By Leon Cohen
of The Chronicle staff
November 16th, 2001
Kenosha — About two weeks ago, many members of the Jewish and general community here were shocked and furious to learn that a veteran of the Waffen SS, the German Nazi elite units, spoke to students at a Kenosha public high school’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.
But Kenosha school officials, including the teacher who invited the speaker, have said that promoting Nazi ideology or denying the Holocaust was neither the purpose for bringing in the speaker nor constituted the substance of what he said to the students.
About a week-and-a-half later, a Holocaust survivor spoke to the same students. Moreover, Joseph Hentges, interim superintendent of the Kenosha Unified School District, told The Chronicle that the district will “tighten up the review process for controversial speakers.”
Nevertheless, emotions are still roiling in the community, and some are calling for the teacher to be fired. A meeting of school officials and parents and students in the JROTC program to discuss the matter was held Monday night, according to the Kenosha News.
On Oct. 24, Waffen SS veteran Konrad Mikula spoke to a military history class taught by Lt. Col. Jack Gibbons, commandant of the Kenosha Military Academy, the JROTC program housed in the Reuther Central High School. About one-fourth of the school’s total of about 500 students participate in the academy, according to Reuther principal Daniel Tenuta.
In a telephone interview, Gibbons told The Chronicle that he invited Mikula to speak about his experiences “as a front-line soldier” who had enlisted when he was 17, the average age of Gibbons’ students, and had fought in Russia and France.
And that, Gibbons insisted, is all that Mikula discussed with the class. “I would have been the first to stop him if he was putting out Nazi propaganda,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons also said that “I am far from a Holocaust denier.” During his own service in the U.S. Army, Gibbons was stationed in West Germany in the mid-1970s, and he led tours of the Dachau concentration camp and visited other Holocaust sites, he said.
He met Mikula during that time when Mikula, who then lived in South Africa, visited Germany for a reunion of his SS unit. Gibbons, a military historian, found Mikula to be “a wonderful resource” for information about campaigns and battles that Gibbons wanted to study.
Gibbons said that Mikula was not a Nazi Party member during the war years, and that he didn’t believe Mikula had been involved in atrocities. “If I thought he was, I wouldn’t have anything to do with him,” he said.
Gibbons was able to invite Mikula to speak because Mikula, who now lives in Germany, was visiting family in the Chicago area. Gibbons obtained permission to do so from Tenuta and the Kenosha Unified School District’s executive director of high school education, Dr. Gail Durckel.
After the talk, a Kenosha News reporter who had been present, Wendy Ruenzel, interviewed Mikula. “He doesn’t believe Jewish concentration camps existed or that Hitler was in pursuit of the ‘divine race,’” her article in the Oct. 25 issue stated.
That article galvanized members of the Jewish and general communities. Rabbi Dena Feingold, spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Temple, read the article and “was shocked,” she said in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t believe anyone would invite a Nazi to speak in a classroom.”
She also received numerous calls from Jewish and non-Jewish members of the community who were upset, she said. Eventually, she informed the Anti-Defamation League’s Upper Midwest regional office in Chicago, which on Nov. 6 issued a statement denouncing Mikula’s visit to the school.
Ron Sanders, former president of Kenosha Congregation B’nai Zedek, also read the article and “immediately started calling everybody I know in the Jewish community,” he said in a telephone interview.
Both also contacted officials of the school and the school district, but they appear to have different goals. Feingold said, “My first inclination was to work within the school system ... rather than coming down heavy on condemnation without knowing the circumstances that led to this.”
Sanders, in contrast, is campaigning to have Gibbons fired. “This teacher needs to be gone,” Sanders told The Chronicle. “I can’t say if he’s an anti-Semite or not, but I can say he doesn’t have judgment.... [Mikula] shouldn’t have been there, that’s the whole issue.”
But this sort of reaction “disappoints me,” said district superintendent Hentges. Though “in hindsight we regret that permission was given” for Mikula to speak at the school, “I think we learn from our mistakes, and we see to it that they don’t occur again.”
Dr. Kevin Anderson, the district’s director of instruction, called inviting Mikula and approving it “an honest mistake” and said “maybe we need a tighter set of procedures” for approving potentially controversial speakers.
Sanders also apparently arranged for Holocaust survivor Paul Argiewicz of Paddock Lake to speak to the military academy students on Nov. 7, a visit that also was covered by the Kenosha News.
Argiewicz, 71 and originally from a small village in Poland, survived several camps and a death march and was liberated from Buchenwald. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.
In a telephone interview, Argiewicz told The Chronicle that “I rebuffed the speech that the Nazi did,” but that the students were cooler to him than were students in the some 40 other schools at which he has spoken.
Argiewicz believes that either Gibbons “should be dismissed” or the school’s charter for having a JROTC program should be revoked. “Nazis have no business being in a public school,” he said.