Details are still sketchy about the life of Dylan Klebold, the Colorado teenager who fell into a dark world of rebellion that culminated in the murder of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School.
But one odd piece of information seems clear: The 17-year-old Klebold’s Jewish lineage was no impediment to his adoption of the neo-Nazism and Hitler-mania that informed his last days.
Authorities say Klebold and his friend Eric Harris, both 17, after months of planning, waited until Adolf Hitler’s birthday, April 20, to enter the school and open fire on students and teachers before turning the guns on themselves. The two had been seen giving Nazi salutes and wearing German symbols at school. Although they professed a hatred of “jocks,” the gunmen killed indiscriminately, firing on anyone in sight. Entries in a diary kept by Harris suggest the two wanted to kill hundreds of people, and considered hijacking an airplane to crash into New York City, police said.
Media reports have noted the irony of a boy whose great-grandfather was a Jewish philanthropist turning into an alleged Nazi-loving killing machine. But by all accounts, Klebold was raised in his father’s Lutheran faith, although The New York Times reported Monday that Dylan had participated in a Passover seder last month and asked the Four Questions. He was given a Christian burial on Saturday.
“How could my son be a Nazi?” said Susan Yassenoff Klebold, Dylan’s mother, at the funeral, according to Rev. Don Marxhausen of St. Philip’s Church in Littleton. “He’s half-Jewish, and the seder is practiced in our home.” Marxhausen did not return calls for comment.
But according to research by Rabbi Milton Hoffman of Patchogue, L.I., who set out to debunk reports of Klebold’s Jewishness this week, the youth has only one Jewish grandparent. Using the Internet and numerous phone calls to Columbus, Ohio, where Dylan’s mother grew up, Rabbi Hoffman determined that Dylan’s maternal grandfather, Martin Yassenoff, had married a gentile, Charlotte Hough. The rabbi found no evidence of a conversion. “No one would consider him Jewish,” said Rabbi Hoffman of Dylan.
The Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver weekly, also reported this week that Dylan was not Jewish, citing sources in Columbus. The editor of that paper, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, said there had been widespread discomfort in Denver’s Jewish community that the media were focusing on the religion of Klebold, but not on that of Harris. Further troubling, he said, was a comment reported in the Rocky Mountain News by a neighbor of the Klebolds, Judy Brown, that Dylan’s mother “is stung that the world perceives her as a rich, Jewish woman … She doesn’t even wear make-up.”
“This has really enraged a lot of people here,” said Goldberg. “There are some anti-Semitic overtones.”
There was speculation this week that Klebold had been influenced by Harris. The two boys had been arrested for theft and undergone a juvenile rehabilitation program together. But they also had another thing in common: both were repeatedly taunted as non-conformists by athletes and other kids at school, prompting them to join the “trench coat mafia,” a club of rebellious teens.
Although little has been revealed about Klebold’s relationship with his parents and his Jewish background, it is apparently not unprecedented for part-Jewish or Jewish kids to be drawn to Nazism.
“We’ve had Jewish kids who have scrawled swastikas and belonged to neo-Nazi groups,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s not a new phenomenon. [Often] it’s a form of rebellion, trying to get attention in the worst way, getting back at a Jewish parent.”
In many cases, Foxman said, youth who are drawn to Hitler and Nazism do not fully comprehend what the fuhrer represented, and the extent of his evil, but only the power he embodied. “To many of them, he is like Genghis Khan, more of a mythological character than someone real.”
While Klebold seemed to have no formal ties to the tiny Jewish community of Littleton, the revelation late last week of his Jewish roots compounded an already deep sense of shock at Congregation Beth Shalom, the town’s largest synagogue.
“People have been stunned by this,” said Rabbi Fred Greenspahn, leader of the 65-family Conservative shul. “There is a lot of hurt and a lot of fear.”
A Los Angeles native, Rabbi Greenspahn, 51, painted Littleton (population 35,000) as a generally warm and accepting town, but far from multicultural. The rabbi, who teaches Bible studies at the University of Colorado at Denver, noted that a mass memorial ceremony by Gov. Bill Owens, attended by some 70,000 people, made little effort to be ecumenical.
Although the rabbi was invited to speak, and a visiting Israeli choir performed, speakers included Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, and numerous other preachers who made repeated references to Jesus Christ.
“They spoke of how you can be saved if you come to Jesus,” said Rabbi Greenspahn. “It was insensitive of the governor.”
Rabbi Greenspahn said there appeared to be a large number of intermarried families caught up in the tragedy, including at least one of the victims. At the service, a Columbine student named Jonathan Cohen made national headlines by performing a memorial song, which included the lyrics “Christ of grace, turn this place to look at your honor.” Cohen told NBC’s “Today” the lyrics had been written by his pastor.
A survey by the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver found roughly 63,000 individuals who identify as Jewish in the greater Denver area, said the rabbi, who said he knew of no incidents of anti-Semitism.
But the Intermountain Jewish News last week reported one family’s account of harassment directed at a Jewish student, Jonathan Greene, who allegedly endured more than a year-and-a-half of anti-Semitic taunting and physical abuse from fellow students at the suburban school.
“This is a community that does seem to think of itself as warm and welcoming,” said the rabbi. “But it’s warm and welcoming to a very narrow group of people.”
There is no evidence that the Klebolds were excluded from that narrow group. Outside their house after the tragedy, a poster signed by 18 neighbors declared that: “We’re here for you. Call us.”
Littleton is not the only place that has fallen under an unwanted spotlight because of Klebold’s actions. The 16,000 member Jewish community of Columbus, Ohio, has also been besieged by media inquiries. Klebold’s mother, Susan, grew up in Columbus, where her grandfather, Leo, was a noted philanthropist and businessman.
Susan reportedly was educated at the religious school of Temple Israel in Columbus and studied art history at Ohio State University, where she met and married Thomas Klebold, a geophysicist. Susan reportedly worked with blind and disabled children in Littleton.
Susan’s grandfather, real estate developer Leo Yassenoff, benefactor of the local Jewish Community Center, reportedly died in the 1930s. The Yassenoff family still maintains a $13 million family foundation in Columbus, although only one man with that name still lives there.
“Some people in the Jewish community have a sense of disquiet because of the news media playing up the irony of somebody who has a Jewish heritage in their family being involved in an incident of such tragic overtones on Hitler’s birthday,” said Sam Horowitz, director of the Columbus Jewish Community Relations Council.
But it is in Littleton where the Jewish community is searching for answers, wondering how this kind of tragedy can happen in their midst, and how killers can emerge from the quiet home next door.
During Shabbat services last week, Rabbi Greenspahn cautioned against casting aspersions on the families of the perpetrators.
“Jews can be murderers, too,” said the rabbi, recalling his Friday night sermon. “Baruch Goldstein was a Jew, Yigal Amir was a Jew.” Goldstein was the Jewish settler who killed 29 Arabs in a Hebron mosque in 1994. Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995. “We have no monopoly on virtue or innocence. The yetzer hara [evil instinct] is in you as much as it’s in some thug somewhere. Let’s look at ourselves, and see what we can do better.”