Confronting Long Island’s Nazi past
“They chose Long Island because they thought it would be sympathetic to their ideas,” explained Professor Steven Klipstein in his presentation last week at the opening of an exhibit titled “Goose Stepping on Long Island: Camp Siegfried.”
He was speaking about Nazis in the 1930s who developed parade grounds in Yaphank, in the middle of Suffolk County, and an “accompanying community,” German Gardens.
Thousands of Nazis came by train and car to march in Nazi uniforms at rallies and to listen to fiery, hate-filled speeches. The speeches were given from a platform built to resemble the platform in Nuremberg, Germany from which Hitler spoke. And, in German Gardens, they lived on streets named after Hitler and his henchmen.
In introducing Professor Klipstein, Steven Schrier, executive director of the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding , which is sponsoring the exhibit at the Suffolk County Community College Eastern Campus, said: “This is not something that happened elsewhere. It happened here, too.”
The photos of activities at Camp Siegfried and the narrative that comes together with it are chilling. As Professor Klipstein, who teaches Holocaust Studies at Suffolk Community, commented, “I shake my head with incredulity about these people being so close.”
“Long Island,” he noted, “has a very checkered history.” As explanatory information about the exhibit from the Center states: “Long Island of the 1930s was not exactly a bastion of racial and religious acceptance. There was an active Ku Klux Klan in Suffolk County and the American Eugenics Society, a group that was trying to create a perfect Aryan race in the United States, was headquartered in Cold Spring Harbor.” (It was at the site of the present Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.)
“With the coming of war the [Nazi] Bund faded and Camp Siegfried was closed down,” it continued. The “self-appointed leader of the Nazi American Bund,” Fritz Kuhn, central to the Yaphank operation, had been convicted in 1939 of tax evasion and embezzling — from the Bund — and jailed. And after his release from Sing Sing on New York State criminal charges, he was re-arrested by the U.S. government in 1943 as an enemy agent. With the war’s end, the German-born Kuhn was deported to West Germany where he died in 1951. This ringmaster of Yaphank activities had intended to become “the American fuhrer” after succeeding with his fellow Nazis in “transforming America into a Nazi state,” said Professor Klipstein.
Professor Klipstein, assistant director of the Center, also detailed the activities in these times of major American figures, notably auto magnate Henry Ford and aviator Charles Lindberg, both given awards by the Nazi regime in Germany, hate radio preacher Charles Coughlin and U.S Senator Burton Wheeler.
And he told of, in contrast, strong anti-Nazi actions by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and then Manhattan DA Thomas Dewey—whose work led to Kuhn’s imprisonment—and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and here in Suffolk, the extensive efforts of a prosecutor, Lindsay Henry, which had much to do with the end of Camp Siegfried.
The Nazis in the U.S. endeavored “to keep America out of World War II,” to spread their propaganda and to have the U.S. become Nazi itself, but “there was opposition. They were not popular,” he said. Still, large numbers of Nazis flocked to Yaphank over a three-year period.
Professor Klipstein also spoke about today and a “revival of anti-Semitism through the world. It is very disturbing.”
The exhibit runs through March 31 at the Lyceum Gallery of the Montaukett Learning Resources Center at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk Community College south of Riverhead—15 miles from where the Nazis used to march in Yaphank.
It is on loan from the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Center and Archives at Queensborough Community College.
“Camp Siegfried reminds us that not everyone shares the values of equality and freedom,” said the Center. “It reminds us of a questionable period of history on Long Island where the bankrupt, racist philosophies of the Third Reich were supported by many Americans.”
This intensity of Nazi hate is expressed in a poster from the period in the exhibit. “Heil! Heil!” it is headed. “All Germans and Aryans of Pure Nordic Blood,” it says. “We have the Jews on the Run! Let Us Keep Up the Good Work! This is only the Beginning to an End! The CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps would make good Concentration Camps for the Jews!”
Schrier, in addition to being executive director of the Center, founded by Suffolk Community College, is a political science professor at the college. He said at the opening last Wednesday how the Center seeks to “teach about what has gone on before” in working for a society where people “are respectful of one another.”
Coincidentally, last week there was an uproar over Donald Trump evoking fascist symbolism by asking supporters at a campaign rally to raise their right arm and pledge to vote for him.
“It’s a fascist gesture,” former Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman stated. “As a Jew who survived the Holocaust, to see an audience of thousands of people raising their hands in what looks like the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is about as offensive, obnoxious and disgusting as anything I thought I would ever witness in the United States of America.” The Republican presidential frontrunner, when Challenged on this by Water Mill resident Matt Lauer on the Today show, insisted, “Honestly, until this phone call, I didn’t realize it was a problem.”
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.