Two years ago in late August, 2017, Billy Joel walked out on stage at Madison Square Garden, where he is the Artist-in-Residence performing monthly to standing room only crowds. On the left side of his dark suit jacket, a yellow Star of David was pinned prominently over his heart. For the singer/songwriter who has performed more than 100 times at one of the world’s premiere concert arenas, sold more than 150 million records and won virtually every music award, it was a bold and dramatic action, surprising some of his fans, since Joel is known for not being overtly political.
Joel’s jolt came less than ten days after the White Supremacist/Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a young women walking to peacefully protest the anti-Semitic and racial hatred spewed by the “Unite the Right” mob, was deliberately run down and killed by a White Supremacist driving a car into the group of counter-protestors.. To compound the terrible and deadly events in Charlottesville, Donald Trump went on television and refused to place responsibility on the Nazis and White Supremacists, but instead, stated there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Trump’s despicable statement “enraged”, Joel, as he told The Times of Israel.
“No, Nazis aren’t good people, “ Joel said. “My old man, his family got wiped out. They were slaughtered at Auschwitz. Him and his parents were able to get out.”
Joel’s comments about his family’s treatment by the Nazis was an understatement.
In Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers (Crown Archetype Books, NY, NY, 2014), the author details the systematic campaign by the Nazi’s against Joel’s ancestors, simply because they were successful Jews living in Nuremberg, Germany, where Billy Joel’s father (Helmut, later Americanized to Howard) was born.
Joel’s paternal grandfather, Karl Amson Joel, started a business in household linens in 1927, which he called the Karl Joel Linen Goods Company. His business was so profitable that he, his wife and their young son — Billy Joel’s father — were able to move into a wealthy section of Nuremberg. As Karl Joel’s business rose in prominence and the Nazis rose in power, the Nazis fixed their sights on eliminating the Joel’s business and the family operating it.
The Billy Joel biography reports that “in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum database titled ‘Index of Jews whose German Nationality was Annulled by Nazi Regime, 1935–1944, Billy’s grandfather is falsely accused of “monetary and currency offenses” in the records of two separate files.
“After taking part in the making of the documentary The Joel Files,I realized what the film’s director, Beate Thalberg had discovered,” Billy told the book’s writer, Fred Schruers. “ My relatives were hounded out of Germany at an absurd price — a paradigm of the economic casualties during the Nazi takeover.”
But Karl Joel was not simply an “economic casualty”: he and his family were specific targets of the Nazis and were used as examples by Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher in the virulently anti-Semitic publication Der Sturmer. Streicher ran front page articles calling Billy’s grandfather a “Yid,” and falsely accused him of underpaying and sexually harassing his workers. The Nazis made up thousands of lies against Germany’s Jews to dehumanize them and turn their political base against them.
Billy Joel’s father was one of four Jews in his Nuremberg classroom, forced to sit apart from their classmates, and forbidden from using the public swimming pool. As circumstances for Jews in Germany became more dire, and Karl Joel was arrested three times while being called the “Jew Joel,” a “bloodsucker,” and “oppressor,” young Helmut (Billy’s father) was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Der Sturmer continued its relentless Twitter-like name calling attacks on Karl Joel, labeling him the “Nuremberg Linen-Jew Joel.”
Karl Joel was ordered by the Nazis to stamp all of his outgoing packages with a “J”, a German plant manager was installed at his company, and suppliers began to boycott him. In June, 1938, a new law was passed requiring all Jewish businesses to be forfeited to Aryan ownership. Karl Joel’s linen business was taken from him at one-fifth its’ actual value.
“My grandparents fled in the night,” Billy Joel told author Schruers, “using fake passports, and escaped across the Swiss border to Zurich. They got in touch with my father at his school and told him they had left Germany for good.”
To escape Europe, Billy Joel’s grandparents and his father “secured places aboard a cruise ship called the Andora Star, for a 1939 passage across the Atlantic to Cuba, where they resided for two years before the United States — strictly limiting the immigration of Jews to protect “the ideal of American homogeneity” — allowed them entry. Karl Joel’s brother Leon and his family were not so fortunate. They boarded the SS St.Louis, and after the Voyage of the Damned was refused entry in Havana and at every US Port, Billy Joel’s aunt, uncle and family were send back to Europe, and executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Billy’s father, fluent in German and trained as a concert pianist, was drafted into the US Army in 1943, fighting in General George Patton’s Third Army. When Howard Joel’s battalion liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich in April, 1945, he didn’t know that his relatives had been slaughtered at Auschwitz.
I interviewed Billy Joel in Oyster Bay, Long Island, earlier this month, as part of my work on the official biography of his fellow Long Island singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. I wanted to thank him for wearing the Star of David as a powerful statement of protest to what happened in Charlottesville, and as a strong rebuke of Trump’s depiction of “fine people on both sides.” I converted to Judaism 40 years ago, and married a Jewish girl from Joel’s hometown of Hicksville, Long Island, so his bold public action was particularly poignant for me.
“There are no good Nazis, “ Joel said. “They killed my family members.”
Then he told me how the Nazis, once they confiscated his grandfather’s linen factory, used the machines in the factory to make the black and white striped prison uniforms which they forced Jews to wear, including his family members who were executed at Auschwitz. It was too macabre and twisted to imagine.
“I’ll continue to fight them as long as I can, and to use my voice to speak out against that kind of hate, “ Billy Joel said.
I thought back to his simple, straight-forward and quietly, powerful act of pinning a yellow Star of David above his heart on his dark suit, and thought of the decades of family and global history behind it, and the millions of Jews and non-Jews for whom Billy Joel’s voice rang out clear and true, without having to sing one note on that August night in New York.