LONG ISLAND – It’s Wednesday afternoon in downtown Yaphank, a rural hamlet on New York’s Long Island. Men ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies are going in and out of the veterans club, which provides psychological help and temporary lodgings to demobilized soldiers having trouble adapting to civilian life. On the other side of the narrow street is a closed residential neighborhood, German Gardens – or as outsiders call it, German Land.
The swastikas have disappeared and the street names have been changed, but it turns out that some of the most problematic axioms of that time continued to simmer under the surface.
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It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at the ironic proximity, a mere stone’s throw away, between the veterans club, draped in American flags, and a neighborhood named after the country that caused the largest number of casualties in the history of the U.S. Army. When I asked three of the soldiers what they know about the enclave across the street, they looked at each in confusion and had nothing to say.
But after two had left, the third, Mike, approached me and said quietly, “I’ve heard that Adolf Hitler himself came to visit there in the mid-1930s. You can find it on the internet. Some people swore they saw him meet with local residents.”
One can say with a fair degree of certainty that Hitler never set foot on the paths of this isolated neighborhood. But this rumor, which Mike repeated several times, didn’t merely make him grimace in revulsion; it also says something about the mystery that to this day surrounds the community, whose land is owned by an organization called German American Settlement League. It’s a black hole located 100 kilometers and an hour’s drive from the heart of Manhattan, in Suffolk County.
'The Jewish community here is crumbling,' says Jill Santiago, an educator at the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding. 'Let me tell you how widespread anti-Semitism is in this area. Only in the last two weeks four students were caught spray-painting swastikas on public walls.'
“It’s like a state within a state, no one knows what really happens there,” Mike added, taking a long drag on his cigarette.
Even this vet, someone who seems as if he stopped having any accounts to settle with anyone a long time ago, wasn’t willing to be photographed for this article, or even to give me his full name. “The last thing I need is to get in trouble with them,” he said, by way of explanation.
“We do not know anything about them,” added Mike. “Sometimes we see vehicles coming in and out of the neighborhood, but that’s about it. They do not want anything to do with us, and the truth is that we don’t want anything to do with them either.
“In any case, even if I wanted I’m not allowed in their neighborhood. They don’t want me there, only Germans are welcome. Last week a local news crew got there and they forcibly kicked them out. Not to mention if you are black The only things we know about them is from what we read in the newspapers.”
When Mike says he’s not welcome in Yaphank, he’s basing his view mainly on the large sign that hung for decades at the entrance to the neighborhood, which stated unambiguously: "German American Settlement League. Private community. Members and guests only."
Last week, surprisingly, the GASL sign was removed. But the neighborhood is still private property, and it’s quite clear that outside guests still aren’t welcome. For instance, when the Haaretz Magazine photographer who accompanied me on my visit pulled out his camera near one of the houses, the elderly owner came out and gave us an angry look that was hard to misinterpret. His wife came out after him and urged him to stay calm.
Another resident, a man in his seventies, was working his garden farther down the street. “I am a proud American. All my whole life I have worked in the public sector,” the man said, evidently thinking it was important to tell me this straight off. He was wearing a black shirt with “Germany” embroidered on it in yellow letters and said he had moved to the neighborhood nine years ago.
“Everything they are writing about us is nonsense, an invention of the media,” he added. “It’s true that once, many years ago, this place was connected to the Nazi Party, but that’s not the case today. It’s irrelevant.”
'The choice of Yaphank was not a coincidence,' said Jill Santiago. 'You have to understand that at the time, during the 1920s and 1930s, one out of every seven residents living in the area was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.'
He was not willing to say any more than that, and refused to give us his name or let us take a photo of him. “We are not allowed to talk to the media without their permission,” he said. “If they know I’ve talked to you, I can get into troubles.”
Who are “they”? The settlement league, which owns the land and drafted the rigid bylaws that dictate quite a few aspects of life to the neighborhood’s 45 families.
A brief walk around the sleepy neighborhood raises no suspicions of anything unusual about its character or history. There’s no sign of the swastikas that were once hung proudly in almost every window, and the streets named after Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels have long since been renamed. What remain are the winding paths, the numerous trees, the low houses and the members’ club at the entrance to the enclave, which looks from the outside like a typical moshav (cooperative agricultural community) in northern Israel.
The order and cleanliness are also immediately apparent. The houses are old, but amazingly well cared for. Each is surrounded by a carpet of grass and sits on a generous plot of land crowded with fruit trees.
But despite the large plots, the houses themselves are of modest size. Their restrained character and traditional design stand in sharp contrast to the modern style of the large private houses, with garages and swimming pools, that one finds in many nearby towns.
The tiny staircases at the entrance to each house are lined with flowering plants, and wind chimes hang from the doors, tinkling in the breeze. Some of the lawns have small stone statues; other yards have hammocks stretched between two trees. There is also the members’ club and a large lake a few dozen meters from the houses.
Some people would find the isolation and the pastoral atmosphere here attractive. But one thing is indisputable: the existence of a historic stain on this place, which for years was an active Nazi enclave in the heart of the most Jewish state in America.
Until the 1920s, Yaphank was just another sleepy blue-collar locale in the middle of Long Island, like hundreds of others throughout New York State. It had many farms, a large grocery store, a train station, a few modest restaurants and one barber shop.
What happened thereafter must be seen from a broad perspective that has a direct connection to the emergence of radical ideologies in Europe after World War I. The ugly wave that swept over the Continent at that time, from Mussolini in Italy to Hitler in Germany, didn’t skip over the United States, which, in the shadow of the Great Depression, underwent a dangerous societal radicalization.
One expression of this radicalization occurred in 1924, when a German immigrant named Fritz Gissibl decided to establish a branch of the Nazi Party in Chicago. The ideas he espoused – a combination of Nazi ideology and American patriotism laced with anti-Semitism and xenophobia – appealed to many Americans. After all, there was no lack of anti-Semites, people who hated communism also abounded, and Ku Klux Klan supporters found an ideological ally and partner in the new movement that Gissibl started, which changed its names five times in the coming decades and was originally called the Free Society of Teutonia.
At that time, 15 years before the outbreak of World War II, American patriotism and German Nazism could grow in the same ideological hothouse without confronting Americans with a moral dilemma. Later, in 1937, the bylaws of the movement – by that time called the German American Federation, or Bund – were reapproved at a large event in New York, where it was declared that the members' goal was “uphold and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States” and “remain worthy of our Germanic blood, our German motherland, our German brothers and sisters.”
Another example of the way the burgeoning pro-Nazi movement sought to hitch a ride on American patriotism in order to recruit activists was a large event held in Yaphank in 1940 to mark the birthday of America’s founding father, George Washington. In their invitation to the event, which opened with participants singing the American anthem and saluting the flag, the organizers wrote that its goal was “to do honor to and defend the Constitution, flag, and institutions of the United States” and to “oppose by all lawful means all international or internal subversive phenomena, tending to undermine or overthrow the National Republic of these United States or the Christian civilization upon which it is built.”
What about Germany? In that same invitation, the leaders promised to “combat all anti-Germanism as reflected in the libelous slanderous attacks in the political, religious, cultural, economic, and civic fields.”
“With mainstream strands of anti-Semitism, popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and worsening economic conditions in the Great Depression, German-American ultra-nationalism provided a voice for thousands in America,” wrote Prof. Ryan Shaffer, a historian at Stony Brook University in New York, in a 2010 article in the Long Island History Journal entitled "Long Island Nazis: A Local Synthesis of Transnational Politics." “This was another side to the ‘melting pot’ theory by demonstrating how two different traditions converged in the United States with immigrant families offering new ideas to their local communities.”
Gissibl's movement was an immediate success. Within a short time, it had spread far beyond Chicago, with branches in cities throughout the United States, including Detroit, Newark and New York. American government agencies kept an eye on it, but they weren’t yet worried enough to do anything about it. Citing federal documents, Shaffer wrote that “at least half of the members in 1926 were affiliated and associated with [what was then called] the Adolf Hitler Party."
Indeed Gissibl didn’t try to hide his admiration for the Fuehrer. In 1932, he changed the name of his organization to the Friends of the Hitler Movement. Four years later, he returned to Germany and was given a senior post in the Nazi Party’s propaganda organization. Only after he left did the movement change its name again, to the German American Federation Bund.
Yaphank became one of the American Nazi movement’s main centers of activity during those years. In 1935, the German American Settlement League bought a large tract of land in the town, which soon became a Nazi enclave meant solely for those with pure Aryan blood in their veins. “You will meet people who think like you” read the fliers that were disseminated, inviting people of German origin to move there. And the main street, which ran the entire length of the town, was unsurprisingly called Adolf Hitler Strasse.
The crown jewel of Yaphank’s activity, however, wasn’t the modest living conditions, but the summer camp it hosted for youth. Camp Siegfried, which was created in 1935 and occupied 220 dunams (about 50 acres) of what is today the German Gardens neighborhood, was meant to train future generations of the Nazi movement.
“The choice of Yaphank was not a coincidence,” said Jill Santiago, an educator at the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding. “You have to understand that at the time, during the 1920s and 1930s, one out of every seven residents living in the area was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. So you can say that by choosing Yaphank they figured they are not going to face too much of a resistance from the local community.”
The camp, which was for teenagers, was so popular that by the second half of the 1930s, the Long Island Railroad had decided to run a special train every morning from Manhattan to isolated Yaphank, which nobody had even heard of a few years earlier. Every day, local activists waited at the local train station to welcome visitors with the Nazis’ raised-arm salute and cries of death to the Jews and communists. The young people commonly sang songs like "When the Blood of Jews Drips from Knives."
This activity reached its peak in 1938. According to an article published at the time in The New York Times, no fewer than 40,000 people came from all over the area to the German Day festivities at the camp. Today, incidentally, Yaphank’s total population numbers less than 6,000 people.
Sex and rapes
“The camp was used for Bundist youth to learn about camping, hunting, shooting, and even eugenics,” Prof. Shaffer wrote in his article. But these programs weren’t just theoretical: Sexual relations among the teens were not merely common, but encouraged, and took place with the full knowledge of the counselors, who sought to put the Nazis’ theories about improving the Aryan race into practice. According to some testimonies, many violent rapes were also committed in the name of that ideology.
The camp’s permissive atmosphere was undoubtedly fueled by the large quantities of alcohol that were brought there and imbibed by the campers almost around the clock. Salutes and military parades, sometimes in the middle of the night, were also an inseparable part of the camp’s regular activities. ll this, too, ultimately came to an end. After World War II erupted and Germany became an official enemy of the West, the FBI opened an investigation into the leaders of the German American Federation. Fritz Kuhn, who headed the organization, was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 1939 and sentenced to four years in prison. After his release, he was arrested again – this time on charges of aiding the enemy during wartime – and deported from the United States.
In 1945, the FBI officially shut down Camp Siegfried and even expropriated the land from the GASL, which immediately launched a legal battle. That battle ended with a settlement that is still in force today, under which the league regained control of the land, but forfeited ownership of the houses sitting on that land.
More than 70 years have passed since then. The camp is long gone, the local train station stands empty, the swastikas have disappeared and the street names have been changed – although in the local grocery store, one can still find dozens of up-to-date copies of the German magazine “German Times.” But it turns out that some of the most problematic axioms of that time continued to simmer under the surface until quite recently in this locale: first and foremost, the desire to maintain social separation and the purity of the white race, with an emphasis on people with German blood in their veins.
This discriminatory and illegal policy was exposed by Philip Kneer and his wife, Patricia Flynn-Kneer – Americans of German origin, the flesh-and-blood of the closed German Gardens community, who had lived there since 1999. Their problems began six years later, when the couple decided to sell their house. To their surprise, they ran into a wall of restrictions and rigid conditions, which were laid out in the GASL's bylaws and effectively took the entire sale process out of their hands. The goal, the couple said, was clear to everyone: to ensure that the community’s white, Germanic character was maintained.
The Kneers contacted Long Island officials, who filed suit on their behalf against the league. Its bylaws, the couple's lawyer argued, contradict the Fair Housing Act, an American law that forbids any sort of discrimination or preference in buying and selling real estate.
For its part, the GASL argued in response that the provisions at issue were nothing but a technical error, unimportant remnants of the 1930s that nobody had remembered to update. But in 1998, the organization itself approved an updated version of the bylaws, which stated explicitly that property owners must be members of the league, which is "primarily open to all persons over 21 years of age or older, of German extraction and of good character and reputation." In the end, after years of denial, the league agreed to an arrangement under which it promised to change its problematic bylaws and to compensate the Kneers to the tune of $175,000.
However, it has recently emerged that despite this agreement, the GASL has continued to implement the same discriminatory policy aimed at ensuring its full control over the character of the German Gardens' residents. This was revealed in May, following a lengthy investigation, by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who announced the immediate annulment of the league's problematic stipulations, this time under the close supervision of state officials.
When approached by Haaretz, league representatives refused to comment on this latest development, aside from reiterating their claim that the neighborhood’s gates have been open to all comers for years.
Even if this indeed presages the end of these racist bylaws, it’s too early to celebrate, says Santiago, the educator from the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding.
“There is a lot of anti-Semitism in this area,” she said in a written response to Haaretz’s questions, noting that there is barely any Jewish life in the area, despite the fact that it is located just 100 kilometers from the most Jewish city in America. Just recently, she wrote, one of the few synagogues in the area that had still active was forced to shut its doors.
“The Jewish community is crumbling,” Santiago explained. “Let me tell you how widespread anti-Semitism is in this area. Only in the last two weeks four students were caught spray-painting swastikas on public walls. As part of their punishment they were sent to the center [in Sulfolk], and when I asked them why they did it they could not even explain the significance of the sign they painted. They did it without even realizing the historical significance of the swastika, and yet they still did it.”