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The prisoners lined up for roll call at 10:30 a.m. Some wore grass-green jackets displaying their rank, others donned white T-shirts and blue shorts. A man dressed as a Nazi guard commanded in a faux-German accent, “Come on, get a move on!” Another Nazi trained a gun on prisoners from a nearby hill.
It was a Saturday morning at Fort Mifflin, the Revolutionary War-era fort that had been transformed into a German-run World War II camp in Poland. Both Allied and Axis soldiers were portrayed by the 75 reenactors who put on the event. Nearly 100 spectators took in scenes of attempted prison breaks and interrogations led by German soldiers dressed in full Nazi regalia.
“It’s an offensive uniform, I understand,” said Brian Pacilli, a 38-year-old ex-Marine whose olive-green German SS uniform was adorned with multiple swastikas. “However, without showing the true side of history, we forget that.”
Depicting the events with historical accuracy is of paramount importance to the reenactors, who call themselves “living historians.” And you can’t stage a World War II reenactment, which happens every two or so months in the Philadelphia area, without Germans in the European Theater. Someone has be the one to wear swastikas and Iron Crosses. “We can’t change history to benefit our own personal beliefs,” Pacilli said. “Doing so is revisionist history.”
“Our idea was to have a program that would show what American soldiers had dealt with during the Second World War,” said Fort Mifflin program manager Joseph Nevin, who opened the fort to the reenactors in exchange for a donation that will help fund its continued restoration. “We didn’t feel there was any sort of misappropriation in presenting the event.”
But experts in teaching the Holocaust argue the war shouldn’t be reenacted in any capacity. Act 70, a Pennsylvania Department of Education guideline about Holocaust and genocide teaching, firmly states: “NO simulations of any kind (no wearing of costumes, virtual confinement, reenactments, role playing, etc.)”
“They trivialize the experience of the victims,” said Randi Boyette, associate regional education director for the Anti-Defamation League. “They can leave students with the impression that they actually know what it was like, when in fact they clearly cannot.”
The roll call began. “3054 — Werner,” the guard yelled.
“Here,” said one of the prisoners. A few of his fellow Allied prisoners tried to conceal a smirk.
“3055 — Turfitt”
After the prisoners had been accounted for, they received their mail and a Red Cross parcel, wrapped in brown paper and string. Then they returned to their mock cells.
Michael Bernier, who was portraying a fighter pilot in the German Luftwaffe, stood near a red-brick building serving as a German interrogation center. Having spent upwards of $10,000 on his uniform, the former Air Force pilot reenacts Axis powers exclusively, unlike many of his counterparts.
“I wanted to be something different than what I was,” the 60-year-old said of his decision to choose the Axis powers. “It’s like an escape from who I am. It’s kind of like having two lives for the price of one.”
Bernier doesn’t display his second life to everyone. His father in-law, who was a World War II veteran and a Purple Heart recipient, never observed him dressed in Nazi garb. “I never let him see me like this, out of respect for the man,” Bernier said.
At one point during the reenactment, which was punctuated by escape attempts and fake but deafening gunfire, a Nazi soldier escorted an Allied prisoner along the grounds, pointing his rifle at his captive’s back. A photographer snapped his picture, and his hand darted to his face. “No pictures, sorry,” he said. “I work in the public sector.”
Most Nazi reenactors have stories of being confronted. “People get offended by us,” said Kurtis Henschel, a high school senior portraying a member of the SS. “And they have a right to.”
Larry Mihlon, 57, whose pencil-thin mustache and ice-blue eyes made for a particularly convincing depiction of a Luftwaffe general, noted that if someone is offended by his uniform, “the answer to that is good. They need to see it, they need to know about it.”
According to Mihlon, even his wife, who is Jewish and had relatives die in concentration camps, doesn’t hate seeing him dressed in a Nazi uniform. “She learned early on when she met me that none of this that I do has anything to do with the clearly sinister politics of the National Socialists,” he said.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you, there were many people who had something to do with all this who were supremely evil,” he said. “How did they get there? The dialogue’s got to be there. People have to talk about that.”
But pedagogical experts still question the motives of the reenactors.
“I wonder whether this is really about learning, and I’m not convinced,” Boyette said. “You can’t take one tiny little piece and call that WWII history. Would you do a reenactment of dropping the bomb?”
The question of misrepresenting history becomes an even greater concern when children are involved.
“We have to be very mindful of the fact that young people can get stimulated or identify with the aggressor,” said Josey Fisher, director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Gratz College.
For the attendees, the question of the reenactors’ pedagogical approach to history appeared to be far from a concern. Joey Flynn, an Air Force veteran, brought his Boy Scout troop from Delaware to the event. For him, it was a way to get his kids off of their iPods and iPads and for them to “see what the reenactment back in the day would have been for people.”
Asked whether he thought the reenactors glorified war in any way, he replied, “No, not at all.”
Elaine Culbertson, executive director of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, disagreed.
“I don’t understand by what anyone could gain by participating in something like this. It’s demeaning,” she said.
Culbertson, whose mother was imprisoned at Auschwitz and whose father was in an Austrian concentration camp, said it would be impossible for the reenactors to simulate the real atrocities that occurred at POW camps.
“You come from your comfortable house, make pretend that you’re doing something, then you go back to your comfortable life,” she said. “That isn’t what happened.”
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