A former neo-Nazi talking to college students about tolerance sounds like it comes straight from an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” but that was the scene on campus Tuesday night.
The Schottenstein Chabad House, a nonprofit Jewish student organization that aims to increase knowledge and awareness regarding Jewish topics, hosted “Stories of Tolerance” — an event preaching tolerance of diversity — with TM Garret, a former neo-Nazi, as the main speaker.
Cassie Edelstein, student president of Schottenstein Chabad House, said the event came together in part due to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in October.
“When the Pittsburgh shootings happened, that was the first time I had really seen action against Jewish people in my lifetime,” Edelstein said. “That was when I felt that I had to become part of the movement of human rights and to make sure everyone was treated with respect and tolerance.”
She said Garret’s story was the perfect fit in terms of the message they wanted to promote.
Garret began by briefly describing his efforts in exit programs, which are passion-based, rather than profit-oriented, he said. The campaign, “Erase the Hate,” where former gang and racist group members can cover up hateful tattoos for free, is an example of such a program.
“It hasn’t always been like that,” Garret said. “There has been a time 20 years ago when I was a very different man, a time when there was no compassion and my business was hating people.”
Some people were born into hate groups, while others are recruited, he said. For him it started in southern Germany, where he was born and raised. His parents had just moved there two years before he was born, and both had a drinking problem, making them unpopular in the small community.
“I wasn’t a very popular kid either, not only because of the dysfunctional family I had, but it was also just me — I didn’t fit in,” Garret said.
Besides speaking in a different dialect, he also felt isolated for not having a father. His father died when he was 8 years old, and he recalled feeling jealous of his friend for having a dad. He said he didn’t understand his emotions at the time and said it didn’t help that his parents’ relationship was strained and his mother seldom spoke of his dad.
While in school, Garret said he used taboo topics to bring attention to himself, such as Hitler, the Third Reich, Nazis and the Holocaust, which he said were “skeletons in the closet” in Germany.
“They had a problem talking about it. It was just shock, so you could provoke with it,” Garret said.
While the other kids in his class grew up and learned not to make those jokes, he became addicted to the shock value. He enjoyed drawing back then and made racist comics, one of which was turned into the principal of the school.
From then on, he was known as the “neo-Nazi” in his school.
“I didn’t like the label at all because I didn’t feel like it. But all of a sudden, something changed. I wasn’t a nobody anymore. I felt like I had an identity,” Garret said. “The bullying stopped because nobody wanted to pick a fight with the Nazi.”
He interpreted this as respect, when he said in reality, it was probably fear. It was something that was easy for him to overlook considering he wasn’t the same kid being pushed around, which was important to him.
He found his calling at age 15 through a certain genre of music that masqueraded as nationalist music but was actually promoting hatred and intolerance. It was through music that he climbed the ranks, and by age 23, he joined the Ku Klux Klan. He wasn’t just a follower at this point, but a leader in the group.
Garret began doubting his beliefs in 2000 when he came to the realization that the KKK worshipped Jesus, who was a Jew.
“They’re anti-Semites, but then they’re praying to a Jew?” Garret said.
By 2002, he had been researching on his own and concluded that things didn’t add up. The government had the group on their radar at this point, and he reasoned that it wasn’t anything worth being thrown in jail over. He finally left the clan despite his fear of starting over.
Because of his sudden move, he and his wife resorted to the first place far enough that he could find and afford. It just so happened that his new landlord was a Turkish Muslim.
“A couple of months prior to that, I probably wouldn’t have even put a foot in there, but I was desperate,” Garret said. “When we moved in, he didn’t even care. He realized we were running from something, but he didn’t ask.”
During his stay there, he developed a friendship with his Muslim landlord. It was then that he realized how wrong he was about the people he once hated.
“I felt so ashamed, wrong and little that I was so judgmental and didn’t even expect that he could be just nice,” Garret said. “I realized I was so wrong, not just in the last six months, but the last 15 years.”