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Suffolk Closeup: When Nazis marched in the county

With the opening of a play off-Broadway in Manhattan titled “Camp Siegfried,” what was once a major center for Nazis in the region in years before World War II — Camp Siegfried, in the middle of Suffolk County — is receiving renewed attention.

It’s a fitting subject, considering the role of Nazi sympathizers in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the rise of fascist movements in places around the world, and also despotic government leaders, from Hungary to Nicaragua and, particularly, Putin in Russia.

And there is also the sharp increase of antisemitic talk and incidents.

Camp Siegfried consisted of a parade ground to which thousands of Nazis came by train and car to march in Nazi uniforms at rallies and listen to hate-filled speeches. It was surrounded by a housing settlement, with roads such as “Adolph Hitler Street.”

The review of the play “Camp Siegfried” by Jesse Green in The New York Times, noted how the play “deals with homegrown American Nazism as inculcated at a camp run by the German American Bund in Yaphank, N.Y., from 1936 to 1941. There, in [playright Bess] Wohl’s fact-based fiction, young Aryans are taught Master Race ideology … That there really was a Hitler Street in Yaphank, and roads named for Rommel and Goebels as well, gives ‘Camp Siegfried’ its big clonk of icky relevance … But Wohl … wants to do more than invoke the dread of the evil among us. She wants to expose the emotional roots of fascism that a typically political or social framing … underplays. In this case, that means looking at how right-wing radicalism can be fueled by, and feed into, hysteria …”

A Newsday piece by Verne Gay, headed, “When Nazis came to Yaphank: ‘Camp Siegfried’ play explores dark chapter in LI history,” has a subhead, “How Easily Darkness Can Sneak Up On Us.” It cites “the authoritative history of Camp Siegfried by Marvin D. Miller. Miller was a long-time history teacher in Commack. He passed away in 2020. The book is, indeed, the “authoritative history” of the Nazi center and “dark chapter” in Long Island history.

I interviewed Miller after the book was published in 1983. Its title is “Wunderlich’s Salute,” because that salute was a pivotal event in the saga of Camp Siegfried. It was 1938 and Suffolk County brought charges against six Nazi Bund leaders involved with Camp Siegfried, accusing them of violating the New York State Civil Rights Law of 1923 requiring that “oath-bound” organizations file member lists with the State’s secretary of state.

The prosecutor was Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Lindsay Henry.

Martin Wunderlich, a Bundist, was on the stand in Riverhead in a courtroom in which Judge L. Barron Hill of Southold presided.

From the exchange:

Judge Hill: “Stand up and show us how you salute the flag at Camp Siegfried.”

Wunderlich: “I salute the American flag as a member and proud member of the white race.” He then flung up his right arm in the Nazi salute.

Assistant D.A. Henry: “That is the American salute?”

Wunderlich: “It will be.”

Assistant D.A. Henry: “It will be? That is what you want to put over in the United States, you and your crowd, make us salute that way? That is enough from you.”

After Wunderlich’s Nazi salute, Suffolk County won the case. Camp Siegfried was shut down in 1945.

Hill and Henry were American patriots.

Hill was a pilot in World War I and Suffolk district attorney from 1932 to 1937 when he became a County Court judge. During World War II he organized the Suffolk County Defense Council which arranged for volunteers to be air-raid spotters and otherwise engage in civil defense. He died in 1985.

Henry, raised in Babylon, rejoined the U.S. Navy in World War II (he had served in the Navy in World War I) and held the rank of captain. He commanded a landing craft flotilla that hit the shore on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

His actions that day caused President Harry Truman to award him the Silver Star for gallantry in action. He was elected Suffolk DA in 1947 and served until 1953. He died in 1959.

His son, named Patrick Henry, was Suffolk DA from 1978 to 1990. And he was a former Navy officer, too. He died in 2018. Lindsay Henry’s grandson, also named Lindsay Henry, is an attorney in Babylon and previously a member of the Babylon Town Board.

In 2016, the Suffolk County Community College-based Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding: Featuring the Holocaust Collection (I am its vice chairperson) held an exhibit titled: “Goose Stepping on Long Island: Camp Siegfried.”

Professor Steven Klipstein, who for decades has taught Holocaust Studies at the college and is the center’s Holocaust scholar, opened the exhibit by declaring: “They chose Long Island because they thought it would be sympathetic to their ideas … I shake my head with incredulity about these people being so close” in proximity.