Ernestine Schlant Bradley, a Holocaust author and wife of presidential candidate Bill Bradley, told a group of Flatbush yeshiva students that she and her husband agree that the United States must keep the pressure on Austria to reverse the decision to include the rightist Freedom Party in its new coalition government.
"It’s a very disturbing and crippling event," the German-born professor of German literature at Montclair College in New Jersey told about 350 students Monday at the Yeshivah of Flatbush-Joel Braverman High School.
Bradley said she and her husband agree the U.S. must keep its ambassador out of Austria "until such time that the Austrians realize this is unacceptable. The point is, what we can do as outsiders to make the Austrians understand what they did and that they have to reverse it."
The Freedom Party is led by Joerg Haider, who has made and apologized for comments praising some of Hitler’s policies but has not backed down from statements calling for Austria to close its border to more immigrants.
Dressed in a white blouse, blue blazer and skirt, the petite college professor came to Flatbush ostensibly to speak about her book published last year, "The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust."
In it Bradley, who professionally uses the name Schlant, denounces post-war German writers for ignoring the Holocaust.
But there were underlying reasons for the timing of her visit.
The lecture was quickly scheduled last week as her husband’s campaign began focusing on the March 7 New York primary.
Bill Bradley conceded this week that he must win New York and other primaries on that day in order to stay in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination against Vice President Al Gore.
And during the next few weeks the Bradley campaign will be trying to dispel the misperception that Ernestine is the daughter of a Nazi because her father, Joseph Misselbeck, was in the Luftwaffe, or German Air Force.
The perception problem was evident from several yeshiva students.
"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 Mitchell Shpelfogel a 16-year-old junior.
So during the hour-long lecture and question-and-answer session, Bradley, 64, stressed the distinction between being a Nazi Party member and a member of the military in World War II Germany.
"I want you to know that yes, all the men wore some uniform, the party or the military. My father wore the uniform of the air force."
In an interview Tuesday with The Jewish Week, Bradley was more direct.
"My father was never, ever, a member of the Nazi Party," she stated.
"My father told me, and my mother told me they were never members, and I believe that they wouldn’t lie to me."
In addition, Bradley said she had a document search performed in Germany and was assured that her father’s name does not appear on any Nazi Party lists.
She said her father did not fly planes but rather served in the ground support unit in France and Italy. He later became mayor of Ingolstadt, near Munich.
Nevertheless, Bradley said her relationship with her parents was strained because of their silence about the Holocaust. She questioned how they couldn’t have known what was happening to the Jews in her hometown of Passau, in Bavaria, which is rich in Nazi history as a one-time home to Adolf Hitler and the site of three Nazi labor camps.
"My father died a quarter of a century ago," she told the students. "We never came to a peace; we never came to any agreement, which is disheartening to say about your parents, but that’s all I could do."
She added: "We would all have loved it if we could say our parents were in the resistance, but unfortunately they were not. But that does not mean they were necessarily perpetrators of the regime’s crimes, and therein you have the silence … even of good people who should have stood up."
Bradley, who became a U.S. citizen in 1963, noted she was only 10 years old when the war ended.
"Personally I did not see any Jews as I grew up. I never saw Jews wearing a Star of David because I grew up in a small town where by the time the legislation forced the Jews to wear a yellow star, they were already dead."
The yeshiva students said they were not prepared in advance for her visit. In fact many said they didn’t even realize she was the wife of the ex-New Jersey senator and ex-New York Knick, before being announced at the assembly.
Some preparation of her work might have been helpful for the junior and senior students to better understand some of the complex concepts of Bradley’s academic work, which centers on "the silence of the perpetrators" of the Holocaust. Some appeared bored.Nonetheless, students asked some difficult questions.
One teen said that she has been brought up to believe that indifference is as bad as the evil acts, and asked how Bradley comes to terms with her family’s indifference.
"I took some comfort from the fact they were not actively involved and they did not commit acts," Bradley responded. "I have also found I did not want to take refuge in lies."
Bradley’s candor impressed some students.
Shpelfogel said, "I have a totally [different] view; I respect her and her beliefs."
"I was very impressed with her, I think she’s great," said Amy Sabbagh, 17.
But other students felt the professor downplayed her parents’ indifference."I didn’t like how she was trying to brush over that nobody was so bad," said senior Orla Wahba, joined by friends Batsheva Lazarus and Norma Kohaski.
The idea for the visit came from Bradley supporter Menachem Shayovich, a Borough Park businessman and former special assistant to former New York Gov. Hugh Carey.
Shayovich, running as a Bradley delegate, said he promoted the idea to the candidate’s strategists two months ago, and got the go-ahead late last week.
Flatbush senior Michael Slomnicki said he thought Bradley killed two birds with one stone: "She was here for her own cause, and also campaigned for her husband. It was a double whammy."