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For all his lies, the Holocaust denier and world's most prolific purveyor of anti-Semitic propaganda taught me one hard truth
I stepped through the black iron gate and walked up the path leading to the tall, century-old Victorian at 206 Carlton. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the doorbell. In the security camera bolted above the fortified door I eyed my reflection: a scrawny, 16-year-old girl with long red hair and torn Goodwill jeans.
The door buzzed open and I stepped into a reception area plastered with World War II-era Nazi propaganda posters. A powerful voice with a thick German accent commanded my attention. “So you’re Elisse. Welcome to the bunker!”
Ernst Zundel was wearing fuzzy slippers and a knitted sweater. A balding, stout man in his 50s, with a ruddy face and the belly of an Oktoberfest gnome, he looked like he could be your favourite uncle.
Only he wasn’t. He was the most notorious Holocaust denier and publisher of anti-Semitic propaganda in the world. Zundel, a man who placed his life on the altar of hate, died last week in Germany, reportedly of heart failure. He was 78.
Whenever I think back to my turbulent teenage years, I remember the day I first met Zundel. That memory will stay with me forever as a reminder of how easily I could be seduced by hate, only because I wanted to be loved.
I was a high school dropout with no friends or future. It was the fall of 1991 and, after a two-year stint in group homes, I’d run away from my last foster home and back to my abusive mother’s apartment in Regent Park.
I had emigrated from Communist Romania when I was 11 and, like many kids who grow up in a country where they don’t feel they belong, I felt alienated, lonely and hopeless – just the incendiary mix that extremist groups are looking for in recruits.
That’s when I saw a TV program about the Heritage Front, a Toronto nationalist group that advocated pride for European culture and lobbied for a White History Month. I left a message on their “hotline” and within days was enlisted by the group’s leader, ex-Klansman Wolfgang Droege, who became an instant father figure to me. Back then I was Elisse.
After learning about my volatile home situation, Droege arranged to introduce me to his close friend, fellow German expat Zundel, who needed help around the house. A five-minute walk from my roach-infested apartment block in Regent Park, Zundel’s Cabbagetown manse was a safe place to spend my afternoons and get away from my mother’s rage.
The “bunker” was an extension of Zundel: shelves lined the living room walls stacked floor to ceiling with revisionist books like The Hitler We Loved And Why, and Did Six Million Really Die?, the booklet that had earned him his reputation and fortune.
I didn’t hate Jews, not at first. But Zundel told me everything I’d been taught about history was wrong. “Canada’s public school system brainwashes children with political correctness,” he said, insisting that he would teach me the real truth, not the one crafted by the nefarious Zionist elites who he said controlled the world.
My new education started that first day. It involved watching Zundel’s collection of Third Reich propaganda films like Triumph Of The Will and Hitler Youth Quex, and grainy footage from the eugenics movement that depicted Jews as hook-nosed bankers and rats scurrying in city sewers.
Zundel also made me look at photos of concentration camp corpses until I couldn’t feel anything anymore. By the second week, I was convinced the Holocaust had never happened and The Diary of Anne Frank was a hoax. I’d also learned to pound out Horst Wessel Lied, the Nazi Party anthem, on the keys of Zundel’s basement piano.
At the bunker, I spent most of my days in the living room stuffing newsletters soliciting donations into envelopes addressed to anti-Semites across the planet. Hitler’s beady eyes watched over me from ornate oil paintings hung on the wall. I collected newspaper clippings, folded pamphlets, mailed packages at the post office and ran to the corner store to fetch Zundel’s favourite liver paté.
He paid me in sandwiches and kind words. I finally had a place to hide from my mother’s blows, a cot in the basement to sleep instead of the streets. For a girl who’d never had anything, that was enough.
By the time I was 17, I had become the new, fresh face of the Heritage Front – not an angry, tattooed skinhead but a girl-next-door who looked younger than my age. At home, a poster of Hitler hung above my bed.
Droege dragged me to press interviews and made sure I spoke at every rally. He and Zundel chose me to go on The Montel Williams Show in New York to represent the Canadian far-right. (We forged parental consent forms for that appearance.)
I threw myself breathlessly into the business of hate because it earned me Zundel’s grandfatherly affection and Droege’s praise. They were my family. “The movement needs smart kids like you,” they told me. “You are our future.”
Nobody had called me smart before. Naturally, I loved them the way a stray dog loves its new master. Expressing hate made me feel powerful. Surrounded by skinheads, I was no longer alone or afraid. When passersby saw our bomber jackets and black combat boots, they crossed the street. It was the first time adults were afraid of me rather than the other way around.
Within a year, the Heritage Front had become Canada’s largest white supremacist organization. Hundreds of angry skinheads attracted to the cause filled the Latvian House for a rally, moshed at RaHoWa rock concerts, paraded through the streets of Toronto and Ottawa giving straight-arm salutes. American white supremacists like Dennis Mahon and Tom and John Metzger were brought in to speak at rallies. Infamous Holocaust revisionist David Irving flew in to speak to Zundel’s Nazi fan base.
Between 1992-1993, several Jewish buildings, a bookstore and the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina were spray-painted with swastikas. A group home for runaway girls and a Jewish activist’s Kitchener home were firebombed. The Morgantaler abortion clinic blew up, the Front’s telephone number tagged on its wall.
Three South Asian men were attacked that summer – two beaten to death and one left brain-damaged and paralysed. Street clashes between skinheads and anti-racists became the norm.
Heritage Front co-founder Grant Bristow instigated the “It Campaign” – a Heritage Front terror onslaught against members of anti-Fa group Anti-Racist Action. ARA members were harassed, stalked and threatened with death.
The escalation of violence was a turning point for me. The more innocents who were targeted for harassment, the more my world fell apart. A seed of conscience had begun to sprout deep inside me. After Bristow asked me to terrorize an ARA activist who happened to be lesbian, I had to confront the reality that I, too, was gay.
But I didn’t just want to drop out of the white supremacist movement. I wanted to shut it down. With the help of anti-racist activists, I spied on the Heritage Front for months, collected information on criminal activities and illegal weapons, and signed dozens of affidavits, which we turned over to police, along with part of Zundel’s extensive mailing list.
For over a year, I lived in hiding all across Canada and subsequently testified against Droege and two other group members, leading to their convictions and jail sentences on hate-related charges. My testimony, coupled with Toronto Sun reporter Bill Dunphy’s explosive revelation that Grant Bristow was a paid CSIS spy, contributed to the end of the Heritage Front.
In the years that followed, I earned a university degree, wrote a memoir and converted to Judaism. In March 2017, more than 20 years after I last saw Zundel, I came across The Hitler We Loved And Why and other Holocaust-denying books in Chapters-Indigo’s online inventory. My complaint led to their removal. But The Turner Diaries, the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing, continues to be sold by the bookstore online.
Zundel’s death, 12 years after his friend Droege was shot to death in Scarborough in a drug-related shooting, leaves behind a legacy of intolerance that still casts a long shadow on Toronto’s history.
For all his lies, Zundel taught me one hard truth: words are power. And they have the ability to inspire or destroy. By rewriting history to erase mass genocide, he created an ideology used to justify violence against innocent people.
Elisa Hategan is an author, public speaker and journalist. Her memoir, Race Traitor: The True Story Of Canadian Intelligence’s Greatest Cover-Up, was published in 2014.
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