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Our Adolf Hitler birthday cakes

A Guatemalan high school senior I’ll call Estuardo, who often spends weekends at my home, arrived last winter with an English assignment. His teacher had asked the class to respond to an AP news story, “Store Won’t Make Cake for ‘Adolf Hitler.’” Since Estuardo has been in America only three years, and his English teacher takes off for grammatical and spelling errors, he often waited to complete his English assignments until he could work with me.   

The news article described the anger of Deborah and Heath Campbell, a New Jersey couple, when their local ShopRite supermarket refused to ice their three-year-old son’s birthday cake with his name, Adolf Hitler. The bakery department had been nervous enough to pass the Campbells’ request to a supervisor, who had decided against ShopRite writing Adolf Hitler in icing on the cake. 

Estuardo’s teacher asked the class, “What would you do, and why?”

I was reminded of the gay couple for whom the Colorado baker had refused to make a wedding cake, claiming his religious convictions made it impossible for him to honor a gay wedding by decorating the couple’s cake. The case had recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the nine judges were divided between those whose primary concern was civil rights (ensuring the right of gay people to receive equal service from businesses), and those who were focused on religious freedom (protecting the baker from being forced to act against his religious beliefs.) A decision has just been made in favor of the baker.

In the case of the gay couple, I had found it hard to sympathize with the religious qualms of the artistic baker. Yet, despite my pity for a preschooler condemned to grow up with his infamous name, I couldn’t get over my revulsion at decorating a cake with the name Adolph Hitler.

Estuardo had told me that history was not taught in public school in his Guatemalan village. This seemed sad, but not entirely surprising, given Guatemala’s authoritarian regimes whose genocidal wars against the native Mayan population had peaked in the 1970s and whose economic policies were still prompting Guatemalans to make the long trip north through Mexico to the United States. Though the name Hitler was part of daily conversation in my European refugee family, I suspected that Adolf Hitler was a relatively new name for Estuardo — just one of the countless American and European names that he has had to master since attending school in the USA. 

What Estuardo had already learned here was that Hitler had wanted to wipe out all Jews. Whether or not this echoed his vague sense of the war that had been conducted against highland Mayan villages like his, he was not inclined to offer his bakery services to decorate a cake with Hitler’s name. As he set about putting his reluctance into proper English, I continued to mull over the birthday cake decorated with the name the Campbells had defiantly given their son. As Deborah Campbell explained it to the AP reporter, “There’s a new president and he says it’s time for a change; well, then it’s time for a change.”  The fact that both little Adolf and his younger sister, Joyce Lynn Aryan Nation, were born under Obama made their names more sinister to me. 

By contrast with the gay wedding cake, where two opposing issues were at stake, the Campbells’ birthday cake, however repugnant, seemed purely a matter of free speech. Had they gone to court, they could easily have won. Surfing the internet to discover whether Deborah or Heath had fought Shop Rite legally, I discovered that the Campbells were semi-literate. (They were also abusive, and their three children were put in foster homes shortly after the birthday cake incident.) They had likely not understood that the First Amendment to our Constitution grants all citizens the right to expression, free from government interference, except when the lives of others are directly threatened by one’s speech — for example, when one yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater. 

I am for the First Amendment, because I don’t think that banning even hateful racist and anti-Semitic expressions of belief strengthens a democracy. But, as many have noticed, the politeness and civility that make possible conversations among people of different views have been diminished by the Trump administration. Picture the many provocations and angry abuses like Adolf Hitler birthday cakes around us and, taking a cue from Estuardo’s teacher, ask: What should I do? 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.