A Rapid City couple has been running an online Nazi paraphernalia business out of their home, selling items including replica canisters of a gas used to kill Jews in concentration camps.
Owner Michael Kelly says the business, incorporated in 2002, has had few complaints and is protected by the First Amendment.
Kelly, 55, sells Nazi flags, Adolf Hitler figurines and replica canisters of Zyklon B, among hundreds of items, to customers around the country and world. Kelly said orders from South Dakota residents are rare.
Kelly said he, his wife Linda and their nine children are not Nazis and are not anti-Semitic. He said they sell the items, largely made in China, to veterans, historians, actors, collectors and people looking for a Halloween costume or gag gift.
"I'm a supporter of the U.S. constitution; I don't have anything to do with politics," he said.
The Web site, at www.pzg.biz, does not explicitly promote a Nazi agenda.
It's billed as a place to "find historically accurate resources void of distracting propaganda and politically correct distortions for your Nazi collections."
But there is no way to view Nazi items out of their historic context, said Wayne Gilbert, president of the Synagogue of the Hills Jewish congregation.
"The word 'Nazi' itself is, to many people, abhorrent," Gilbert said in an e-mail interview. "It's an epithet. It's a name people use to accuse their political opponents of horrible things."
Gilbert and others reached by the Journal said they had not heard of the business and were shocked at its presence here, though they acknowledge it is protected speech.
Gilbert said members of the synagogue would be horrified to hear of the Web site.
"Nazi Germany is the paradigm of the deliberate intention of elimination of a group of people who didn't fit the Aryan ideal," he said.
He was struck by images on the Web site of barbed wire and of Kelly's German shepherd, which reminded Gilbert of a police dog.
"That strand of barbed wire represents death camps," Gilbert said. "I can't think of any other thing that represents."
Kelly is a Chicago native who moved his family here after they visited the Hills on vacation 14 years ago. They live off Sheridan Lake Road in a home they built, valued at $322,000, that backs up to the Black Hills National Forest.
Kelly calls himself a student of history and a former history teacher who started selling books.
"It just sort of blossomed into what it is today, which is a military history bookstore," he said.
He was also interested in the Revolutionary War, but said there is too little interest to make a living selling memorabilia from that era, and the Civil War, but said there is too much competition in that market. So he found a niche in the Third Reich.
"It's a little bit too controversial for people, so that weeded out a lot of competition," Kelly said. "It's a niche market, and it's also a good place to test the First Amendment."
Kelly said he gets one or two e-mail complaints a year.
South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson, whose office handles business incorporation filings including the Kellys, said the business is legal.
"In America, we do have freedom of speech, of expression," he said.
But after looking at the Web site, he said just because it's allowed, doesn't mean he agrees with it.
"Certainly a lot of this stuff is very, very repulsive, and represents a very repulsive part of our world's history," he said.
The online billing service PayPal in 2005 wrote a letter to the Kellys saying their business violated PayPal's acceptable use policy, which says, "PayPal may not be used to send or receive payments for items or in support of organizations that promote hate, violence, or racial intolerance," according to the letter.
EBay, which owns PayPal, has a detailed list of restrictions on Nazi items that can't be sold on its site (see related story). Some items which are allowed on eBay cannot be shipped to countries including Germany and France, which ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia.
Amazon.com's list of items that cannot be sold, which include adult toys, firearms, alcohol and tobacco, does not specifically mention items that promote hate or Nazi items. A Nazi armband was recently listed for $855 in the "home and garden" section on Amazon.com.
In response to PayPal's policy, Kelly said his is not a hate site, but offers historical items to teachers, museums and students of history.
He said his customers also include elderly World War II veterans who use the items in home displays of their war memorabilia. They write their orders for flags, armbands and daggers in shaky handwriting.
Asked who buys the Zyklon B canisters, Kelly said "mostly those are sold for educational purposes. I have many Jewish professionals who buy them. I think what they do is they donate them to either their local synagogue for education or they donate them to museums, Holocaust museums."
But Nicholas Wallerstein, a Black Hills State University humanities professor who teaches Judaism, said the materials are not appropriate for education.
"No teacher I know would drink coffee out of a Zyklon-B mug for fun," he told the Journal in an e-mail. Wallerstein asserts that selling such merchandise trivializes the Holocaust and glorifies those who killed millions of Jews and others.
Kelly acknowledges that neo-Nazis are among his clients.
"They're probably the ones that send me the most illiterate e-mails. Everything's spelled wrong," he said. But he said he doesn't care who buys his wares.
"I look at everybody as one color: green," he said.
But the green isn't as easy to come by these days. It seems some Nazi memorabilia buyers consider the items a luxury purchase.
While this is his busy season with Halloween and holiday orders, Kelly said, "this year the economy's down and, I'm sorry to say, we're down, too."
Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or email@example.com