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Holocaust denier display outrages, then draws Marshfield closer

By Leon Cohen
of The Chronicle staff

May 2nd, 2003

Christine Miller, an immigrant from Germany, has been an active Holocaust denier in the small central Wisconsin town of Marshfield since about 1988. But last month she did something that incensed and mobilized members of the state’s Jewish community as far away as Milwaukee — and that, ironically, may help to promote coexistence in the Marshfield area.

The Marshfield Public Library has glass cases open for displays by members of the public. Miller put up a display, shown through half of April, celebrating the achievements of Hitler and Nazi Germany, claiming they received a bad rap in history — and denying that the Holocaust occurred.

Marshfield has a very small Jewish community, “five or six families” in a general population of about 19,000, according to Dr. Jerry Goldberg, a physician at the Marshfield Clinic. Yet its members, plus the rabbi and members of Wausau’s Mt. Sinai Congregation and many area non-Jews were incensed.

And Amy Waldman, a member of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations and a former resident of Marshfield, notified the MJCCR and the American Jewish Committee’s Milwaukee chapter. The Wisconsin Jewish Conference and the Midwest office of the Anti-Defamation League also were informed.

The controversy came to the attention of the local newspaper, the Marshfield News-Herald. That newspaper not only ran on April 4 a news story about the exhibit, but also published an editorial on April 7 defending Miller’s rights. “The strength of our nation is that it allows — even welcomes — people with opposing viewpoints to be heard, and it stands tall for those who have little standing at all in circles of power and influence,” the editorial said.

Nonsense, said area Jews. “Holocaust denial does not offer a different point of view on the subject. There is no other point of view to this historical reality,” wrote Dan Jacobson in a letter to the News-Herald printed April 19. “Public and tax-supported institutions are under no obligation to facilitate dissemination of misinformation.”

Moreover, “What was significant about this moment was this was in a public space; it had the feel of being a library exhibit,” said Rabbi E. Daniel Danson, spiritual leader of Mt. Sinai Congregation, who saw the exhibit.

While there was a posted disclaimer from the library, “unless you knew to look for it, you wouldn’t have noticed it,” said Danson. “For the community this had the feel of official sanction.”

And to Goldberg, this exhibit and Miller, who has been a perennial candidate for school board, are “dangerous. Even if some student comes away with a plausible doubt” about whether the Holocaust really occurred, “that’s where it starts.”

Community reactions

Yet the community responses to the display appear to herald positive growth in Marshfield community relations.

First, in response to Miller’s display, a student group at Marshfield Senior High School called SHOUT (Students Helping Others Understand Tolerance) put up its own display after Miller’s was removed on April 15, according to library director Lori Belongia.

Second, this weekend Marshfield Jews are putting in those same cases a display with the help of the AJC-Milwaukee chapter, the MJCCR and the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

This display will include part of the AJC’s national touring display “Visas for Life.”

According to AJC Milwaukee chapter executive director Harriet McKinney, it tells about the courageous non-Jewish diplomats who sometimes in defiance of their governments issued visas to European Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. It also reportedly will include some information about the Holocaust denial efforts.

It will be up through May 31, said Belongia. Moreover, Paula Simon, MJCCR executive director, has written a letter to area educators who participated in MJCCR-sponsored trips to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2000 and 2001, encouraging them to bring students to see this exhibit. And Goldberg reported that “people in the Christian community have offered to help fund” the exhibit.

Third, the library staff and board and many of library patrons have received “an education” about Holocaust denial, said Belongia. She told The Chronicle that she “felt my hands were tied to some extent” by the library’s policies on displays when Miller first approached her last November. Now the library board is reexamining these policies, a process that Belongia said would likely be completed by June.

Fourth, the controversy has inspired Marshfield Jews and non-Jews from different area ethnic and religious communities, including the local Muslim community, to start a local community relations organization, tentatively called the “Marshfield Area Human Rights Group.”

Moreover, Goldberg said that on May 18, members of the Marshfield Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities will meet to plan a “cultural fair” for some time in late summer or early autumn, to highlight, educate and celebrate the area’s cultural diversity.

In fact, Goldberg has been very pleased to see the support such efforts have received “across the board in town,” he said. “There are a lot of good people here…. I’m really happy about my community.”