NEW YORK, Feb. 8 (JTA) In a signal that the battle is on for the Jewish vote, the German-born wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley is seeking to address concerns about her family’s ties to the Third Reich.
In an event arranged by the Bradley campaign, Ernestine Schlant Bradley spoke Monday at one of New York’s largest modern Orthodox high schools about growing up in Nazi Germany and her criticism of postwar Germany’s failure to fully address the Holocaust.
Although Yeshivah of Flatbush officials described Bradley’s appearance as an academic lecture, her husband’s presence was felt in the Brooklyn school’s large auditorium.
“Given that your husband is running for president, why did you choose to come here today?” asked one student. To which Bradley replied, “This is not the first time I’ve gone to a yeshiva to speak to classes. The Jewish community deserves an answer to who Bill Bradley’s wife is.”
In an apparent slip of the tongue, another student asked, “Was your husband part of the Nazi Party, and did he show remorse?”
After a pause filled with murmuring and some awkward laughter, Bradley asked, “You mean my father?” and then noted that, while her parents were not members of the party, her father worked for the German air force, and she is disappointed that neither had spoken out against the Holocaust.
Born in 1935, Bradley immigrated to the United States in the 1950s and is highly critical of Germany’s past.
A naturalized American citizen, she is a literature professor at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, and her recently published book, “The Language of Silence,” examines how postwar German authors dealt with or failed to deal with the Holocaust.
Bradley is now on leave to campaign full time for her husband.
“My whole generation, we would all have loved if we could have said, ‘My parents were in the Resistance.’ Unfortunately they were not,” she said.
Bradley told students she had grown up in the town of Passau, the setting for the film “Nasty Girl” in which a woman faces local hostility when she tries to discover what happened to the town’s Jewish population during the war.
“I never saw a yellow Star of David or the people who wore them, because I grew up in a small town and by the time the Jews were forced to wear stars, there were none left in my town,” Bradley said.
She spoke of how she became more critical of her country and her parents after emigrating to the United States and meeting Jews.
Students for the most part seemed interested, although Bradley’s talk in which she occasionally lapsed into academic jargon at times seemed better suited for a graduate-level seminar than a high school lecture.
While some students snapped pictures, a visible minority seized the opportunity to catch a nap.
As they left the auditorium, most students said they were impressed.
“It was good to hear from a point of view that’s not just Jewish,” said senior Tali Fischer.
“I don’t think she came specifically to promote her husband, but this is a good way” to do that, said another senior, Rachel Fulop, who said it made her more likely to consider voting for Bradley.
“Before coming in, the only thing I knew about her was she was the child of a Nazi, so I had a negative impression,” said junior Mitchell Shpelfogel, who said he liked Bill Bradley. “But she understands the whole Jewish perspective on the Holocaust, and I have a total other view now.”
“As soon as she came, I assumed, Oh the Jewish vote,” said Michael Slomnicki, a senior. “But after that, I thought it was more her own cause.”
Slomnicki and others said they had no idea which candidates most of their classmates supported, guessing that “the school would be split all over the place for all the candidates.”
The school’s principal, Rabbi William Altshul, also declined to categorize the school’s political leanings, saying that the last mock election he could remember was during the governor’s race, in which George Pataki had been triumphant.
Altshul said the yeshiva had been somewhat apprehensive at first about becoming a political stump.
However, the political aspect was also educational, he said. “If we can get the kids excited about the political process, that’s crucial.
“If other candidates’ wives want to tell us who they are, we don’t have a problem with that,” he added.