When Jill Santiago displays a photograph from the 1930s of people on a train platform giving the Nazi salute to incoming passengers, her students at Suffolk County Community College think the picture was taken in Berlin or Munich.
They’re surprised when she tells them the frightening scene took place in Yaphank — just a 10-minute drive from the college’s Selden campus.
“They have no clue at all,” Santiago said Monday. “They have no idea it happened right in their backyard.”
The photograph is part of an exhibit at the college’s eastern campus in Riverhead examining the brief but notorious history of Camp Siegfried, a German-American camp in Yaphank that promoted Nazi ideology for about three years before World War II. The exhibit is on view through March 31 at the Montaukett Learning Resource Center.
The exhibit, created in 2010 by Queensborough Community College in Bayside, is sponsored by the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding, a nonprofit based on Suffolk’s Selden campus. Steven Klipstein, the center’s assistant director, will speak about the camp at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the college.
The exhibit opened last month, just weeks after a settlement was reached in a federal lawsuit brought by a Yaphank couple who had lived at the former camp site. In the suit, the couple alleged that bylaws adopted by the German-American Settlement League, which owns the site, barred non-German-Americans from living there.
As part of the deal to resolve the legal dispute, the Settlement League agreed to remove discriminatory language from the bylaws.
Camp Siegfried was created in 1935 by the German-American Bund, a national pro-Nazi group that attracted 18,000 people to a 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden.
The Yaphank camp had streets named after Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Thousands of New Yorkers arrived at the camp every Sunday on a train from Brooklyn dubbed the “Siegfried Special.”
Santiago said an estimated 20,000 people attended “German Day” at the camp in 1938.
Klipstein said Bund leaders may have been “emboldened” to come to Yaphank, then a sparsely populated rural area, because they believed many Suffolk County residents shared their anti-Semitic ideology.
“These are things not to be proud of,” Klipstein said. “Apparently they felt comfortable here.”
The Bund disbanded in the late 1930s when its leader, Fritz Kuhn, was imprisoned for tax evasion and embezzlement. The self-styled American Hitler was deported after the war to West Germany, where he died in 1951.
Camp Siegfried was no more by the time the United States entered the war in December 1941.
Steven Schrier, executive director of the Holocaust center, said he hoped the exhibit draws attention to an obscure part of Long Island’s past.
“We teach about history so that we don’t repeat these errors,” he said.