Clockwise from top left, representatives of the German American Bund...

Clockwise from top left, representatives of the German American Bund at Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, on May 22, 1938; a parade of the youth group of the German American Bund in 1936; Germans at the camp give the Nazi salute honoring Paul von Hindenburg on Aug. 1, 1937; a mass Nazi salute during the annual German Day at the camp on Aug. 29, 1937; and a sign at the camp. Credit: Municipal Archives, City of New York, Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo, Longwood Public Library’s Thomas R. Bayles Local History Collection; New Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo; AFP via Getty Images

A turnoff onto a private road in Yaphank leads to a large grassy area surrounded by homes, some bungalow style, dotted with landscaped yards and American and Trump 2024 flags. The nearby lake and woods complete the idyllic setting.

The only nod to the neighborhood's past: some German street names, including one called German Boulevard, and a sign still marking the "German Gardens" community.

Absent from the scene: any indication that 85 years ago this slice of Yaphank was home to a summer camp where children and adults spent time boating, singing, enjoying campfires — and immersing themselves in Nazi ideology.

It was called Camp Siegfried. Nazi youth took a Long Island Rail Road train — the Camp Siegfried Special — from Penn Station to Yaphank, marched through the hamlet carrying American and Nazi flags, and arrived at Adolf Hitler Way, a street that marked the property, then managed by the German-American Bund. Amid seemingly benign activities like learning German, the young Americans, wearing brown shirts and surrounded by swastikas, would sing Nazi songs, hold rallies, declare "Heil Hitler" to one another, and learn the same ugly tropes Hitler was using to indoctrinate a nation nearly 4,000 miles away.

On Tuesday, a play called "Camp Siegfried" opened off-Broadway, bringing that little-known piece of Long Island's history to the stage. While living on Long Island during the pandemic, playwright Bess Wohl learned about the camp and began writing the story of a young man and woman — unnamed, perhaps because they could be any of us. A pair of troubled teens, seduced by one another, by the community they found themselves in, by an ideology that blamed someone else for their problems.

The set looks like a piece of suburban beauty, a tree hanging over a rolling hill. But underneath the tranquility, it's a disturbing portrayal of extremism, violence, and the hate that bubbles beneath the surface, only to boil over as the young girl finds her voice, shouting to an unseen crowd in a German speech where the audience might only understand the word "Juden." As she throws her arm into a Sieg Heil salute, the crowd cheers and the play's audience gasps.

"Camp Siegfried" comes as state officials complete a survey of how the Holocaust is taught in schools. The survey results hopefully will be made public and provide a road map for how we can better teach our children to reject the seductive traps of hate.

But the play also comes at a particularly fraught time, as antisemitism pervades our communities, college campuses and social media. The recent destructive remarks and posts from Kanye "Ye" West and Kyrie Irving, which comedian Dave Chappelle then tried to normalize, are only the most public examples of the always-bubbling hate, and the latest evidence that we still aren't doing enough.

"We need to stay aware, to not be seduced," Wohl said. "To use these moments in history as a bulwark against making these same mistakes again."

It's been five years since a restrictive housing covenant allowing only German homebuyers on Camp Siegfried's property was lifted. And Wohl was rightly struck by what she called "the erasure" of the camp's existence. Holocaust education on Long Island should include a nod to what happened in the students' backyards, and Yaphank should add a historic marker to the site.

Then, Camp Siegfried would be more than just a story told on stage, but an ugly reality Long Island cannot forget.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.


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