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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Free Speech and Impassioned Acts

Although the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) condemned his enemies' ideas, he reportedly said he would defend to the death their right to express them. This absolutist view of free speech was built into the U.S. Constitution. It's the reason why American Nazis were allowed to demonstrate in downtown Milwaukee in the mid-1970s.

Between 1974 and 1977, local fascists and their national leaders distributed literature, picketed, and tried to convert passersby on several occasions. One of those who encountered them was Cyla Stundel (1921-2009), a Polish Holocaust survivor who settled in Milwaukee in 1949.

In 1942 German soldiers had forced the Jewish residents of her hometown into a ghetto and murdered them all. Cyla and her younger brother only escaped death by fleeing into the forest the night before the executions. The rest of her family were shot down in cold blood.

So Voltaire's high-minded principles were not the first thing Cyla thought about when people in swastikas and Gestapo uniforms approached her on the streets of her adopted city.

"I went downtown one time, shopping," she told an interviewer, "and I saw the Nazi standing there with the swastikas on the arms, and a woman came over to me, she wanted to give me literature. And then everything went before my eyes and I begin to fight with her."

Although Cyla was by no means a large woman, she took on the fascists with uninhibited passion.

"I told her, 'You giving me this. What? You killed my sisters and brothers and six million Jews?'And I got so hysterical; I told them they'll have the same end what Eichmann had and Hitler... I cursed them and they got, I think, scared. And my blood pressure went up. I went numb... They got scared maybe I'll make a riot, me! Six Nazis with, like the troopers with the flags and the boots and the helmets, like in the old country. The Nazis, they was walking back and forth, that thought that I'll make a riot.

"I came home. I cried. I called up my son and I told him. He said, 'Mama, I'm proud of you, you done this.' ... And then until now I am so mad at myself. Why didn't I slap this woman over the face? I don't care and I'm scared. You know they shouldn't repeat, history shouldn't repeat itself." (You can hear Cyla tell the story herself here).

English essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) had a more pragmatic understanding of free speech than his French contemporary Voltaire. It well describes Cyla Stundel's response to the Milwaukee Nazis: "Every man," Johnson wrote, "has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it."

Next week has been designated by Congress as "Days of Remembrance," our nation's annual commemoration of the Holocaust. Spend some of it listening to your neighbors tell about their experiences during the Holocaust, at Oral Histories: Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust. These one-minute audio clips provide a convenient selection from their stories.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 8, 2010

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