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Saturday, January 15, 2011

THE CANTOR AND THE CLANSMAN

One sunny Sunday morning in June 1991, Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife, Julie, surrounded by half-unpacked boxes in the kitchen of their new home in Lincoln, Nebraska, were talking and laughing with a friend when the phone rang. 

Michael, who answered with his usual warmth, heard a harsh and hateful voice say slowly and loudly: “You will be sorry you ever moved in [to that house], Jew boy!” Then the line went dead. 

Two days later, the Weissers received a thick brown packet in the mail with a card on top that read, “The KKK is watching you, Scum.” The stack of flyers and brochures included ugly caricatures of Jews, Blacks and “Race Traitors” being shot and hung, and spelled out other threatening messages, including “Your time is up!” and “The Holohoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you.” 

The Weissers called the police, who said the hate mail looked like the work of Larry Trapp, who was the state leader, known as the “Grand Dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan. Also an avowed Nazi, Trapp was suspected of leading skinheads and Klansmen who had been terrorizing black, Vietnamese and Jewish families in Nebraska and Iowa. 

“He’s dangerous,” the police warned. “We know he makes explosives.” They advised the Weissers to keep their doors locked and call if they received any unlabeled packages–just in case Trapp sent a letter bomb.
Although Trapp, forty-four, was diabetic and in a wheelchair, he was a major Midwestern link in the national white supremacist movement. He was, in fact, responsible for the fire-bombings of several African-Americans” homes around Lincoln and for what he called “Operation Gooks,” the burning of the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. At the time, he was making plans to bomb B’nai Jeshuran, the synagogue where Weisser was the spiritual leader. 

Trapp lived alone on the southwest side of Lincoln in a cramped one-room apartment. On one wall he kept a giant Nazi flag and a double-life-size picture of Hitler. Next to these hung his white cotton Klan robe with its red belt and hood. He kept an arsenal of assault rifles, pistols and shotguns within reach in case his perceived “enemies” came crashing through his door. 

After the hate mail, Julie Weisser began to wonder about Trapp, who had gone public to recruit new members of the Klan. She was struck by how lonely he must be, how isolated in all his hatred. She found out where he lived and sometimes would drive past his apartment complex. While she felt infuriated and revolted by him, she was also intrigued by how he could become so evil. She told Michael she had an idea: She was going to send Trapp a letter every day, along with a passage from Proverbs–her favorite book of the Bible–one that talks about how to treat your fellow man and conduct your life. 

Michael liked the idea, but didn’t want Julie to sign her name. And friends were horrified, warning that Trapp was crazy and violent and might try to kill her. 

“He’s the one who does things anonymously,” Julie responded. “I won’t do that.” She held off on her plan, but later on, when Trapp launched a white supremacist series on a local-access cable channel, Michael Weisser was incensed. He called the number for the hotline of the KKK–”the Vigilante Voices of Nebraska”–and listened to Trapp’s harsh voice spewing out a racist diatribe on the answering machine.

Michael called several times just to keep the line busy, but then began to leave his own messages. “Larry,” he said. “Why do you hate me? You don’t even know me, so how can you hate me?”

Another time he said, “Larry, do you know that the first laws Hitler’s Nazis passed were against people like yourself who had physical deformities, physical handicaps? Do you realize you would have been among the first to die under Hitler? Why do you love the Nazis so much?”

Whenever he thought of it, Michael called and left another message. One night, however, he asked Julie, “What will I do if the guy ever picks up the phone?”

“Tell him you want to do something nice for him,” she said: “Tell him you’ll take him to the grocery store or something. Anything to help him. It will catch him totally off guard.”

For weeks, Michael listened to Trapp’s taped invectives denouncing “niggers”, “queers,” “kikes” and “gooks”. Each time, Weisser would reply with a message of his own.

One day, just after Michael said, “Larry, when you give up hating, a world of love is waiting for you,” Trapp, who was feeling increasingly annoyed by the calls, picked up the phone and shouted, “What the—-do you want?”

I just want to talk to you,” said Michael.

“Why the—-are you harassing me? Stop harassing me!”

“I don’t want to harass you, Larry,” Michael said. “I just want to talk to you.”

“I know your voice. You black by any chance?”

“No, I’m Jewish.”

“You are harassing me,” said Trapp. “What do you want? Make it quick.”

Michael remembered Julie’s advice. “Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something, and I wondered if I could help,” he said. “I know you’re in a wheelchair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something.”

Trapp couldn’t think of anything to say. Michael listened to the silence. Finally, Trapp cleared his throat and, when he spoke, his voice sounded different.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s nice of you, but I”ve got that covered. Thanks anyway. But don’t call this number anymore.”

“Before Trapp could hang up, Michael replied, “I’ll be in touch.”

Michael’s calls were making Trapp feel confused. And a letter he received from a former nurse in Lincoln also affected him. If you give your love to God, “like you gave yourself to the KKK,” she wrote, “he’ll heal you of all that bitterness, hatred and hurt…in ways you won’t believe.”

Then, at a visit to his eye doctor, Trapp felt his wheelchair moving. “I helping you on elevator,” said a young female voice behind him. He asked where she was from. “I from Vietnam,” she said. That evening, he found himself crying as he thought about the scent of the woman’s gardenia perfume, his memories of “Operation Gooks” and his assaults on the Vietnamese community.

“I’m rethinking a few things,” he told Michael in a subsequent phone call. But a few days later he was on TV, shrieking about “kikes” and “half-breeds” and “the Jews’ media.”

Furious, Michael called Trapp, who answered his phone. “It’s clear you’re not rethinking anything at all,” Michael said, demanding an explanation.

In a tremulous voice, Trapp said, “I’m sorry I did that. I’ve been talking like that all of my life….I can’t help it….I’ll apologize.”

That evening, Michael Weisser asked his congregation to include in their prayers someone “who is sick from the illness of bigotry and hatred. Pray that he can be healed, too.” Across town, Lenore Letcher, an African-American woman whom Trapp had terrorized, also prayed for Trapp: “Dear God, let him find you in his heart.”

That same night, the swastika rings Trapp wore on both hands began to sting and itch so much that he pulled them off–something he had never done before. All night, he tossed in his bed, restless, confused and unsettled.
Around dinnertime the next day, the Weissers’ phone rang. “I want to get out,” Trapp said, “but I don’t know how.” Michael suggested that he and Julie go over to Trapp’s apartment to talk in person and “break bread together.” Trapp hesitated, then finally agreed.

As they were preparing to leave, Julie started running around, looking for a gift, and decided on a silver friendship ring of intertwined strands that Michael never wore.

“Good choice,” said Michael. “I’ve always thought all those strands could represent all the different kinds of people on this earth.” To Julie, it was a symbol of how “somebody’s life can be all twisted up and become very beautiful.”

When the door to Trapp’s apartment creaked open, Michael and Julie saw the bearded Larry Trapp in his wheelchair. An automatic weapon was slung over the doorknob and a Nazi flag hung on the wall. Michael took Trapp’s hand, and Trapp winced as if hit by a jolt of electricity. Then he broke into tears.

He looked down at his two silver swastika rings. “Here,” he said, yanking them off his fingers and putting them in Michael’s hand. “I can’t wear these anymore. Will you take them away?” Michael and Julie looked at each other in stunned silence.
“Larry, we brought you a ring, too,” Julie said, kneeling beside him and sliding the ring onto his finger. Larry began to sob. “I’m so sorry for all the things I’ve done,” he said. Michael and Julie put their arms around Larry and hugged him. Overwhelmed by emotion, they started crying, too.

On November 16, 1991, Trapp resigned from the Klan and soon quit all his other racist organizations. Later, he wrote apologies to the many people he had threatened or abused. “I wasted the first forty years of my life and caused harm to other people,” Larry said. “Now I”ve learned we’re one race and one race only.”

On New Year’s Eve, Trapp learned he had less than a year to live. That night, the Weissers invited him to move into their home, and he did so. They converted their living room into his bedroom. As his health deteriorated, Julie quit her job to care for him. She fed him, waited on him, sometimes all through the night, emptying pans of vomit.

Having a remorseful, dying Klansman in their home was disruptive to the whole family, which included three teenagers, a dog and a cat, but everyone pitched in. Once Trapp said to Julie, “You and Michael are doing for me what my parents should have done. You’re taking care of me.”

On days when Larry was well enough, he listened to speeches by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King and books on Gandhi and Malcolm X. He also began to listen to books on Judaism and to study the faith in earnest.

On June 5, 1992, Larry Trapp converted to Judaism in ceremonies at B’nai Jeshurun, the very synagogue that he previously had planned to blow up. Three months later, on September 6, 1992, he died in the Weisser home, with Michael and Julie beside him, holding his hands.

At Larry’s funeral, Michael Weisser said, “Those of us who remain behind ask the question, ‘O Lord, what is man? We are like a breath, like a shadow that passes away….’ And yet, somehow, we know there is more to our lives than what first meets the eye.”

Kathryn Waterson
From the book, “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul” 

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