Portland has seen its share of absurd restaurant controversies. The latest has, unfortunately, ensnared the owners of one of my favorite places, the wonderful and charming Kachka owned by Bonnie and Israel Morales. Bonnie is of Jewish Belarusan heritage, her grandmother having narrowly escaped the slaughter of more than 900 Jews in Bobr, Belarus in 1941. This makes it all the more painful to them that their restaurant is now subject to inflammatory headlines such as “Kachka denies siding with customer wearing Nazi-affiliated logo” (the ignorant, click-baity headline chosen by our local Eater affiliate).
How did this happen? In brief, a customer came into the restaurant wearing the t-shirt below:
Precisely what happened next is disputed, but in broad outline, a few other customers objected to management that this was a Nazi t-shirt. Kachka didn’t immediately eject the patron, and the customers then confronted the man in person. From Israel Morales’ account:
Israel Morales said the situation played out over 45 minutes. He’d been alerted by a customer that a man was possibly wearing a “Nazi propaganda shirt” and was researching it online when things escalated.
“While I was starting to look into the shirt online, the rest of his party paid their bill. After they paid, they began talking loudly, which alerted me. One by one, each of the three people left, but not without causing a scene, disturbing other guests,” he says. “[redacted] stood up and confronted the man wearing the shirt—which is when I stepped in. I felt this could become a dangerous situation and my job as a business owner is to keep my customers safe. I walked up to them and barely got two words out before she stormed out.”
It might have ended there, except that one of the guests then posted about the incident online, including a photo of the man in question that included his face. Things snowballed. The owners were accused of siding with Nazis, their restaurant was dragged on social media, and Israel and Bonnie felt the need to issue a statement denying that they support Nazis.
The allegation is ridiculous on its face, given Bonnie and Israel’s heritage and the inspiration for their restaurant. But were the angry customers even correct about the intentions of the shirt’s wearer? The guests leaped to the conclusion that the shirt is Nazi apparel, but “Luftwaffe” is simply German for “air force” and the term is still in use. The logo differs, too, from the Nazi-era Luftwaffe, in which the bird grasps a swastika in its talons. The swastika is notably absent in the shirt above. Similar shirts are for sale in Germany, where Nazi symbolism is banned. Friends more informed about German symbols and fonts than I am (including one from Germany) have said that they would not assume the design is inherently affiliated with Nazism. It’s understandable that an American might question it, but the wearer’s intentions can’t be gleaned from a photo.
I don’t know who the wearer is, so I can’t ask him why he wore it (though I’m happy to speak with him if he would like to get in touch). A friend of mine who works at Kachka, however, posted an account on Facebook. According to a server who spoke with the guest, the person said that he was visiting from out of town and had purchased the shirt at an aviation museum in Seattle.
There aren’t that many aviation in museums in Seattle, so I looked into it. One of them is the Flying Heritage and Combat Museum in Everett, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The museum has a gift shop. Photos of the museum’s gift shop are on their website. And if you zoom in on one of the photos, you see this:
At the upper left of the t-shirt rack you can see what looks to be the same shirt that the guest was wearing. His story checks out.*
Now it’s possible, though unlikely, that this guy is a closet white supremacist who deliberately wore this shirt to a Jewish-owned restaurant in Portland to trigger the libs. It’s much more probable that he’s telling the truth and that he is just a guy on vacation who saw a cool-looking shirt in a museum and wore it because he liked it. Absent any evidence of the former, we should assume the latter.
Regardless of the wearer’s intentions, this clearly exonerates the owners and staff of Kachka. The shirt’s meaning isn’t obvious at a glance and it’s taken several days to figure out where it came from. Israel had to attempt to figure out what it meant during a busy service. Accusing a guest of being a Nazi is not something a restaurant owner should do lightly, and he was right to look into it instead of making assumptions.
I’m not one to use “SJW” as an epithet, but this incident was Portland social justice activism at its worst, potentially destroying the reputation of both the owners of Kachka and the unknown diner without any context. The whole incident could have likely been avoided by simply talking to the person wearing the shirt in a civilized manner. (And let this be a caution to the “punch Nazis” crowd and be glad that these three customers were more into shaming on Facebook than committing assault; other people with that mindset might have ended up slugging an innocent tourist.)
The people who dragged Kachka into this mess owe them apology, as do the journalists who covered the incident poorly. I hope lots of others in Portland go in to the restaurant to show their support; it’s a fantastic place and they deserve your business. And if you’re not in Portland, this would be a great time to buy Bonnie’s new cookbook.
*For what it’s worth, I’ve reached out to the museum to see if they can provide more background on the design. I’ll update if they get back to me. I think it’s unlikely that Paul Allen is selling Nazi memorabilia in his museum. Update: Statement from the museum follows.
The shirt referenced was made as part of a 2014 Luftwaffe exhibit and is no longer available. Luftwaffe, which means “air force” in German, has since taken on a new meaning that is not consistent with our values of equality, respect and diversity. Our organization is dedicated to an inclusive environment free of discrimination and intolerance.
[Disclosures: I know the owners of Kachka from frequenting the restaurant and from Portland food events, and they carry a few spirits I work with.]