Does name of county fair ride throw Jews for a loop

One roller coaster ride at this year's Sonoma County Fair makes Neal Attinson sick to his stomach.

But it's not the ride's twists and turns that do it. It's the name — Zyklon.

Zyklon B was the lethal gas used to murder prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps. Attinson, who is Jewish and has relatives who survived the Holocaust, was appalled to read in the newspaper that a thrill ride had been given that name.

When he showed his wife an article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat giving prominent mention to the new ride, "her jaw literally dropped open," Attinson said.

Attinson, a 37-year-old journalist and Sonoma resident, shot off letters to the Sonoma County Fair, the Anti-Defamation League and a number of newspapers, including the Jewish Bulletin.

He noted that the Press Democrat article said the ride was "made and named in Italy, where the word suggests cyclone." This is incorrect, Attinson noted in his letter — the Italian word is ciclone. Zyklon is actually the German word for "cyclone."

Naming a ride Zyklon, Attinson wrote, strikes him "as either ignorance or an uncaring swipe at one segment of the fairgoing population. One wonders if the sign over the ride's entrance should also read Arbeit Macht Frei" — the German words for "Work makes you free," which appeared over the gates of Auschwitz.

"I'm not alleging anti-Semitism on anybody's part," Attinson said in an interview. "I'm just trying to raise awareness and say, 'Does anybody else find this strange?' I am a wave-making Jew."

The Sonoma County Fair opened in Santa Rosa on Tuesday of last week and runs through Monday. Expected to draw some 300,000 visitors, the fair includes a range of activities — exhibits of farm animals, crafts, concerts, a circus and carnival rides.

The Zyklon roller coasters have been manufactured and sold throughout the world since the 1960s, with several in operation in parks and fairgrounds throughout North America. A Zyklon roller coaster was also included at the Alameda County Fair earlier this summer.

Bill Allen, North American sales representative for Fratelli Pinfari, the Italian manufacturer of the ride, said in an e-mail that Attinson's is the first complaint the company has received in more than five years of working for the manufacturer.

Attinson believes that is because "nobody bothered to speak up or Jews just don't go to county fairs, which I find hard to believe because they are really fun."

In the same e-mail, sent as a response to Attinson's letter, Allen wrote:

"Why name the coaster Zyklon? For the impression of speed and thrills generated from the word's literal meaning and the meaning that the average person attaches to a name like Zyklon.

The e-mail continued: "The tragedy and deaths of innocents is by no means a connection intended by the owner, operator or manufacturer of this roller coaster. This is merely an example of how some words can convey multiple meanings, often opposite of those desired."

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said once he understood the etymology of the word Zyklon, he felt fine about the name of the ride.

"To me it seems like a very appropriate name to give to a roller coaster," he said. "It's unfortunate we make those associations with something else. To me, it seems like a non-issue."

Allen said he knows the owner of the Sonoma County Fair to be an "honest, family values-oriented man that will no doubt take exception to the insinuation that he would make a 'deliberate or uncaring swipe at one segment of the fairgoing population.'"

Larry Leathers, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Fair, said the fair did not mean to imply anything offensive by including a ride named Zyklon. "There's no anti-Semitic intention whatsoever," he said. "The fair prides itself on being an event for all members of our community."

Attinson, in fact, holds the fair in high regard. "If there's any one single Sonoma County event, it's got to be the Sonoma County Fair," he said.

But the member of Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma is not one to stay mum when something bothers him. Past activist activities include trying to counter white supremacist sentiments on the Internet.

"I spent a good deal of time refuting what I consider to be half-truths and non-truths about Jews," Attinson said. "I would argue with neo-fascist white power rangers."

He has written to the fair twice, once alerting organizers to the implications of the ride's name and once asking if they'd be changing the name of the ride. As of early this week, he had received one response letter in which the fair said no offense was intended by including the ride. However, the fair has not yet responded to Attinson's request for a name change.

From Sonoma, the ride will go on to fairs in two Idaho towns, Boise and Blackfoot.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.