BERLIN, Aug. 24 (JTA) — It would be bad enough simply to have the grave of a notorious Nazi in your backyard. But for the residents of Wunsiedel, old bones have current ramifications. Last weekend, nearly 4,000 neo-Nazis from across Europe marched into this town of 10,000 people, as they have every year since 2001, to pay their respects to Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, who killed himself in Spandau prison on Aug. 17, 1987. But upstanding citizens of the small Bavarian town had an answer for the neo-Nazis. “A city fights back! Wunsiedel is colorful, not brown,” read banners hung around the entire Bavarian town, referring to the notorious brown shirts worn by Nazi storm troopers. At the height of the Aug. 21 protest, hundreds of citizens — including the mayor, local legislators, priests and church elders — sat down on the town’s main street to block the path of the neo-Nazis, who this year turned out in greater numbers than ususal. The citizens eventually heeded police demands that they leave. The annual neo-Nazi march has fueled debate about whether such events should be banned, particularly at sensitive sites such as Holocaust memorials and sites of former Nazi concentration camps. Mayor Karl-Willi Beck wishes the law would prohibit right-wing extremists from marching in Wunsiedel. “As the only city in Germany with the grave of a Nazi leader, we have a problem,” Beck, 49, told JTA. Other Nazi leaders who were executed or who died “were burned, and their ashes scattered. But this city has a grave, and we think we have a particular responsibility to deal with this history.” Several local groups joined the protest, and this year for the first time they received advice and assistance from the Berlin-based Alliance for Democracy and Tolerance. Volunteer firemen filled protest balloons with helium, and local farmers used giant vats of manure to block the neo-Nazis’ parking field. Police later required the farmers to remove the vats, but the message was sent nevertheless, observers said. Though he hopes for a future ban of neo-Nazi marches in Wunsiedel, Beck — a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union — said that in the meantime he plans to create a “spiritual counterbalance” to the annual “shameful” event, such as an exhibit on the local history of the Nazi period. Beck, who recently visited the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial in Poland, said anyone who defends the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech should visit a concentration camp memorial “at least once in his or her lifetime. And then I cannot imagine they would not condemn what the neo-Nazis are doing here.”
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.