I know, we couldn’t believe it either. Amidst clear skies, a dreamy aqua view of the Caribbean Sea, and a beach full of vacationing visitors, one shirtless man caught our attention on the chairs nearby. Red swastika tattoos covered each of his bare shoulders and accompanied a third, giant black swastika tattoo on the dead center of his back.
We were on spring break in the Dominican Republic, our first trip to the country, with a group of 13 Jews from Minnesota, including seven teenagers. Our families were in celebratory mode, having briefly escaped our busy lives in the Bold North and the very last surprise snowstorm of the season. It was pure bliss until we witnessed this disturbing choice of body art by a fellow vacationer. I squinted from the bright sun, thinking at first it couldn’t possibly be real.
Collectively, we were stunned and upset. Who was this man? What was his story? Why did he think publicly exhibiting a symbol of hatred was acceptable? We were enraged. And yet we felt uncomfortably silenced. If we said something, there was potential to create a conflict-filled scene — the exact opposite of what we sought on vacation.
We had a passionate discussion amongst parents and teens. Some of our kids initially wanted to approach him, noting their disbelief he had the guts to flaunt an antisemitic symbol so callously. One teen reflected that he “felt sorry for the guy, because he likely wasn’t educated in the same way many kids are today, and his childhood must have been difficult.” Ultimately, we came to a group consensus that the safety risks outweighed the benefits of a confrontation. Avoiding a potential physical altercation or other more severe threats wasn’t a guarantee if we spoke up, and therefore, we chose not to.
He was with a woman, who appeared to be his wife. Their arms were linked as they sauntered down the beach in front of our bulging sunglass-covered eyes. It was hard not to judge her, too — why was she with a partner who shouted hate from his bare skin? We decided they were not from the U.S. And yet, we weren’t so naïve to believe that they couldn’t have been Americans.
Were there other people on the beach as shocked as us? Or were they looking at him in solidarity? Were we surrounded unknowingly by other neo-Nazis? It was jarring to see this open display of antipathy in a place where people traveled to seek peace and relaxation.
Later in the day, we caught multiple glimpses of him walking up and down the shoreline and across spring breaker-strewn pools proudly parading his swastika-inked skin. Like it was nothing. We thought about snapping a picture. We thought about saying a lot of things to him that we never said. And as far as we knew, nobody else said anything to him, either.
While I’ve thought often since then about what would have transpired if we’d spoken our minds and called him out for his blatant act of disrespect, I don’t regret having the courage to listen to our intuition and choose peace. He was looking for attention for the exact opposite of peace, and we didn’t give it to him.
Fortunately, after our second day at the hotel, we didn’t see him again, and the hollow feeling in my gut dissipated. We swam, walked the shoreline, soaked in the ocean views, went banana boating, hydrated, ate and relaxed, just as we had planned for our retreat.
For our last group dinner of the trip, we organized a Passover seder in the resort dining room. It was a special moment for our circle of friends to be together for the holiday. We compiled different foods from the buffet to represent items on the seder plate. We allowed all the kids to have a small glass of wine. There were a lot of other guests staring, understandably. We were doing something different in a public setting.
After what we’d seen together and the memorable mark it left on each of us, I felt an initial twinge of nervousness, quickly overtaken by immense pride that we’d created our own ritual, driven by friendship and love. I can only hope that some of the vacationers who saw the swastika tattoo man also saw the Minnesotan Jews having a fun-filled meal together, rich with tradition, laughter, kindness, warmth, and respect.