Thursday, April 9, 2015

Link: Bund Camp

I grew up hearing stories about the German American Bund, so naturally I find myself interested in a Dangerous Minds post about the Nazi camps that dotted the American landscape in the late 1930s:

Scenes from Camp Siegfried, a 1930s Nazi summer camp… in Long Island!

My mom was born in New Jersey in 1933, to an Irish-American father and a German-American mother. My grandfather was a salesman who, during the summers, ran a tavern in the Catskills called the Worthwhile Inn. My mother had many happy memories of those summers, but a shadow entered into them: there was some weirdness going in the hills.

The German American Bund was a openly Nazi-sympathizing organization that made a good deal of noise in the late 1930s, but had largely gone underground by the time the U.S. entered World War II. Now, my mother would have been eight years old in 1941, and it is impossible to precisely date her memories of those Catskill summers, but she spoke of the Bund operating underground and in secrecy, with pirate radio broadcasts and other fringe activities, and that would seem to indicate that the organization continued to lead an illicit existence well into the 1940s, and well after its colorful leader, Fritz Kuhn, had been sentenced to prison for tax evasion and embezzlement in 1939. (Kuhn was eventually booted from the U.S. and died in Munich in 1951, largely forgotten.)

Certainly the presence of the Bund in the Catskill region is well-attested. One of its camps, Camp Highland, was located in Windham, "the Gem of the Catskills," and amazingly, there is a 25-minute piece of surviving film footage of it:

Nazi Summer Camp, American Style

Windham was home to Nazi summer camp in 1937

There must be living veterans of these Bund youth camps, but I haven't turned up any interviews with them. Probably most would be loathe to admit their participation.

Ironically or otherwise, the Catskills were of course also one of the most popular vacation areas for Jewish-Americans; the cluster of resorts that were popular with Jews became famously known as the Borscht Belt. This proximity of Jews and American Nazis led to some interesting encounters. Irvin Richman writes in his book Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memories of Catskill Summers:

Former hotel owner Cissie Blumberg recalls that when her father bought land for a resort in Lake Huntington he had to contend with "a Ku Klux Klan and a thriving German American Bund,   as well [as] a Property Owners' Association whose charter included a covenant restricting the sale of property to Jews."

My mother's recollection of pirate radio broadcasts dovetails with other evidence. In his book Nazis in Newark, Warren Grover, citing an article by Martha Glaser on Bund activities in New Jersey, notes that the City Hall Tavern in Union City, New Jersey, "continued to act as Bund headquarters until an FBI raid in April 1942 interrupted...a Hitler birthday celebration. Firearms, short wave radio sets, and German money were seized."

In World War II: The Radio War, R. LeRoy Bannerman points out that Germany enthusiastically "utilized short-wave broadcasting to urge acceptance of their expanding policy of Nazism...Some stations actually posed as being based stateside even though they aired programs that originated overseas in Germany." So it is possible that some of the broadcasts my mother remembered were actually produced in Europe, not the Catskills themselves.

Chicago-based author Arnie Bernstein published a full history of the Bund in 2013, Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund - a book I need to take up. Here is an interview with Bernstein from Chicago's WGN Radio:

Arnie Bernstein Discusses 'Swastika Nation'  

Links to all of the books mentioned:

Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund

Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memoirs Of Catskill Summers

Nazis in Newark

World War II: The Radio War: Radio Reflections of the USA Home Front

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