ON FRIDAY, APRIL 17, IN THE DINING room of his family's Lincoln, Nebr., home, Cantor Michael Weisser opened his Haggadah and, reading a blessing in Hebrew, began the Passover always over the ceremonial supper, the youngest child—this time, a family friend—asked, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" And as always, Weisser gave the ritual response, commemorating the Jewish exodus from biblical Egypt. He made no mention, however, of the most startling difference. Sitting at the table with him was Larry Trapp, an ailing, near-blind diabetic who until five months before was an avowed neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman. "I didn't understand some of the words," says Trapp, "but I listened. It helped me understand what the Jewish people have gone through."

To Michael and his family, Trapp's words rang like a gift from God. Just one year earlier, the same man, shut away in a dingy rented apartment with an arsenal of loaded guns and a tattered copy of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, had phoned the cantor, who had just moved into a new home in Lincoln, and snarled an ugly, anonymous threat: "You're going to be sorry you moved in, Jewboy."

What happened afterward was, to both Weisser and Trapp, unexpected and astounding. For Trapp, 42, then the Grand Dragon of the Lincoln Ku Klux Klan, the call was just another contribution to a lifelong campaign of racial haired. But Michael Weisser, 51. refused to be just another victim. In the emotionally charged confrontation that ensued, Weisser would refuse to hate back, and the cantor's compassion and dignity would lay claim to Trapp's long-lost soul.

Neither Weisser nor his wife, Julie, 39. were strangers to bigotry. While living in North Carolina, the couple had encountered anti-Semitism, and now, three years into Michael's job at Lincoln's South Street Temple, they were not ready to give their tormentor the last word. Recognizing Trapp's voice—he had expressed his extremist views on several radio and TV interviews—Michael bombarded Trapp's answering machine with provocative messages for the next (our months. "Larry," he would tell Trapp, who had lost both legs to diabetes in 1988, "with your physical disabilities, the Nazis would have made you the first to go." Or, "You're going to have to answer to God for all this hatred one day, Larry."

All along, Julie told her husband, "If this guy ever does answer, say something nice to him. He won't know how to deal with it." She was right. When an enraged Trapp picked up the phone one day and told Weisser to leave him alone, Weisser calmly offered to bring over some groceries. "For a minute there was this dead silence," says Weisser, "then the tone of his voice completely changed. He said, 'I've got that taken care of, but thanks for asking."

Back in Trapp's barren room, something that had once seemed irretrievably lost had been found. "I could detect love in Michael's voice. I had never heard love from a stranger before," he says. "I felt lonely."

About one month later, on Nov. 16, Trapp dialed the Weissers' number for the second time. "I'm not feeling right about the KKK anymore," Trapp said. "I've got to talk to you."

The Weissers' son, David, 16, protested, but Michael and Julie decided to go to Trapp's home. Hurriedly, Julie looked through her jewelry box or a token peace offering and happened upon a simple silver ring she had given to Michael years earlier. She grabbed it and headed for the door. Before they left, Michael called a friend. "If we're not back in a while," he said, "call the police."

There was no need. When Trapp opened the door, he clasped Michael's hand. "It was like a jolt, an electrical current," says Trapp, brushing away tears. "I looked down at my hands, at my two swastika rings, and I took them off. I said, I can't wear these anymore. They're a sign of hatred.' " Crying, Michael and Julie offered Trapp the ring they had brought. "Coincidences," says Michael of the exchange of rings, "are just small miracles, for which God doesn't take credit."

When he and Julie left four hours later; Michael took with him a carload of Ku Klux Klan propaganda and white robes—and Trapp's pledge to renounce his past. "I regret everything I did Trapp, having those thoughts, scaring so many people. If it hadn't been for Michael...I was waiting for the opportunity to kill somebody. I thank God to this day I never got the chance."

"Every step of the way we are faced with choices," says Weisser. "At long last this man made the right choice." Today, the ex-Klansman is not only speaking out for racial harmony but is hoping to convert to Judaism. Julie Weisser, whose children—Dave, Rebekah, 16, and Dina, 15—now affect innately call Trapp Uncle Larry, says simply, "Underneath it all, he's always been the person he is today."

Born in Omaha, Trapp, a childhood diabetic, was raised by parents who ridiculed him for his physical frailties and raised him in bigotry. "On Easter Sunday my dad would say, 'Let's go watch the niggers in their fancy clothes,' " recalls Trapp. "He thought that was funny." Though his sister Candy confirms these stories, Larry's father calls them "absolute lies." By the age of 10, Larry was often running away from home, and by 13 he had been caught stealing so many times that he was placed in a reform school, where, he claims, he was sexually assaulted by older black boys. "I learned what fear can do," he says. "You let other people do things to you just so you can survive." He had learned the inverse of that lesson as well. "In order to get what you want," he decided, "you have to be able to inflict fear on others."

Moving from state to state and job to job, including a stint training as a mercenary soldier in Georgia, Trapp returned to Nebraska in 1978. His eyesight failing, he enrolled in a program for the visually impaired—but another organization offered a different solution: the Klan. "It was power," he says. "I loved it." Given that there were only about 25 members in the Lincoln Klan, marches and cross burnings were rare. Trapp worked mostly out of his home, harassing his victims over the phone.

Then, unexpectedly, he found himself fighting back unaccustomed feelings of regret. Last year he sent harassing mail to several Vietnamese immigrants, calling them "dog-eating scum." A few days later Trapp was startled to see one of his terrified victims interviewed on the evening news. He buckled inside. "I thought, 'I did this to this man. he remembers.

That night, Trapp wrote a letter of apology, but his repentance was short-lived. In his humanity he saw only weakness. "I'd been a nasty son of a bitch my whole life," he says. "I didn't want to be a soft guy." His next target was Michael Weisser—and his life would never be the same.

Sadly, Trapp's transformation has come accompanied by a grim prognosis. His health is rapidly deteriorating, and doctors cannot predict how much longer he'll survive. Spiritually, though, Trapp, who now lives with the Weissers, is feeling cleansed and refreshed. As he sits in the Weisser's living room listening to Michael discuss the Torah, Trapp is interrupted by Rebekah, who bounds in, kisses him on the top of his balding head and offers to give him a facial. Submitting to her ministrations, Trapp laughs, and Rebekah returns a giggle. "Feels great," she says. "Doesn't it, Uncle Larry?"

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
VICKIE BANE in Lincoln

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane.