Long Island Our Story: In 1936, a seemingly bucolic Yaphank retreat makes Nazism a homegrown concern
This article was originally published in Newsday in May 1998 as part of the Long Island: Our Story series.
LONG ISLAND: OUR STORY / CHAPTER 7: THE MODERN ERA / HITLER'S LI LEGION / IN 1936, A SEEMINGLY BUCOLIC YAPHANK RETREAT MAKES NAZISM A HOMEGROWN CONCERN
In the summer of 1936, the still-distant threat of Nazism cast an unexpected shadow across the hinterlands of Long Island.
That spring, Adolf Hitler had been preparing for war. His newly mobilized troops rolled into the Rhineland, unopposed by the Allies. It was the first of a series of Nazi military adventures setting the stage for World War II.
On Long Island, Nazism invaded Yaphank in the form of a summer retreat called Camp Siegfreid.
Located on a wooded lakefront near the mid-Suffolk village, the camp was ostensibly a summer place for youngsters and a weekend campground for adults. In reality it was more dangerous - a project sponsored by the German-American Bund, which had been established to promote Hitlerism in this country.
At the time, supporters of Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini boasted that under fascism, the trains ran on time. That summer, the bund's "Camp Siegfried Special" would also roll on time, pulling out of Penn Station at 8 a.m. every Sunday, bringing thousands of bundists from the greater New York area and other cities to the Yaphank depot.
At first, Long Island merchants reacted happily to the influx of potential customers, and many businesses took out ads in the bund's national newspaper. One farmer turned his fields into a parking lot for 500 cars, at 25 cents a car. Visitors were even invited to march through the village on the way from the Yaphank station to the camp.
The scene, at first, was more bucolic than bullying. When the lakefront campsite opened in mid-1935, it was known, innocuously enough, as the "Friends of New Germany Picnic Grounds," sponsored by the so-called German-American Settlement League.
But the following summer, the name was changed to Camp Siegfried, after the legend of the medieval Ger-manic warrior, one of the heroic myths adopted by the Nazis.
In the camp brochures, images of sylvan riverbanks and shaded woods were shown. Just another summer resort for adults and children, said Ernest Mueller, president of the German-American Settlement League. No barracks or weaponry here, he said, denying rumors. But one brochure promised: "You will meet people who think as you do." And on weekends, like-minded adult campers arrived in the martial uniform of the German-American Bund: black breeches and boots, gray shirts and black ties.
The bund, organized in 1936, had evolved from a series of nationwide German-American groups formed af-ter World War I. The Free Society of Teutonia was organized in 1924, followed by the Friends of the Hitler Movement and the Friends of the New Germany.
Carrying flags emblazoned with swastikas, the emblem of the Nazi movement, older bundists and young campers paraded in uniform - showing off stiff-armed salutes and singing the "Horst Wessel Song," a Nazi anthem. Later, it was discovered that plans to commit espionage and sabotage in the future were also dis-cussed covertly.
"We remain oblivious to the Nazi prototype that existed in our own backyard," Marvin Miller wrote in "Wunderlich's Salute," the first history of the bundist movement on Long Island, published in 1983. Miller, a Long Island high school teacher in the 1970s, decided to begin the project when he discovered that no his-tory of the camp existed in book form.
Miller, now 63, recounted the experience of Murray Cohen, a Brooklyn high school student who rode the "Camp Siegfried Special" to Yaphank in 1937. Photographs Cohen secretly took at the camp were later pub-lished by PM, New York's liberal afternoon daily in the 1940s. On the train, Cohen chatted with Mueller while, in the background, uniformed bundists sang Nazi anthems. One of the stanzas from the "Horst Wessel Song" includes the chilling lines:
When Jewish blood drips from the knife
Then will the German people prosper.
Henry Hauck, a Yaphank volunteer firefighter, ran the inn and restaurant at the camp. Around the inn flowers were planted in the shape of a giant swastika while a large photo of Hitler decorated a wall of the restaurant. There were free dances on Friday nights and Linden beer sold for 10 cents a glass. But every weekend, bundists were asked to contribute money to the Nazi cause. At least $123,000 in German bonds were sold at the camp, Miller reported.
Another $3,000 was raised to support the German Winter Relief Fund. About 70 contributors signed a "Golden Book" that Karl Weiler, a camp official, later presented to Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Germany. Hitler reportedly urged Siegfrieders to keep up the kampf - the struggle - in the United States. While weapons were not on display, on one weekend, a group of bundists posed happily beside a fake cannon, figuratively "aimed" at Rep. Samuel Dickstein, a Democrat from Manhattan who headed a committee investigating the bund.
At the camp, Fritz Kuhn, a U.S. citizen who headed the bund, predicted that someday he would be "Amer-ica's Fuhrer," Miller wrote. Activities included more than sports and sunbathing. There were recorded operas by Richard Wagner, Hitler's favorite composer, and anti-Semitic lectures by Walter Kappe, the camp's propaganda chief. Kappe argued that Jews were the founders of international communism. The Friends of the New Germany in America would become "what the Storm Troopers were in Germany," he promised.
By 1937, up to 40,000 bundists would arrive on Sundays to celebrate Nazism in America, while young Sieg-frieders lined up to greet them as the train pulled into Yaphank. A large contingent of Nazis also marched through the village of Lindenhurst that year. Some threats of violence came from members of American Le-gion posts, who threatened to break up the camp but were dissuaded by Suffolk District Attorney Robert Vunk.
Soon after, Miller wrote, Kappe was ordered to return to Germany to work on plans to land spies on the coast of Long Island. In the early days of the war, four would-be saboteurs were captured after landing near Ama-gansett - three turned out to be former Siegfrieders.
Two years later, the pastoral scene at Camp Siegfried began to fade. That summer, Mueller and five others were indicted in Riverhead on charges that the German-American Settlement League and Camp Siegfried were part of the bund, which required members to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. The state contended, therefore, that the German-American Settlement League had violated state law by failing to file its list of members, who had sworn loyalty to a foreign power.
Years later, Mueller told Newsday that the bund had "stolen" the camp from the German-American Settle-ment League, requiring its members to join the Nazi organization. Mueller, who died in 1966, is buried in Yaphank. In his book, Marvin Miller suggests the camp was probably a Nazi agency from the start, using the names of Nazi leaders for map designations, such as Himmler Street and Hitler Street.
Mueller and the others went on trial in Riverhead, where a witness named Willie Brandt testified that he had sworn his "loyalty and obedience" to Hitler. Then, a 45-year-old shipping clerk named Martin Wunderlich took the stand and demonstrated the stiff-armed Nazi salute used at the camp.
"That is an American salute?" asked Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Henry.
"It will be," Wunderlich said, in a warning that sent chills through the jurors, who returned a guilty verdict. The outcome was a victory for the prosecution, headed by Henry, who was the father of future Suffolk District Attorney Patrick Henry. The decision, however, was later set aside and never taken to the State Court of Ap-peals. But by then, the issue was moot. In the summer of 1939, the camp had lost its liquor license and many of its followers - and when the Nazis invaded Poland in September, the woodland campground was deserted and out of business.
In Camp Siegfried's heyday, bundists paraded with their swastika banners, and Kuhn spoke of the camp as part of "Germany in America."
But in the end, Kuhn was disgraced as a thief. Just before the war, he was convicted of grand larceny for pocketing money earmarked for the Riverhead trial. Stripped of his citizenship, he spent the war in a deten-tion camp with about 40 Siegfrieders.
Then, in 1945, he was deported to West Germany and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his prewar Nazi activites. Kuhn died in 1951 in Munich. "Who would have known it would end like this?" he said to one of his jailers just before he died.