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Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

by Kathryn Watterson
Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

by Kathryn Watterson


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Not by the Sword tells the inspiring true story of how a Jewish cantor and his family changed the life of a virulent white supremacist leader. This riveting account begins in 1991, when Cantor Michael Weisser received his first threatening phone call from Larry Trapp, Grand Dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Nebraska. But Cantor Weisser and his wife, Julie, refused to be intimidated by Trapp's escalating threats. Instead, they made a stunning offer of friendship. After an emotional confrontation with the Weissers, Trapp shocked everyone-including himself-by resigning from the KKK and breaking his ties with other neo-Nazi leaders.

Not by the Sword recounts Larry Trapp's life as a racist, his startling transformation in response to the Weissers' kindness, and his subsequent crusade to redeem his past. Kathryn Watterson movingly describes how one family feared, fought, and then forgave a man who had tried to destroy them.

This gripping tale gives the reader an inside view of hate mongering and offers a powerful testament to the triumph of the human spirit and the transforming power of love and tolerance.

Kathryn Watterson teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the award-winning author of eight books, including You Must Be Dreaming (basis of the NBC movie Betrayal of Trust) and Women in Prison (basis of the ABC documentary Women in Prison).

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803264762
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 11/01/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 980,163
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kathryn Watterson teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the award-winning author of eight books, including You Must Be Dreaming (basis of the NBC movie Betrayal of Trust) and Women in Prison (basis of the ABC documentary Women in Prison).

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Aizeh hu ahir ...
Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.

It was a sunny Sunday morning in June 1991, and the mood was cheerful in the kitchen of the Weissers' new home. Julie Weisser, her husband, Cantor Michael Weisser, and their close friend Rita Babbitz sat at a long rectangular table talking and laughing over mugs of brewed black coffee. The three told stories on themselves, discussed their children and talked about the recent movie The Doctor with William Hurt—a doctor who had the tables turned when he became sick and had to deal with a lack of sensitivity from his medical colleagues. Julie loved the film. After she saw it, she went to the box office and bought a book of movie tickets for doctors at a local heart institute. She did it because she thought they had shown a lack of concern for Michael when he had a severe heart problem the previous month.

    "Who but you would buy a book of movie coupons to give to those doctors?" Rita said with a laugh as Michael began to crack eggs into a bowl and stir them for scrambled eggs he was about to cook.

    "It's quintessential Julie," Michael said as he set out rye toast, juice and muffins, and opened a can of coffee to brew another pot.

    "Driven by injustice," Rita said with a smile.

    "This doctor was telling me Michael didn't almost die," Julie said to Rita, her words softened by a Memphis accent she hasn't fully shedsince her childhood in Tennessee. "He said, 'His heart just stopped beating,' like that was no big deal."

    Half-unloaded cardboard packing boxes sat in the corners of the large eat-in kitchen. After two-and-a-half years of renting in Lincoln, Julie and Michael had finally purchased their own home—a modest but comfortable brick ranch with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bath, plus a tiny bedroom and recreation space in the basement. Julie and Michael had a wonderful feeling about the place when they first walked into it. And when the owner told them she would finance the mortgage herself and asked for a down payment of only $500, they knew this was their "miracle house." They had only been here a few days, but already they felt at home.

    The white phone, tucked against a white wall between wooden kitchen cabinets and a yellow counter, had rung several times since Rita's arrival, which wasn't any surprise. Rita was used to it. The sound of the telephone, like the sounds of voices and laughter in the Weisser household, was part of the music, as familiar and normal as the bright blue dishes, painted yellow chairs or red wooden rooster sitting in the middle of the table. As spiritual leader for Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, Nebraska, Cantor Michael Weisser got calls constantly. So did Julie, who had friends scattered from Lincoln to Memphis to New York City. Add to that the calls for their three teenagers—Rebecca, Dina and Dave—and it was unusual for the phone not to ring.

    On this particular morning, as usual, the Weisser household seemed almost like a cliché of the all-American happy family, albeit a reconstituted American family of the 1990s. Julie was missing her daughter, fifteen-year-old Rebecca Nelms, a lanky, six-foot-tall high school drama enthusiast and avid reader, who was in Memphis visiting her dad—Julie's ex-husband—and her grandparents. Fifteen-year-old Dina and seventeen-year-old Dave, the middle two of four children from Michael's previous marriage, also were absent from the kitchen. Dina, a tall, dark-haired, energetic high school freshman with a beautiful singing voice and a love of novels equal to Becca's, was in Iowa at a four-day retreat for leaders of MOVTY—Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth. Dave, a straight-A student and a musician with his own band, was still asleep in his room downstairs.

    The natural ease and comfort here was palpable. When the telephone rang again, Ishtov, a large golden retriever, eagerly followed Michael toward the phone. Ida, a large gray cat, jumped up on the yellow counter and arched her long back under Michael's arm.

    Julie and Rita were laughing loudly when Michael picked up the receiver of the phone and said "Hello."

    A moment after Michael picked up the kitchen phone, Dave sleepily picked up the phone downstairs and listened to Michael's voice answering.

    The man's voice on the other end of the line—startlingly harsh and hateful—seemed loud as he pronounced each word distinctly: "You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy."

    Then the phone went dead.

    "What's the matter?! You look like someone just hit you," Julie said.

    Michael sat down and finally spoke. "That guy just said, 'You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy.'"

    "Oh God, there's someone in the neighborhood who hates us," Julie exclaimed. "We're going to be harassed because somebody hates us."

    Michael was shaking with anger.

    "We should call the police," Julie said. "It has to be someone in this neighborhood. It's too much of a coincidence that we just moved into this house and then got this phone call."

    "I'll bet it's the Klan," Michael said. "I'll bet it's that guy who's head of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan."

    "No, it has to be someone in the neighborhood," Julie insisted.

    Dave ambled into the kitchen, his brown hair tousled, his eyes sleepy but startled. "What's going on?" he asked, putting his arm around his dad's shoulders. "What was that all about? I just picked up the phone."

    "Did you hear what he said?" Michael asked.

    "I heard the o of hello and then I heard, 'You're going to be sorry you ever moved to 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy—click.' What are the implications of this? He knows our address and our phone number and that we're Jewish ..."

    "And so you heard him say that from the other phone?" Rita asked.

    "Yeah, that was what he said," Dave said. "Wow, I wonder why anyone would do something like that?"

    "It's a sickness," Michael said to him. "They don't know better or they wouldn't do it."

    "It's the weirdest feeling when something like this happens," Julie said. "You just can't believe people can say those kinds of things or think those kinds of things, but they do...."

    "I don't think it's the Klan," Dave said. "I think it's probably just some crackpot."

    "A crackpot from the Klan," Michael insisted.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Bison Books Edition
Prologue: The Place and the People
1: Sunday Morning
2: A Heartland Community
3: The KKK is Watching
4: Dragon's Lair
5: Vigilante Voices
6: A Disease of Fear
7: Broken Beyond Healing
8: Heil White Power
9: Hitler's First Laws
10: You May Be Next
11: Ricocheting Hatred
12: Ring of Fire
13: Face to Face
14: Unmasking the Dragon
15: Befriending the Enemy
16: Whoever Shuns Evil
17: Help Me Understand
18: Flick of a Tail
19: Working Miracles
20: Amazing Grace
21: A Family's Vision
22: Atonement
23: "Hear, O Israel . . ."
24: The Trainman's Tracks
25: Healing Truths
26: Crown of an Honorable Man
Notes and Sources

What People are Saying About This

Richard Preston Author

"The true-life people in Kathryn Watterson's Not by the Sword are unforgettable human beings, especially Larry Trapp. This eerie, wounded, hate-filled man, this Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who is holed up and dying in an apartment packed with enough weapons to blow up a small city, and who is dragged out of hell into a redemption of love, is one of the most perfectly rendered characters in literary non-fiction that I've ever encountered. I can't get Larry Trapp out of my mind. His story and the heroism of the cantor's family is a parable for modern America, told with great intelligence and skill."
Richard Preston Author, The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event

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