ASCII by Jason Scott

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Haircut and a Holocaust —

This post is kind of a bummer, although it does have a somewhat happy ending.

I don’t discuss my own family history before my being born all that often – mostly out of privacy, partially out of not having been there, and maybe a dash of “too busy on other subjects”, but I wanted to mention how I changed my mind on something, and maybe others will change their mind too.

I had kind of a thing going, an intention to not really set foot in Germany. It’s actually hard to avoid an entire country, especially once you start travelling nearby, and while I did end up taking a train through Germany, and at one point I had to transfer planes at an airport in Germany as well, I was kind of avoiding the place.

You see, World War II wasn’t all that great to some lines of my family. We lost enough family members through direct, specific murder that in a few cases we don’t even know what their names were. At this point, pretty much all relatives same-generation connected to them are gone, so I’ll mention it, but let’s just set that down here. Really bad situation. entire branches of family hauled off and killed. Sorry, can’t sugar-coat that.

So somewhere along that line, I had come up with some rough decision that that was it for my visiting Germany, Germany had killed quite enough of the family, thanks, and I wasn’t going to go there. Obviously I ended up taking a train through the country on the way to another one and the I transferred a plane at one point. But somehow, going directly there seemed wrong, somehow.

Here it is, 2012, and I accepted an invitation to come speak about Geocities in Germany later this year. Let me mention why.

On my way down to MAGfest in Maryland to do some documentary screening and filming, I found myself at 9am looking for something to eat. So I pulled off Interstate 95, in Aberdeen, Maryland, and looked for a breakfast. As I was driving down this exit road, I spied a barbershop. Well, heck, I could use a haircut, I thought – I was definitely looking scruffy and a small trim would go well with my outfit and efforts to film people at MAGfest.

So that was how I found myself at the All-American Barber Shop. It was a tiny affair, set into a strip mall as it was, and was itself a little run-down, but I’ve had plenty of haircuts, and you can’t judge what you’re going to get just because the old guy with the scissors has a few scant tools at his disposal, versus some chrome-and-rainbows megacut place in the middle of a city. So I caught them as they were opening, and I got to be haircut #1.

It was the barber and his, well, I assume buddy – he might have been another haircut guy who was off-duty or just a bullshittin’ friend who showed up for the opening shift when nobody, at 9am on a thursday, is thinking “man, I could use a haircut toot sweet before heading in late to work”. I can’t tell you much about them except they were full-gray old, and the barber, my barber, was in a suit and the other person was in a tracksuit.

So, the hair’s getting cut and these two guys are chatting, and of course they’re going all over the map based on what the news on the radio is blasting. Some discussion of war hit the radio, and they were talking about this or that, and they mentioned the relatively low casualties of the recent wars. Being a historian, I casually referenced the Battle of Verdun, which, look it up, is pretty astounding – hundreds of thousands of deaths over a small territory in the course of ten months. Oh, you know me – always throwing in where I shouldn’t.

So then, with my hair getting cut in my little plastic sheet that I’m wearing, I hear the tracksuited man reference how there were lots of terrible deaths, except of course that whole “millions of jews in world war II thing”.

Uh oh, I thought, did he just

So for the next 10 minutes or so, I get to hear these two guys discussing how overblown that killed-jews number is, how most of them just left, that it wasn’t that many people anyway. They went on for quite a while, touching on a pretty wide range of related topics, referencing learned items from some “pamphlets” one of them had – “they tell you stuff you would not believe!” stuck out as a phrase in there. Yes, I am sure I would not believe most of what you apparently read in your literature.

So, I have this very old pair of scissors. I mean, really old. Somewhat rusty, although sharp enough that it has function. They come from my great-uncle Sam, who, I can assure you, had a number tattooed on his arm, who had watched his infant son killed in front of him, who had nearly all his immediate family forcibly hauled off and never seen again, and who, after being processed inside an actual, real concentration camp, scaled the fence and refugee’d himself into the US. I promise you, this really happened. And when he got here, the job he ended up having for many, many years, until he died like someone should die if there’s justice, of a heart attack while shoveling the snow out of his suburban driveway, was that of a barber.

So I keep those scissors, you see, because they went through a lot and yet they still work, and I like to keep him fresh in my mind.

So these two gentlemen, happily denying that anything like that happened, who were tossing off “facts” and “figures” like it was all some sort of distant hoax put on as a prank by some 1940s yids, well, they helped me realize something.

My family wasn’t murdered by Germans. They were murdered by a mindset.

A mindset that really doesn’t know a border, one that doesn’t really tolerate getting out of line, and which, once you dehumanize or destroy something a ways away, be it miles or thousands of miles away, can infest and infect for decades, reducing something very real into the realm of chuckling derision by two idiots in a crappy barber shop called the “All American Barber”.

So I’m going to Germany. I’ll be speaking about Geocities.

You can’t bring scissors on a plane. That’s the only reason I won’t be bringing them.

Categorised as: jason his own self

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  1. Niklas says:

    I just watched the documentary America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis (have yet to see the first part). The mindset of unbelievable stupidity and ignorance is one of the trademarks of your country, as seen from the outside. Don’t get me wrong – I love many things about your country and pretty much every American I’ve met have been great people. It’s just that you have so many very vocal idiots, like the two proud patriots of that barber shop. One central problem is an unhealthy mainstream culture of nationalism/patriotism, which can be quaint at times, like at football games and funerals, but more often really scary, especially when combined with religious/irrational beliefs.

    I can only hope that the image we outsiders see is false, and that your culture is much more sane than the subset exposed by the media.

    I’m glad you’ve decided to go to Germany, because your talks are needed globally.

    • Swizzle says:

      Unfortunately, there seems to be a very large (and growing) group of people with very irrational beliefs in the United States. The idea of changing parts of our way of life, no longer being the sole “super power”, or allowing others to not follow their religious beliefs is terrifying for them and they will do whatever it takes to stop it. They seem to force the rest of us along for the ride because not enough people vote.

    • Rexxar says:

      There are plenty of sane, reasonable people.
      Unfortunately, the worst people are currently trying to become the president.
      People who either haven’t read, or blatantly ignore the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
      That said, I live in the south. Most of the people I see around town fit the stereotype you mention. There are religious advertisements _everywhere_ and it’s just assumed you’re a Christian. If you’re not, then you’re some “commie SOB”. That is an actual thing I have heard. Not to mention the rampant homophobia and socially acceptable misogyny.
      I’ve not actually seen outside media (I should probably look into that), but what you describe is pretty much what goes on here. Nationalism is one thing, but we invented patriotism, and it’s a really sickening thing if you’re not really a patriot. Patriots have absolute, unquestioning faith in their country. Their country is the best, no matter what anyone says, and they cannot be defeated. Even a decade out, the 9/11 attack is still a HUGE deal. People still treat it as if it were yesterday.
      So, while there are normal people, the sheer amount of idiots keep them from being heard. It’s really sad, actually.

      • Niklas says:

        Outside media is often pretty neutral regarding the level of nutcasery. The most colorful depiction of what’s going on over there comes from either Fox News, which is… well, Fox, crazy people abound (is O’Reilly for real?), or Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart, who highlight the baffling craziness of the Fox machine and its viewers and makes us think that Fox crazies = the state of the union.

        I’m from Sweden (atheist, humanist), so I’m very likely a really dangerous commie SOB according to your neighbors :).

        • Rexxar says:

          Oh, Fox is most certainly for real. They are absolutely serious about everything they say. There are also a terrifyingly large number of people that agree with them.

          I watched someone giving a speech on how America is a Christian nation. He was saying all these completely insane things. And I was just kind of laughing until the audience started applauding in the middle of his speech. Here it is.

          People like this have a fair chance of actually becoming president.

  2. Ali Gündüz says:

    Jason, thank you for sharing something this personal in a sincere way.

    On an vaguely irrelevant note, I have been enjoying your talks through online audio and video records for some years now and would love to see one in person. What is the event that you will be speaking at? I would really love to attend if it’s in or near Berlin.

  3. phuzz says:

    This is going to come off as a being a bit preachy, so I apologise (especially as most of my family made it through WWII alive), but the country of Germany, and the vast majority of the people who live in it now, have pretty much nothing to do with what happened back then.
    Also, every country has a collection of bigoted idiots (in the UK there’s the British National Party, who make me ashamed to be british), they are the ones to direct your anger at, not the descendants of people who made the wrong choice.

    tl/dr Don’t be angry at modern germans, be angry at bigots, old and new.

  4. Bruno says:

    My family wasn’t murdered by Germans. They were murdered by a mindset.

    A bunch of comments here focus on the Germany-absolving part of the formula. I just wanted to point out the (rather important) counterpart: mindsets can murder.

  5. Jeanne says:

    I spent about 14 months living in Germany on a long term work assignment back in the early 1990s. My home was in a small furnished apartment in the southwest of the country. One day I used some dishes I hadn’t before, and when washing them I realized (as the soap slid off the back of one dish) that there was a swastika staring back at me. I dropped the dish clattering in the sink and stared at it for a while as the water flowed across the German eagle, swastika and 1945. My first instinct was to throw it across the room and smash it into bits (my family was not decimated by the Holocaust purely due to well timed immigration in the early 1910s – but many of them fought in the war) – but as I stared at the symbols I decided that they were not my plates to break. Breaking them would somehow put me in the same category as others who feel they have the right to destroy things that don’t belong to them. I dried them and put them high high up in the cabinet and never touched them again.

  6. Stu says:

    The first and only time I was in germany, I was in freiburg, a friend of mine and I were galavanting around western europe and ended up at a small pub in freiburg for dinner.

    We sat at a big well worn wooden table, across the aisle from another big well worn wooden table where there were 4 natives also having dinner. The two guys only spoke german, the two girls spoke both german and english and apparently were trying to pick up the two guys. I could tell this because when the two girls wanted to talk to each other, without the guys understanding they spoke in english, so I got the backstory.
    This was amusing for a while when I realized that these four were the grandoffspring of the generation that killed off a lot of my family as they did yours.
    So I thought about that for a while, and I realized I couldn’t blame these kids (they were my age, early 20s at the time) for something their grandparents did. It wasn’t their fault or doing, and they weren’t even in the wrong place at the wrong time, they didn’t even exist.
    And from what I read, there’s still a fair amount of national embarrassment about the whole thing in their culture. But I’m no expert on that.

  7. Chris M says:


    Your story reminded me of a local barber who recently retired. Cutting hair literally saved his life during WWII.

    Final cut: Springfield barber steps down after 74 years

  8. D says:

    You can take your scissors on the airplane as long as they go in your checked luggage. They are only prohibited as a carry-on item.

    • Coderjoe says:

      Checking such an important item can be risky. Bags get lost. Some baggage handlers steal from checked bags. The TSA also occasionally opens checked items. All of which could result in losing an important heirloom.

  9. Steen says:

    This is brilliant, Jason. Your public persona has a lot to do with a very, very specific form of history, so I’ve often wondered how this relates to how you view history in the sense that most people think of it. This post makes for an interesting bridge, told in a very personal way. Thank you.

    And I’m not even going to open this emotional barrel of worms to speculate, but I have to point out that at the end of a long piece about the horrors that come about because of ideology and misplaced nationalism, tossing out the detail that you can’t take scissors on a plane is god damned _fraught_ with… something. Left as an exercise for the reader.

  10. Hi Jason, as one of your German fans, I am glad to read that you will come to visit us… Well, that part of history is of course very real, but on the other hand, anyone adult when WWII started is now 91+ ys old… And that number will rise and rise. To describe what it feels like to be born into this country and its past is “my grandfather who died before I was born was a serial killer”. That’s exactly how it feels. People look at you in a strange way, and you feel guilty and innocent in a weird way. You want to scream “it has nothing to do with me, I wasn’t even born” but you somehow can’t, really. And while you want to discuss it, you never want to offend anyone affected by it.