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 10 days after the white supremacist/Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a young woman peacefully protesting 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-protesters. 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.
In “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography,” by Fred Schruers, the author details the systematic campaign by the Nazi’s against Joel’s ancestors, simply because they were successful Jews living in Nuremberg, 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. As Karl Joel’s business rose in prominence, the Nazis fixed their sights on eliminating the Joel’s business and the family operating it.
Billy’s grandfather was falsely accused of “monetary and currency offenses.”
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.
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.
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.
Billy Joel’s grandparents and his father escaped to Cuba and then came to the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, in May 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 ... 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.