This post was cross-posted at Open Salon.
My last post, which was about the Tea Baggers' ignorance of the differences between Communism, Fascism and Socialism and the lack of knowledge about history, happened to bring up the specter of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. Not that I enjoyed thinking about Hitler, but the infamous name reminded me of a very strange but absolutely true story that happened to me when I was in grad school at the University of Toronto.
Before starting my graduate studies, I was offered a teaching assistant position that was part of my scholarship package. Like most such positions, my duties included grading assignments, supervising exams (i.e., watching for cheaters while trying not to fall into a coma from boredom), and teaching labs.
The class I was given was one of the introductory courses all engineering students needed to take. This one was on the basic physics related to structures, called "Statics". Don't worry--I'm not going to actually talk about the course. The important part is that it had about 80 to 100 freshmen (or "First Years", or "Frosh", as they're called in Canada).
Anyway, let's get to the topic, shall we?
Soon after the semester began I had to grade the first assignment. Always a boring task, I tell you. Finding the name, "Adolf Hitler" on one of the title pages sure as hell brought the excitement back however, so to speak.
At first I thought it was a joke. I mean, how could this not be a joke? "Adolf Hitler"? No one, I thought, could possibly have ever wanted to doom their kid to a youth of ridicule (or at least gaping incredulity) and limited job prospects. (Would you want to have an employee named "Adolf Hitler" on your payroll?) But since the assignment seemed otherwise legit, and I couldn't fail the student for having a lousy sense of humor, after the initial shock subsided I still graded the assignment. What the student's final score was escapes me, but trust me--it's irrelevant.
The next day I went to the professor responsible for the Statics course because I had to know what was up with the Adolf Hitler name on the assignment. But when I asked the professor whether this was a joke, he actually confirmed that, oh yes, that was someone's real name. He told me that when he first saw the class list he'd been certain it had to be a prank as well, and even went to check with the registrar to make sure this was a real student. We agreed that this guy would never be able to find a job with a name like this, but the Statics class was so large neither of us knew what this student looked like.
Two or three weeks later it was time to return the first mid-term exam. I didn't mark these (thank God), but I made sure I was there because by this point I was determined to find out who this prospective engineer was with the disastrous name.
The reveal was disappointingly anti-climatic. About half-way through the list of students, "Adolf Hitler" finally came up. I'm sure everyone except his close friends, if he had any, were scanning the room just as eagerly as the professor and I were, to see who came down the lecture hall stairs to collect his exam.
I was still half-expecting a group of Frosh to leap up to give each other high-fives, but instead an ordinary-looking young man, who I would guess had ancestors in India or Bangladesh, got up, slowly walked to the front of the room and picked up his mid-term. While he casually strolled back to his seat, I remember watching this otherwise unremarkable kid and thinking, "Who the hell would name their child that?"
Unfortunately, the probable reason is about as unfunny as the name. Right now, Mein Kampf is currently a best seller in India, and it seems obvious that he's being looked to as a source of inspiration. The idea of so many people thinking Hitler was a cool dude is pretty terrifying, but I'm sure there must be at least a few more South Asian men sporting that name in Hitler's honor.
Unfortunately, this is just part of a larger, even more unsettling trend of rising anti-Semitism all over the world. I don't know what became of the former U of T student, but he already has a potential soul mate in New Jersey, as discussed in this recent news item.
"Apple", "Phineas" and "Moon Unit" are looking better all the time.