Ronald Reagan and morality


While many are celebrating what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, here are two personal reasons why I won’t be.

First: For many years I thought that my entire family had immigrated to America from the Russian borderlands. So, when as a child I saw the Margaret Bourke White photograph of liberated prisoners at a concentration camp, I couldn’t imagine that any of the living ghosts were my relatives. I easily pictured the Dobrin family as victims of Russian pogroms but not of the Holocaust.

As an adult I learned I was probably wrong. There might have been a spur of the family that migrated not to the New World but Germany. In Berlin’s Jewish Quarter, I was told by a Holocaust survivor, there was a popular café, the Dobrin Karlsbader Feinbäckerei und Konditorei, owned and operated by Moritz Dobrin. My father’s name was Moe, too, and he also was in the bakery business.

In his book, Stella, Peter Wyden writes that Mortiz Dobrin was rounded up by Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, although records at the Jewish Archives in Berlin say that he was shipped to Theresienstadt concentration camp, not Auschwitz, and survived the Holocaust.

Re-reading the Wyden book I saw something I had overlooked at first.  There, on the list of deportees to concentration camps from Berlin, the second entry—nine months before I was born, the Nazis sent a young man to Auschwitz. His name was Artur Dobrin.

I can’t help but remember Reagan’s 1985 visit to Germany to mark the anniversary V-E Day. The president spoke at a cemetery in Bitburg, where German soldiers and Allies alike are buried. The president defended his decision to lay a wreath for all who died there with this analogy: “Would Helmut [Kohl, the German chancellor) be wrong if he visited Arlington Cemetery on one of his U.S. visits?” He explained his decision to honor both Allied and German soldiers alike by saying that German soldiers “were victims, just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps.”

Both Ar(t)ur Dobrins disagree with this assessment.

Here is the second reason why I won’t be joining in the centenary celebrations for the 40th president: I was still a college student in 1964, when I married Lyn. I attended summer school that year so I could graduate a semester early and the two of us could join the Peace Corps. Some of my contemporaries chose to go South to work on voter registration on behalf of black Americans whose voting rights were being denied. In June of that year James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman disappeared; six weeks later their bodies were found, in Philadelphia, Neshoba County, Mississippi. The county deputy sheriff had detained them on a road until the Ku Klux Klan could catch, them, beat them and shoot them to death.

Three years after their murders, I became a colleague of Algernon Black, who officiated at Andrew Goodman’s memorial service and soon after that I got to know Michael Schwerner’s parents, who were close friends of our next-door neighbors.

This is why the Reagan celebrations also remind me of his first campaign stop after winning the Republican nomination for the president. It was in Neshoba County Mississippi that he proclaimed, “I believe in states’ rights . . . I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.”

The Neshoba County hid behind states’ rights; the KKK in Neshoba County stood for states’ rights; the White Citizens’ Council in Mississippi waved the flag for states’ rights; those who blocked the right of black Americans to vote did so under the banner of states’ rights. It was, finally, the federal government that enforced civil rights for black Americans.

Ronald Reagan was no anti-Semite or racist the way Nixon was, as the releases of the secret White House tapes confirm. Reagan instead was an amiable person who was also an astute politician. He was no fool. I believe he knew what he was doing by visiting Mississippi and laying wreaths on the graves of German soldiers in Bitburg.

And I know I won’t forget his visits to Germany and Mississippi. Neither will I forgive him.

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