At Portland’s Kachka restaurant, you can get Russian hors d'oeuvres like perlova: pickled pears with barley, dill, sorrel, mushroom, and hazelnut. You can get dumplings, cabbage rolls, rabbit, game hen, and an array of pickles and spreads. And you can get vodka—an entire menu of it, from places like Moscow, Slovakia, Poland, and, of course, from Portland itself.
Much lauded by locals and food critics alike, “Kachka” is the Belarusian word for “duck,” and the name goes back to the chef/owner Bonnie Morales's family history. When Morales's grandmother, who was from a small town outside Minsk, Belarus, was in her 20s, Nazi soldiers invaded. German forces killed Soviet Communists, requisitioned peoples’ homes for Nazi soldiers, and seized so much food that thousands of civilians starved. Minsk became the site of one of the biggest Nazi-controlled ghettos in Europe, housing close to 100,000 Jews. As Morales told the Oregonian, her grandmother, who was Jewish, escaped in the middle of the night as Nazi soldiers were digging mass graves.
“She ran toward Russia.” Morales recounted. “Along the way, she was stopped by a Starosta, or German village warden. He was convinced that she was Jewish. She made up some story about being a Ukrainian peasant going to visit family in Russia. He doubted her story. He asked her, ‘If you’re from the Ukraine, how do you say duck in Ukrainian?’ She was Belarusian, not Ukrainian. The languages have some overlap, but not completely. But she just crossed her fingers, prayed, and said the Belarusian word for duck: kachka.” The word was the same in Ukrainian, and the warden let her go. The next day, she would later find out, Nazis killed everyone in the ghetto. “Kachka” saved her grandmother’s life.
Considering Morales's family history, it is perhaps especially painful that she has recently been accused of being a Nazi sympathizer—an allegation that started on social media, and quickly set off a wave of criticism that resembled Seattle's own Jewish-Nazi firestorm last year.
Raw Story reports that on March 13, a Kachka diner named Deavon Snoke was at the restaurant and saw a customer at another table wearing a shirt printed with the German word, “Luftwaffe.” Luftwaffe was the name of the German air force established in Nazi Germany. The insignia, under Hitler, was of an eagle clutching a swastika its claws. The t-shirt didn’t have that, although the imagery is similar. And the Luftwaffe still exists today: the term is used to refer both to the historic Nazi air force and to the contemporary German air force. And the shirt, as Raw Story pointed out, is available at military-themed stores in Germany, much the way Army and Navy shirts are available here. (Swastikas and other Nazi imagery are banned in Germany, which, unlike the U.S., has laws against hate speech.)
One of Snoke’s companions, C. Smith, took a photo of the man.
In a phone interview, Smith told me that their group of four was seated next to the man in the shirt, and because he came up in the punk rock scene, Smith says he recognized it as Nazi imagery immediately. He alerted his friends. “I asked our table if they knew what it meant and said this might not be people we want to eat next to.” Snoke and the others started looking up the image on their phones. Smith, meanwhile, listened in on the conversation at the table next to them.
"I overheard snippets of their conversation and he was definitely discussing Jewish people and Israel,” Smith told me. “I’m pretty far to the left and I knew I was not going to be able to have a rational discussion with him, so I walked out. But I was so angry that I walked back in and talked to a man who presented himself as the owner.”
That man was Israel Morales, Bonnie Morales's Mexican-American husband. “I said, 'Hey, man, I’m not going to start a scene, but you have a man in a Nazi t-shirt in here.' He said ‘It’s freedom of speech,’ and I said, ‘Ok, well I am leaving because of it.’ He seemed unconcerned.” Smith says he walked back outside and watched through the window as his friends paid and got up to leave. Then, he says, Snoke confronted the man in the shirt, asking if he knew what his shirt symbolized. The man apparently responded that it was a German air force shirt.
At that point, Smith says, Morales intervened, and asked Snoke and her companions to leave.
Israel Morales disputes this version of the story. Neither Morales nor Snoke returned a request for comment, but Israel Morales told Raw Story that after he was alerted about the shirt, he began researching the image online.
“While I was starting to look into the shirt online, the rest of [Smith’s] party paid their bill,” Morales told Raw Story. “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 said. “[Snoke] 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.”
Snoke later posted about her experience on Facebook. “I was asked to leave Kachka tonight for calling this Nazi out,” Snoke wrote, including a photo Smith took of the man in the shirt. “Remember his face. Memorize the symbolism on his shirt. Yell as loud as you can.”
The post, which Snoke deleted after she herself became a target for online abuse, was shared over 500 times. People began flooding Kachka’s Facebook page with one-star reviews.
The irony of a Jewish-Mexican couple being portrayed as Nazi sympathizers is not lost on the Moraleses. “It has caused us immense heartache and pain,” Israel Morales told Raw Story. The couple posted their own message on Facebook.
Their post, which was been shared just 36 times as of this writing, has a mix of responses: Some people support the restaurant, but others say they won’t be patronizing Kachka again. And this includes Smith. “We weren’t trying to blast Kachka,” he says. “My friend is now getting abused, but all we were doing was starting a public awareness campaign, and the management mishandled their response to the situation." When I asked if he knew the history of Kachka and of Morales family, Smith said yes, now he does. "I’m a free speech advocate, but this was very disturbing, especially considering their history. They exhibited poor judgment. I definitely won't be back."
For its part, Kachka's owners says they fear the rumors could lead racists and neo-Nazis to assume the restaurant is a place that welcomes their views. “Our fear is that this misinformation could cause discriminatory groups to think Kachka is a safe haven, which it most certainly is not,” Israel Morales wrote in a statement to Eater. “We would like to reiterate that we never kicked anyone out for speaking up, we had no idea what the symbol on the shirt meant, and if we had known, we would not have served him.”
Note: The post has been updated to remove the name and identifying information of Snoke's friend, who says he has been doxed and harassed.