I suppose I should not have been surprised.
In Saturday morning’s Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), a short news piece announced the planned rally of the Nazi party in Stockholm’s neighborhood of Östermalm in the afternoon. In 2012, 300 people had rallied; last year, only 200.
Another article reminded me that this weekend marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom across Germany that destroyed the synagogue in Berlin and terrorized Jews across the country in the “Night of Broken Glass.” And The New York Times helpfully published an article that morning about the rise of racist nationalist parties across Europe, and intolerance towards outsiders.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised, when I walked yesterday afternoon into the heart of Östermalm to visit the optometrist at a corner of Karlaplan, to hear the sounds of angry chanting and see a crowd of policemen and a ring of police vans parked nearby.
I ducked into the store, my heart pounding and my chest tight with anxiety, where I was greeted by a kind young woman behind the counter, who had brown skin and beautiful kinky hair and spoke perfect Östermalm-accented Swedish. A native, unlike me, and yet she was probably more of an obvious target to the crowd about to march past her store’s windows.
Her boss, sitting at a desk behind her, told her to lock the store’s front door — it was 4 pm, closing time on a Saturday afternoon, but it felt like a precaution to me, and they made no move to push me out of the shop. The young woman and I stood at the door for a moment before she locked it, watching and listening, poking our heads out to hear the opposition crowd chanting.
They were yelling in Swedish, and I didn’t get it, but she translated for me, something like, No Nazis in Stockholm! The big red banner above the crowd read “Nazismsfrihet Stockholm” (Nazi-free Stockholm). The counter protesters stayed standing and chanting in the Karlaplan circle, as the Nazis started on their march, walking past the corner shop, down Karlavagen, into the darkness settling over the city. We stood at the windows, watching. We jumped at something that sounded like an explosion, or like popping glass. People on the sidewalk in front of the store windows held up their cell phones to video the Nazis’ parading past down the park at the center of the street. The police waved the onlookers back, looking nervous. The woman told me that last year, several police officers had been hurt. We watched in silence.
I finally stepped out of the shop, shaken. After pausing to watch and listen to the counter protesters for a moment, I turned to walk away, heading toward the mall and other errands I needed to run. And suddenly, I found myself crying.
Standing in the park, I wondered — was it the surprise of it? It’s not that I haven’t seen these marches here before: one on Yom Kippur, at Humlegården, on a sunny afternoon, not that long ago, I had stopped to speak to a policewoman watching the scene as cops in riot gear gathered; they expected violence when the marchers passed Hötorget a few blocks away, as counter-demonstrators attacked the anti-immigrant parade. That day, I felt safe, foreign, self-righteous that this would not be allowed in the US anymore, or that it would be allowed with lots of police protection and counter-rallies, and we would all feel smug because of First Amendment rights to gather, even as we dismissed these people as crazies on the fringe.
Yesterday, I had expected the march to start elsewhere in town, had even thought of searching it out to see what kind of people would join a Nazi rally in these modern days, in a beautiful prosperous liberal European city. I hadn’t expected to stumble across it. Nor had I expected the vitriol on either side, and as a Jewish woman standing in the dark, I felt scared, I realized. Why hadn’t I joined the counter protest? For fear. I could suddenly imagine being physically attacked, even though my white skin allows me to blend in more than the woman at the glasses shop. The celebration of a historic act of violence against people like me made my sense of fear more immediate.
What a strange thing to feel, in 2013, three-quarters of a century after the beginning of the Holocaust.
I gathered myself together, blew my nose and wiped my eyes, though the tears kept coming, and stepped into the mall. The banality of the stores threatened to set me off into sobs again, and then suddenly soothed me — and I looked around at my fellow shoppers: a portly black man speaking on his cell phone in the mall entry way; a young Indian girl in the sports shop passing a family of four, composed of a tall white Swedish father figure and a petite dark-skinned motherly type, two kids in tow; a woman from the Middle East helping me to send some packages; English- and Italian-speaking white folks at the grocery store; the older woman of unknown Eastern origin at the cash register who rang up my purchases; the young man at the card shop who spoke perfect English and Swedish, and looked like he could be somehow related to me and my Eastern European forebears.
Those modern Nazis have lost. Europe might have white nationalist fascist parties on the rise, but it seems to me like a last gasp. Their children are marrying people with darker skin. Their kids are engaging with the larger world around them. No country is an island, not even Britain.
Perhaps I am naïve. But I think I am right.