Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


I’ve long felt that the strangest episode in Arlington County’s history is the presence of the American Nazi Party here, from 1958 to 1983.

Even stranger is the way memories of the party’s charismatic, racist and anti-Semitic founder George Lincoln Rockwell persist in the minds of longtime Arlingtonians.

My high school compatriot Sandy Harwell shared an astonishing recollection from his days in the late 1950s as a second-grader at Nottingham Elementary. Walking to school on Williamsburg Blvd., young Harwell would fall in with a “towhead” boy named Ricky Rockwell. “We became good friends and would walk home together,” he recalled. One day Ricky said “his mother had received a threatening letter and he wouldn’t see me again. He and his mother and sisters were moving back to Iceland. He had never mentioned Iceland, and I was confused.”

Older Arlington school kids also recall Rockwell’s house on Williamsburg Blvd with the eerie lights and Swastika displayed in the picture window less than 15 years after World War II. Mary Jane Regan, a Washington-Lee High School and Marymount student in the late 1950s, remembers seeing Nazis there distributing literature. Some of her friends went inside to hear their political pitch.

Herman Obermayer, the onetime-editor-publisher of the Northern Virginia Sun still active in Arlington at 91, had a complicated relationship with Rockwell. As a Jew who witnessed the Nuremberg trials, Obermayer in the 1960s and ‘70s broke with much of the media that sought to avoid giving publicity to the Nazis. Obermayer thought they should be exposed.

The retired editor and author told me Rockwell was a “stumblebum.” His Sun editorials mocked the Nazis for claiming the Internal Revenue Service acted unconstitutionally when it evicted them from their house on North Randolph Street. The Sun published letters from Rockwell denying he was a violent threat but addressing “the negro problem.”

In one personal letter to Obermayer, the commander said he was “nonplussed” that his letter was published. “I was told by a member of your staff… that you were a real villain, out to get me by any means, fair or foul” Rockwell said. “Now I have no idea what you are, what you believe, or what you are out to do. But I do know that you have been damn square with your paper—fairer than any other paper in the country.”

Perhaps the most dramatic, if indirect, memory of Rockwell comes from my neighbors, the daughter and son-in-law of Polish Holocaust survivor Jan Komski (1915-2002). Last month, the Sullivans described to me the harrowing historic tale of how Komski, a talented painter, pulled off a daring escape from the Auschwitz death camp, where he had been brutalized. (He later recorded the horrific images he witnessed in paintings).

After the war, Komski emigrated to the States and became a commercial artist for The Washington Post. His house on North Madison Street was just blocks from the Nazi “barracks” on Wilson Blvd. This man who’d been victimized by real German Nazis got his haircut at the same barbershop (Tom’s) Rockwell frequented.

According to the Sullivans, Komski never spoke of Rockwell—except once. On that August day in 1967 when news reports reverberated with the killing of the party leader at the Dominion Hills Shopping Center, Komski came home and told his daughter, “They shot the Nazi today.”

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Washington-Lee High School has been around for nine decades, so it was bound to happen. Two class reunions, by coincidence, under the same roof.

This Oct. 3, the classes of 1952 and 1975 both gathered at the Ballston Holiday Inn.

My friend George Cranwell, class of ’75, spotted Betty Lupton, a member of the class of ’52. He knows her as the mother of Billy Lupton, a well-liked schoolmate who was killed in a car accident during high school. The mother was re-introduced to her son’s reassembled fellow W-L Generals, who gave her a touching ovation.