The Tragic Power of One Wrong Choice

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

THE MUSEUM GUARD POLITELY held the door open for the old man approaching. But as the elderly gentleman arrived at the door, he pulled out a gun and shot the guard in the face at point-blank range.

James Von Brunn, now 88, seemed to have it all when a young man. The grandson of German immigrants, he excelled in his university years. A talented commercial artist, he also played football, spoke French, served as president of his fraternity, and was on the staff of the college literary publication.

But one day in college, James borrowed a classmate’s car and totaled it. The father of his classmate, a Jewish man, demanded compensation for his son’s car. After this episode, James complained that Jewish students on the campus gave him the cold shoulder. “Word got around,” he wrote later, “that I was a Nazi.

So James made a choice. A choice of hate. A choice of seething resentment.

His anger apparently continued to smolder during his military service in World War II, during which he served as a PT boat captain, decorated for his service with a Navy commendation and three battle stars.  Returning from the war, he married into a well-connected, pedigreed family in the Chesapeake Bay area. His future looked bright—he seemed to have it all.

But the choice to hate and resent fueled a growing anti-Semitism and paranoia. He found New York after the war to be “the largest Jew city in the world.” His life descended into a black hole of obsessive anti-Semitism, white supremacy, denying of the Holocaust, run-ins with the law, and fomenting hatred for the Jewish and black races through his actions and writings. He would write a book entitled Kill the Best Gentiles, praising Hitler.

His marriage crumbled. His alienated first son dropped out of his life. He remarried, but because of his abuse and alcoholism and toxic hatred, his second wife lived in her own private hell till their divorce.  His second son said his father’s beliefs “have been a constant source of verbal and mental abuse my family has had to suffer with for many years. His views consumed him, and in doing so, not only destroyed his life, but destroyed our family and ruined our lives as well.”

His divorced wife said that his twisted hatred “ate him like a cancer”—and that “it’s all he would talk about.”

After spewing hatred most of his adult life, James Von Brunn on June 10, 2009, walked toward the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., apparently intent on mowing down as many people as possible. But after shooting guard Stephen Tyrone Johns  in the face, who died of his injuries, Von Brunn was taken into custody before he could wreak more violence. He awaits trial.

Such a waste. A promising life derailed early on by one tragic wrong choice. A cautionary example to us all of the enormous influence our own choices have—on ourselves, on those we love, and on who know how many others.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bob on July 7, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    von Brunn’s first son Jim was a very good friend of mine at college. We shared and apartment for two years, we were in the same fraternity and we traveled to Canada with two other classmates after graduation. As with most college connections, we lost touch after Jim came up to Pennsylvania for my Wedding in 1978. We spoke several times after that. The last time on 2005 when he mentioned he may be coming east (he was in California at the time I believe). He asked if he could stop by and habg out for awhile especially if his plans didn’t work out. He wouldn’t elaborate on his plans. That’s the last I heard from or about Jim until his dad brought him into the news. I was absolutely heartbroken to learn how Jim’s life played out and how he died alone, bankrupt and in very poor health – physical and mental. Jim was such a vibrant, athletic, very handsome man in college. He seemed to have the world at his doorstep. I met his dad once when he visited Jim in his junior year. Jim spoke admiringly of his dad and his convictions and his “John Wayne” style of dealing with conflict. Jim mentioned how his dad punched a guy in the face when he asked Mr. von Brunn to change his name if he wanted to make it in the advertising business. I am trying to get more information on Jim’s life from a mutual friend of ours but have not had the opportunity to speak at length with him as yet. It is so sad to learn that Jim had a very unstable childhood and that he really never knew what it was like to live in a happy home with a mother and father. Hatred can truly consume if allowed to do so.


  2. Thanks so much, Bob, for this first-hand personal insight into Jim’s life. By the way, there’s quite a lot about him if you do a Google search on his name.


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