Opinion: Counteracting the ‘Heil Hitler’ phenomenon

AP File Photo / A man raises his arm in a Nazi salute at a gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017.

On the morning before the Jewish New Year last month, I walked into a Chattanooga neighborhood convenience store and was greeted by a customer with "Heil Hitler!" and a Nazi salute. My stunned silence prompted the man to shout "Heil Hitler" even louder. He eagerly came closer to me, repeating the Sieg Heil salute, which was adopted in the 1930s to signal obedience to Adolf Hitler. The crowd waiting in line for the cashier giggled. I gagged, and hoped it was all just a bad joke.

But it wasn't. He turned to the crowd and explained why they should join him. "Hitler could rally the crowd, inspire everyone to join him. So follow me, Heil Hitler, then we'll all say a prayer." Hearing this linking of Hitler to faith and prayer, the cashier turned green. I turned purple.

I tried to tell him that my father served in World War II and had seen the evil that Hitler did. But the man cut me off saying how he came from a long line of U.S. army patriots: his dad had served in Vietnam and his grandfather served in the Korean War. Today's politics can reinforce this version of patriotism. For example, a GOP congressional candidate recently talked about how Hitler had aroused the crowds, "... get up there screaming these epithets and these people were just -- they were hypnotized by him ... I guess that's the kind of leader we need today. We need somebody inspirational."

It's clear that the cult of personality with a flavor of world domination is not only reminiscent of the past, but has captured the hearts and minds of many folks today, nationally and internationally. Italy is a recent example. Italians have just voted for the most far-right leader since Mussolini, Italy's version of Hitler. However, I did not expect to encounter this down the road a piece from my home.

I did finally recognize the strength of the man's conviction and knew that it was hopeless to try to interrupt and stop him. So I screamed and ran out of the store. Of course, I was discouraged and upset.

But there was a very different outcome that afternoon, and it gave me hope and joy. Waiting in line at the post office, I was greeted with a Happy New Year shout from one of the customers and a lot of smiles. Encouraged by the positive atmosphere, a gentleman approached me and shared how a Jewish teacher had meant so much to him as a kid in school. And how he'd gotten to visit a synagogue and better understand and appreciate its world. I did a joyful skip and hop as I left.

It was clear that despite the strange echoes of the past, learning about each other, building relationships and creating an engaging environment to do so, can make a huge difference in outcomes. No wonder that a few years ago, Chattanooga's headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee made a very deliberate choice to engage and educate. A group of BlueCross tour buses took employees to diverse religious sites around town where they were introduced to religious leaders and could see for themselves the faith at the heart of these communities.

We need to connect like that more than ever. That grocery store moment signaled a world on the edge of something really nasty. But there's hope for the future, and we should follow that path with determination. Engage!

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.