Dan Burros wanted to be a "somebody", "a big shot", a guy "people looked up to". Somebody who "mattered". Just fairly normal human ambitions. He grew up an only child to parents who married "late" and then remained solidly at the lower rungs of the middle class. His father George was plagued by ill health & worked intermittently as a machinist. His tendency to introversion was not helped by the throat wounds he suffered in WWI that damaged his vocal chords. Mother Esther was a salesclerk in one of the department stores on Jamaica Avenue. They lived in an apartment building in the sad-sack neighborhood of Richmond Hills, Queens. He attended Hebrew school at nearby Talmud Torah of Richmond Hill; his bar mitzvah was held there on March 4, 1950, the fifteenth day of Adar.
He was an intense, almost hysterical, kid. He played every sport as if he were on a Mayan basketball team. He was always getting into fights. He had very few friends & got into stupid relationship-ending tussles with the few that tolerated him. Academically, he did well enough to get him placed in the category of a "gifted child", with a talent for drawing. He was even a bit of a brown-noser — a monitor on corridor patrol as part of the "dawn squadron" who helped open up John Adams High School. But unlike other school finks, Dan never reported the scofflaws to the Dean — he preferred a little roughing up, a twisted arm, an Indian Sunburn. Complaints grew, filtered upstairs & Dan was taken off patrol.
Despite his good grades, Burros never bothered to fill out a single college application. However, he talked compulsively of his ambition to enter West Point and filled his notebooks with sketches of soldiers and tanks. He even enlisted in the ROTC while still in high school, wearing his uniform to class on drill days.
The infatuation with the military, uniforms & being a sadistic schoolyard toady seemed to indicate a drift in Burro's mental compass. Under the influence of a history teacher who was an enthusiastic defender of Senator Joe McCarthy, Burros became an impassioned anti-Communist conservative somewhere in his junior year. He gained a classroom and schoolyard reputation as an impassioned political debater, who could back up his arguments with quotations and statistics. He spent much of his spare time in the library reading up for his next round of debates. And like a lot of conservative kids of his era, he began devouring Nietzsche & Spengler. However, unlike most conservative kids, Burros began spinning further right.
At first it began with him debating endlessly about the superiority of the German Army in WWII. Then he began arguing that the "truth" about the Third Reich had been distorted. Soon, he began haunting the antiques shops of New York City, collecting Nazi memorabilia. By the time he graduated high, Dan Burros believed that Adolf Hitler was the greatest person who had ever lived. And soon enough this grandson of Russian-Jewish emigrants had become a virulent anti-Semite.
The summer after graduation, Burros enlisted for six years in the Army, signing up for parachute duty. When a friend questioned the wisdom of his actions — after all, being drafted into the Army only amounted to two years of service — Burros said to him: "If I can't do this, nothing else is worth living for. There would be nothing else left for me to do. If I fail at this, there's nothing else. I can't do anything else."
Although Burros did well as a ROTC cadet, the regular army was a struggle. He was an inept paratrooper: chunky, a bit of a spaz and slow-footed. He wore thick-lensed glasses that gave him the classic "four-eyes" look. Despite his expert marksmanship & the hard-earned paratrooper's badge, the other guys in the barracks dismissed him. Once again, he had no friends. And because he tried so hard to be a good soldier, he earned the nickname "Brownose Burros." And when he began showing off Nazi memorabilia, his nickname was upgraded to "Der Fuhrer."
It was a peacetime Army, between Korea & Viet Nam, but Burros did get to see service — in the South, upholding the rights of black children to attend high school. On September 24, 1957, Burros was part of the 101st Airborne Division that was ordered into action by President Eisenhower to enforce a Federal court order to integrate Little Rock, Arkansas' formerly all-white Central High School. Friends in Queens actually saw their Danny on the TV evening news, escorting a "Negro girl" into the doors of the school, with his bayonet fixed. And though he would later tell his neo-Nazi buddies that he quit the army because he couldn't stand the sight of U.S. soldiers "protecting niggers" & pointing bayonets at white girls, he could still write to a friend shortly after his service in Little Rock: "For the first time I really feel like a soldier."
Despite the interlude in Little Rock, Burros realized that he wanted out of the army. His hardship claim that he was needed at home because his father was ill was turned down. Finally, he made three phony suicide attempts: a few shallow razor cuts on the wrist; an overdose of aspirin; and again the razor. In one of his suicide notes he declared: "I no longer have a motive for saving the forces of the decadent democracies. To them I will eternal damnation. I go to my Fuhrer Hitler, Der Grosse in the Third Reich that endures forever. Seig Heil. Heil Hitler." The Army finally realized that Burros' talents were better served out of a uniform and discharged him "by reasons of unsuitability, character, and behavior disorder."
Burros returned home to Queens, telling his few friends that he left the service because he was needed at home. He went to a vocational school and picked up the printing trade. Although he worked a series of jobs operating printing and office machines, it was more a means to an end than it was a career path. His real "trade" was that of a professional agitator. Not as the Communist, Trotskyist or an Anarchist agitator which attracted many Jewish New York City boys of a previous generation. Daniel Burros was that rarest of orchids, a Jewish Nazi — the ultimate apotheosis of Jewish self-hatred.
Burros' strange beginnings, his journey through the channels and tributaries of the very far right & his denouement in suicide when he was outed as a Jew in the NY Times was a big story back in '65. Shortly after my bar mitzvah in late May of '68, I was looking to spend some of my gift gelt on some books. Back then I tended towards science fiction, exposes about flying saucers and WWII histories. Browsing through the Plaza Book Shop in West New York, New Jersey, a title leapt out at me: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN AMERICAN-JEWISH NAZI. "Holy crap!" I thought. I had heard of Jews who converted to Christianity. And there were of plenty of Jews, like my family who had changed their names — we went from the Mr. Mxyzptlk—like Lyzzicki to the more manageable Lewis. And we had even heard rumors of minimalist Jews who lived out in the suburbs who called themselves "Reform" & who pretty much looked and acted like everyone else. But to join up with the Nazis....
Burros' story was eventually forgotten, as it was a man-bites-dog tale and not an indicator of any coming trend. In the ensuing years, the term "self-hating Jew," which Burros was once thought of as a dictionary-defining example, took on a new meaning. Used by conservatives like David Horowitz & far-right Jewish Nationalist groups, it more and more pointed to individuals like Noam Chomsky, who while publicly identifying as Jews, were often highly critical of current Israeli policies.
The Burros story resurfaced in 2001 with the Henry Bean film The Believer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival and was later shown on the Showtime cable network, with eventual release on DVD. Although having very little to do with Burros' story beyond the American-Jewish Nazi connection, writer-director Bean was quite specific in his source material, both in interviews at the time of the film's premiere & on the DVD commentary. A number of stories were written about Daniel Burros' life & he received a sort of permanence in this digital era — his own Wikipedia entry.
I, too, had forgotten about Burros until Bean's movie & decided to search for a copy of the book that I had once read cover-to-cover in a night over 35 years earlier. I was able to order a copy for a few dollars through a book dealer posting on Amazon Marketplace. When it arrived, I saw it was the exact same 75-cent Signet paperback I had once owned. I then noticed that the big black lettering announcing the death of this singular American Nazi drowned out the actual title of the book: One More Victim. I then saw that the book was authored by A.M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, who were soon to become powerful executive and managing editors at the New York Times. This was not a hack job. The authors intended this to be a serious study on Jewish self-hatred — hence the book's title— & buttressed their arguments with quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre's now-rarely quoted Anti-Semite & Jew and the once influential Tunisian-Jewish novelist and social critic Albert Memmi.
Part of the unstated impetus for expanding the NY Times' coverage of Daniel Burros life into a book was the amount of criticism the paper received, especially from Jewish sources. Many believed that Burros was a sick, troubled kid & that the Times' exposure of his Jewish background drove a mentally ill man to kill himself. The paper's argument that Burros was a public figure and therefore open to scrutiny seemed a little weak. Despite the numerous exalted titles and fancy uniforms that he wore as he weaved through various neo-Nazi and Klu Klux Klan groups, he was still on the far fringes of American political life. Rosenthal & Gelb, while tracing Burros growing self-loathing, also wanted to build a case that Burros was, indeed, part of a small, violent and deeply committed movement that posed a threat to both Jews and African-Americans.
One of the rather intriguing things about One More Victim is that the source for most of their information comes from the members of Burros' circle of far right Anti-Semites comrades. Neo-Nazis of those days mostly came to their beliefs as part of an intellectual process — discovering Mein Kampf or Francis Parker Yockey's fascist encomium Imperium. Today's neo-Nazis are mostly recruited in penitentiaries by ultra-violent prison gangs like Aryan Nation. It is hard to imagine today's version of White Identity/Nazis-types actually speaking to two obviously Jewish reporters from the Jew York Times, the house organ of all that is wrong to them with America. But it was 1965 and the far right had yet to flee into the white interior of the U.S.A., setting up shop in Idaho, Montana & rural northern California. The American Fuhrer of Burros' era, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated in 1967 while hauling his laundry out of the Econowash Laundromat at the Dominion Hills Shopping Center in Arlington, Virginia by a disgruntled ex-Nazi party member. Burros spent about 18 months living in the Arlington barracks of the American Nazi Party where the rug in the living room was a Torah ark curtain from a synagogue. He swore an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and to George Lincoln Rockwell and rose in rank to National Secretary before disagreements with Rockwell caused him to slip out a window in the middle of the night.
Maybe Burros' friends talked to the Times because Rockwell was always talking to the press. Rockwell, with his ever-present pipe, looked like a pissed-off version of "Bob", mascot of the Church of the Sub-Genius. He had two years at Brown University behind him & a distinguished career in the Navy that was cut just short of a pension because of his growing obsession with Hitler and all-things Nazi. Rockwell was a popular speaker on college campus, even if those who invited him did so to jeer and throw things at him. He allowed future Roots author Alex Haley to interview him for Playboy despite his loathing of African-Americans. He was Don Draper with a swastika pattern on his Sulka tie.