For 14 million American kids and adults, summertime means camptime. Over these next two months, each of more than 14,000 day camps and sleepaway camps will initiate campers into their own particular, delightfully kooky, universes. The camps create 24/7 cocoons with their own lingo and songs, rituals, and codes, devoted to mastering computers or losing weight, to becoming better Zionists or learning golf, to recreating Native American traditions or designing software. Eight decades ago, during the 1930s, young German Americans attended Camp Siegfried. Their summer camp immersion entailed learning Nazi ideology, singing German folk songs, and wearing those creepy paramilitary Hitler Youth short-shorts. There they were, goosestepping and Heil Hitlering away, day and night, sleeping in bunks with swastikas emblazoned above the doorways. All this occurred a short walk from the intersection of Hitler Street and Goering Street, in Yaphank, New York, on Long Island, 60 miles from the Statue of Liberty.
Camp Siegfried was among the pro-Nazi summer camps affiliated with the German-American Bund, the homegrown organization that by 1941 had 25,000 members. Camp Siegfried was located next to a bigger German colony in Yaphank. Restricted to German Americans, “German Gardens,” as the neighborhood was called, named streets after prominent Germans, which then included Hitler, Goering, Goebbels. The Long Island Railroad even ran an 8 a.m. “Camp Siegfried Special” to ferry visitors from Manhattan. Only in January this year did a federal court invalidate the housing restrictions written into the original contracts which survived the repudiation of many German-Americans’ pro-Hitler orientation.
Considering Hitler’s monstrousness, it’s easy to condemn these Germans as moral pygmies. But Camp Siegfried and the Bund tell a subtler tale. The story begins with the pride uniting America’s largest ethnic group. The benign hybrid turns ugly with the bizarre crossbreeding between Nazism and Americanism, including mixing the American summer camp’s carefree innocence with Hitlerian evil.