There’s a remarkable organization in Suffolk County called the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding (CHDHU). And I have been honored to be appointed a member of its board of directors.
Sponsored by Suffolk County Community College, it promotes “cultural understanding and respect for human dignity” to “encourage human rights awareness and foster the values of respect and diversity,” according to its website, chdhu.org.
The center’s activities, as described on the website, includes providing a collection of “artifacts, memoirs, documents and photographs” on the Holocaust and an “exhibit on slavery on Long Island and enslaved people that offers visitors the opportunity to contemplate the dignity and sanctity of life, and to recognize and respect each person as a unique individual entitled to freedom and human rights.”
Last month, I attended my first board meeting. Its board is diverse, reflecting the diversity of today’s Suffolk County.
Its exhibits on the Holocaust and slavery are profoundly moving — and chilling.
In the room where the board met there was a framed front page of a 1938 issue of the New York Daily News with the headline in large type: “LEAVE REICH OR DIE, JEWS TOLD.”
There’s a myth that the murder of Jews by the Nazis was only realized when the concentration camps were liberated at the end of World War II. In fact, what Germany was up to was known years before. The killing of six million Jews along with many others, and the virtual indifference of the world, was a horrific event in the history of humanity.
Also in the room: striped uniforms worn in the camps.
It is so important that the center is in Suffolk, since in 1938, Yaphank was the focal point for Nazis from throughout the New York metropolitan area. They came to march at their Camp Siegfried and built a development with streets named for Hitler and his henchmen.
A courageous assistant Suffolk County District Attorney, Lindsay Henry, challenged the Nazis and their Yaphank activities in court, which is the subject of “Wunderlich’s Salute,” an excellent book by Smithtown history teacher Marvin Miller.
Mr. Henry, soon after his court challenge took on the Nazis as a U.S. Navy captain in World War II. He commanded a landing craft at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Back home, he was elected Suffolk County DA in 1947. Jews weren’t welcome in some areas of Suffolk County for many years. Roman Catholics, too, had a hard time — especially Italians. The late State Senator Leon Giuffreda of Centereach told me how in the l950s he became the first Italian-American to break through white Anglo-Saxon Protestant control of the Brookhaven Republican Committee and become a nominee for town justice.
CHDHU’s exhibit on slavery is heartbreaking. The nightmare that persisted for centuries in America, including Suffolk, was followed by racism that continues today in Suffolk, with black “ghettoes” — communities where African-Americans have been “steered” to live.
This is a county where the Ku Klux Klan was long a major force. David Mark Chalmers, history professor at the University of Florida, writes in his book “Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan” how in the 1920s an estimated “one out of every seven people in Suffolk County” was a KKK member and a “Klan faction took over control of the Republican county committee.”
The KKK, in part, became Long Island’s “unofficial government,” he wrote.
Regarding Latinos, the bias against this now substantial group in Suffolk has included numerous acts of violence. Among them: the murder in Patchogue in 2008 of Ecuadoran immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a gang of white youths who regularly sought out Hispanics to attack.
Moreover, the treatment through the years of Long Island’s original inhabitants, Native Americans, among them the Shinnecocks, has often been shameful.
CHDHU not only offers its exhibits at the college but organizes exhibits elsewhere, including one now at the Deer Park Public Library running in connection with Black History Month. It is working to have a “Liberty Express, A Mobile Museum,” which, as the flier for this project declares, would be “an exciting new immersive museum experience intended for Long Island secondary school students and as a model for communities elsewhere.
The mobile museum will be designed to teach historical lessons from slavery to the Holocaust, and to inspire teens to become responsible members of the community.” On the side of the “Liberty Express” are to be the words: “Our Stories Are Our History.”
Among its many other activities, CHDHU is currently seeking submissions for its 10th annual outdoor art exhibition titled, “Embracing Our Differences.”