Leftovers: Halloween unleashes the dark side

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An elementary school teacher once said Halloween is the second-favorite holiday of the year, following closely behind Christmas. A fun and exciting time for children, the bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups, mini-Milky Ways, and Skittles is mixed in more ways than one. 

“Halloween is an opportunity for more than too much candy,” she said. “Parents and kids have a chance to talk about costumes, use their imaginations, and share memories. They can also talk about moderation, stranger-danger, and sharing.

Natalie Ladd“But, I can spot the kids who might not have costumes or have working parents who won’t let them out, or worst of all, the ones who run wild and unsupervised. When I taught seventh grade, I saw so much of that. The days of TP-ing a house have become more like vandalism or an excuse to be offensive or inappropriate on some level.” 

“Offensive and inappropriate” are the words still swirling in my head after a duo of middle school-aged tricksters knocked on my door Sunday night.

The boys were dressed in light brown shirts and matching pants puffing over the top of tall black fishing waders. Assuming they were decked out as “North Woods Law” game wardens (as seen in reruns on Animal Planet), I asked them what their costumes were.

Laughing and glancing at each other, one said they were Eagle Scouts. Quickly thanking me for the treats, the boys turned to leave and it was then I spotted a black armband. A black armband on boys dressed in what I realized was supposed to be Nazi Germany SS soldier uniforms. 

I blew out the candle in my jack-o-lantern, turned off the light, locked the door, and sat down to cry. Not wanting to ruin BFF’s Halloween with a call (her neighborhood is packed with Wonder Women and Spidermen), my night was sleepless. Even Mellie, the Portland Phoenix office dog, couldn’t console me.

They were the most terrifying “costumes” I’d ever seen. 

Truthfully, I’ve seen and even sported some tacky costumes in my day, but what’s next? Dressing like Kenosha’s Kyle Rittenhouse? Ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted in the killing of George Floyd? Maybe as Chauvin’s two sidekicks who stood by and did nothing? Such get-ups speak more to championing the cultural mindset behind the threads than innocently having fun on Halloween. Freedom of expression by wearing such costumes wouldn’t be criminal – just criminally inhumane and morally bankrupt.

Israel Arbeiter
Holocaust survivor Israel Arbeiter during a 2016 visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp, where he spent six months as a young man before being liberated on his 20th birthday in 1945. Arbeiter died Oct. 29 at 96 in Newton, Massachusetts. (Courtesy World War II Foundation)

Shaky from a poor night’s sleep, I powered up my laptop Monday morning to see Holocaust survivor, Prisoner A18651, Israel Arbeiter had died at 96 in Massachusetts. Arbeiter lived life sharing his story of growing up in six different concentration camps. He coined the phrase: “There can never be too much remembering.” I met him at a speaking event in Boston, saw documentaries about his life, and took courage from his bearing witness and advocating for not letting the memory of the Holocaust disappear. 

But those memories were alive and well (sick?) here in Portland on Sunday night. Instead of a tribute, they showed up as two punk-ass preteens in SS uniforms. 

This was not my first incident of antisemitism. I have had swastikas scrawled on my car, was dumped by a guy I thought was decent, been “teased” about being cheap, asked why my nose is little, and more. But like the most polished and deeply rooted prejudice, most of the shade thrown at me was subtle, leaving me to wonder if it was real and always feeling uneasy around those who threw it.  

Unable and unwilling to let this incident be, I called the Portland Police Department and spoke with an officer who said, “Wow. Talk about poor taste.” Sympathetic, yes, but I knew there was nothing the police could do. Before hanging up, the officer told me to be careful and call back if anything else happened.

How do you report a mindset that makes it cool, even desirable to dress up like Nazis? 

I also called the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and the Jewish Community Alliance of Portland. I don’t know what I was hoping to accomplish, aside from looking for reassurance. And to share the dread with others who fully understand it and also believe there can never be too much remembering. 

Education at all levels, both in school and at home, remains the most important tool we have for understanding and ensuring the Holocaust will never happen again. My next calls will be to the Maine Department of Education and to find out what I can do besides having top-shelf candy to hand out.

I’m no Israel Arbeiter (may he rest in peace), but I’ll also always try to remember the pirates and pixies who bring smiles to all.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]