Standing up to Hate

A man wearing a shirt with swastikas moves through protesters before a white nationalist event in 2017 at the University of Florida.

Just out of high school, the two buddies were setting up their Tampa apartment when their roommate grabbed an AK-47 and ended their lives.

Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and Jeremy Himmelman, 22, were still getting to know Devon Arthurs — their friendship formed in a neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division — when, on May 19, 2017, Arthurs, 18, mowed them down at home in the middle of the day.

Next to the bodies, authorities found a shotgun, two boxes of ammunition, a gas mask, bomb-making components and several copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf atop a trove of neo-Nazi propaganda.

Atomwaffen followed with a YouTube video four days later depicting members posing with guns in front of a swastika flag, arms in “Heil Hitler” salute under the slogan: “Join your local Nazis.”

Three months later, the Unite the Right rally galvanized other neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the largest and most violent public assembly of white supremacists in decades. An estimated 600 marched alongside the self-described neo-Nazi who killed Heather Heyer by crashing his car into counterprotesters.

At least 30 of the participants were identified as Floridians.

Two months later, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to brace for “episodes of violence, civil unrest and multiple arrests” during a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida. Spencer paid $10,000 to rent the facility, but security alone cost the school more than $500,000.

It’s a bitter struggle against the spread of neo-Nazi hate that is still being waged, even as the world today marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi surrender.

Since Charlottesville, white supremacists have committed at least 73 murders in the U.S., including shootings at synagogues in 2018 and 2019, the worst anti-Jewish violence America has ever seen.

“How did they get so brainwashed?” asks John Wichser, a World War II prisoner of war and Purple Heart recipient who lives in the Village of Mallory Square.

It’s a vexing question for law enforcement. The Nazi surrender ended World War II in Europe and the Holocaust, but ugly pockets of neo-Nazi hate persist.

In the past five years, the number of hate groups operating in America has spiked 11% to more than a thousand — the majority of which are neo-Nazi — according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.

At least 67 hate groups are in Florida, the most of any state other than California. Five are known to be neo-Nazi, which ties California for the highest number in the nation.

“It’s happening not only in the United States,” said Heinz Jaffe, 97, of Sumter Place, a WWII Army veteran who earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. “It’s on the rise in Europe. It’s a sad state of affairs that history is repeating itself. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has been around for centuries, never went away, and is resurfacing now.”

Anti-Semitic incidents in Germany saw a 12% increase last year. France, which is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, saw a 27% surge, and the Netherlands, former home of Holocaust diary author Anne Frank, saw a 35% hike.

A January survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that one in seven Jews has experienced harassment online, and more than one in 10 has experienced a severe form of harassment such as being physically threatened as a result of their religion.

“Hate is still a huge problem in this country,” said Cassie Miller, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s senior research analyst. “Over the past year, we also have witnessed how ‘accelerationists’ have become more prominent within the white power movement. They believe society must be dismantled by bringing about system collapse, specifically through acts of violence to accelerate its downfall. The threat of increased violence is a very real one.”

Social scientists say that anti-Semitism has returned, in part, because the general public’s knowledge about the Holocaust — of what exactly it was, how many were killed, and how anti-Semitism spawned it — has diminished with the passing of those who lived it.

Stories Of Heroism Among The Horror

Seventy-five years later, few survivors and those who fought in the great conflict remain to tell the tale. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today.

The sentinels of that collective memory are a last legion still standing firm in veteran strongholds such as The Villages.

Wichser, 99, spent a year at Stalag Luft 1 at Barth, a notorious Nazi prisoner-of-war camp known for its brutality and starvation after German artillery flak punctured his B-24.

He’d enlisted during his junior year at Drexel University in Philadelphia after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Army commissioned him as a second lieutenant and assigned him to the 15th Air Force and the 455th Bombardment Group at Cerignola, Italy.

Members of the 455th flew 253 combat missions over France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Balkans. The group lost 118 aircraft, 147 airmen killed in action, 268 missing in action and 179 prisoners of war.

Of those 253 missions, Wichser served on 17. After taking out some railroad bridges at Avignon, France, flak disabled two of the bomber’s four engines and instantaneously killed the co-pilot, the waist gunner and the ball gunner, he said.

“We knew what to do; we had special procedures,” Wichser said. “If we get hit, we jump. I jumped, counted to 10 and pulled the chute. I wasn’t really that frightened. I was just glad I got out. It seemed like forever, but I landed in a farmer’s field.”

A nearby French physician treated him for a head wound — then turned him over to the Nazis.

At the prison camp, Wichser befriended a young co-pilot who painted him an image of a B-24 with engines burning.

Today the painting still makes him reflective.

 “One good thought was having such a good friend in the prison camp,” he said. “But it brings back memories of all the guys who died.”

It’s a sickening memory that also haunts Ben Epperly, 96, of the Village of Silver Lake, who says he still wakes up trying to shake scenes of the war from his head.

Drafted at age 19 while working at his father’s sawmill in Floyd, Virginia, Epperly trained as a combat infantryman and deployed as a replacement with the 5th Army’s 34th Division at Casablanca, Morocco.

The replacements shipped out by train, packed into cattle cars, for a four-day trip over mountains to the Algeria port city of Oran; then by ship, to Naples, Italy.

They marched north to the Volturno River where they encountered heavy Nazi shelling while they marched on toward Rome.

During one round of shelling in the mountains, Epperly heard a loud crack. His sergeant fell. Then came a second crack, and the first sergeant fell.

“They both died,” he said. “After that, the captain and a colonel told us we were surrounded and get out the best way we can.”

The march continued to the site of fierce fighting for control of the Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop monastery.

On one night of patrol, Epperly watched a first lieutenant step on a land mine and die while Nazi tracer bullets whizzed all about.

“Everybody got down and crawled; you didn’t dare get up,” he said. “We got back OK; he was the only one to get hurt that night. But early in the morning they started shelling us.”

On a subsequent mission, Nazi infantry tossed a hand grenade at Epperly. He saved countless lives by instinctively kicking it away, but the explosion shattered rock and turned the pieces into shrapnel.

“Here’s a piece of it,” he said, showing a bulge in his right hand.

Although injured, Epperly said he, his lieutenant and sergeant continued toward the monastery and rounded a curve in the mountain.

“The Germans were waiting for us,” he said. “They shot and killed the lieutenant. I was standing right behind him. The sergeant and I escaped behind a big rock that shielded us. Then the mortar shells fell. It was the worst shelling I had ever been in.”

The march continued to Angio, another site of heavy fighting.

“Our first day on the front, the sergeant got hit,” said Epperly, who by then had been promoted to sergeant. “So, I had to take over a squad of 12 men.”

Fate caught up with him about 10 miles south of Rome, where his squad took heavy machine gun fire, grenades and mortar shells.

“I was looking for a hole when the mortar hit,” Epperly said. “I didn’t hear it. You don’t hear mortar shells only artillery shells. Shrapnel hit me from behind, my left and right arm and right side, which did all the damage. I thought my legs came off because I was paralyzed.”

Epperly was treated at a field hospital where doctors gave him “zero chance of recovering.” Miraculously, he did recover feeling in his legs.

But when he finishes talking about the experience, his eyes grow heavy and well with tears.

“I was just thinking about the lieutenant,” he said.

The conflict held double meaning for Jaffe, 97, a German Jew born in Nuremburg but raised in Newark, New Jersey, to escape rising anti-Semitism.

He graduated from Irvington High School and was working as a pattern maker by day and studying engineering at night when the Army drafted him in 1943.

He was sent to basic training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he became a U.S. citizen, and a year later, shipped out to England and then Ireland, where he joined the 8th Infantry Division, Company B of the 12th Engineers Combat Battalion.

About a month after D-Day, Jaffe and the 8th Division landed at Normandy, France, en route to the small town of Brest to destroy a German U-boat supply depot.

On the way, the combat engineers had to remove a roadblock under Nazi sniper fire, machine gun bullets and raining mortar shells. That heroism earned him a Bronze Star.

By January 1945, the division came to a roadblock west of the Rhine River in Germany where Nazi artillery fire had disabled an Army tank.

Under heavy machine gun fire, Jaffe’s squad aborted a daylight mission to clear the roadblock at night.

“Fortunately, they were lousy shots,” he said with a smile. The dangerous mission earned him a second Bronze Star.

By mid-February, the division reached the Werra River at Krauthausen. All the bridges into the town had been destroyed, he said. So, the engineers set out over two night missions to map out a crossing strategy.

The first mission failed, and the second attempt was made during a cold, rainy, pitch-black night that ended in barbed wire at the river’s edge.

Trained to be mindful of booby traps, Jaffe advised the lieutenant to leave the barbed wire to him. The lieutenant disregarded the warning, and a bomb exploded.

“It got him and got me,” Jaffe said. “I never lost consciousness, but I had trouble breathing because my lung was punctured.”

Jaffe was treated in a field hospital by a chest surgeon from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York before being sent to hospitals in Belgium, France and then England.

That’s where he was on May 8, 1945, when he heard of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender — Victory in Europe Day.

“We were elated, of course,” he recalled about how word of the surrender spread throughout the hospital. “We were all very happy that no one else would be killed in Europe.”

Remaining Vigilant On V-E Day And Beyond

Although V-E Day is officially no longer celebrated in the U.S., many European countries will be celebrating despite elaborate events being scaled back due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron will lead a pared-down ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe today that will be broadcast live to the nation.

In the U.K. today, Britons will observe a two-minute silence and Queen Elizabeth II will deliver a televised national address. The public is being encouraged to join a nationwide sing-along of Dame Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a popular song from World War II. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson will conduct video calls with veterans.

In Russia, despite the cancellation of the traditional parade on Red Square to mark Victory Day, events including an aerial display and fireworks will be held in Moscow and President Vladimir Putin is expected to make an address.

It’s also a typically busy time for neo-Nazis, who have a history of staging events on or close to April 20, explicitly to honor Hitler’s birthday. In Florida, a group associated with the neo-Nazi Hammerskin Nation, has hosted “The Fuhrer’s Birthday Party” in New Port Richey.

The virus outbreak has both helped and hurt the neo-Nazi movement: Potential recruits are spending more time talking accelerationism philosophy online while confined to their homes, but social-distancing restrictions have made large gatherings all but impossible.

Among the cultural casualties of the pandemic is Europe’s neo-Nazi music scene, depriving the continent’s far-right networks of a significant income stream and an important recruiting ground. At least six major neo-Nazi festivals scheduled to be held since March have been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine and Serbia.

Still, white supremacists seek to stoke the fear and disruption caused by the pandemic to push their agenda and to recruit.

“The frequency and scale of far-right attacks across the world have been celebrated in online neo-Nazi spaces,” the Southern Poverty Law Center warns. “These spaces have embraced more openly violent messages, including advocating for more terrorism. This rhetoric will continue in 2020.”

For example, the virus outbreak forced the cancellation of an April rally of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

But the group already has rescheduled it for July.

Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.