricken. As a newspaperman, I was fascinated.”

In the 1966 reprint of his book, Mayer wrote, “Nazism was finished in the bunker in Berlin and its death warrant signed on the bench at Nuremberg. It had gone out with a bang. Hitler attacked the civilized world, and the civilized world had destroyed him.”

But today, Nazism is not dead. Camp Auschwitz t-shirts can be seen in airports. Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups spread hate and antisemitic slurs in efforts to attract attention—and followers.

Education is the only way to fight back. With the continuing rise of antisemitism and conspiracy theories that glorify Hitler and Nazism, teachers and young people need trusted resources that allow them to see how the past impacts the present day. This is where Courtroom 600 can make an impact.

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Author Laurie Pasler on the cover of the Boca Raton News c. 1980 with Cowboy Bert, who scrubbed racial slurs from Boca Raton High School walls before sunrise, so students wouldn’t see them.