02 March 2013

A Matter of Conscience

by Herschel Cozine
NOTE: I am once again pleased to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. He's been writing and publishing fiction for many years, and--as some of you might already know--his book The Humpty Dumpty Tragedy has been nominated by Long and Short Reviews for Best Book of 2012. He's pretty darn good at nonfiction as well: when he showed the following column to me, I found it fascinating--I think you will also. (Herschel, thanks once more for making a guest appearance. Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) — John Floyd

Recently Eve Fisher posted a column concerning the actions of a fire department in South Dakota. It seems they responded to a fire on the property of an individual who had threatened to shoot anyone who came on his land. Needless to say, he was not well-liked. There was some speculation that the failure of the fire department to save his house was due to animosity rather than fear for their own safety. If it was the former (payback), the fire department behaved irresponsibly and should be reprimanded.

Personal animosity should never be an excuse for failure to do one's duty. I am supposing that the individual, other than being a rednecked, antisocial, and generally unlikable person, was law-abiding and was entitled to the same protection under the law as anyone. Society cannot pick and choose who to serve when it comes to safety or the law.

But there was a time in my life when I and everyone in town felt that this was not the case.

The fire department of my youth behaved similarly, but we all supported their action (or inaction, as the case may be). Were we wrong? Read on, and decide for yourselves.

I was born in a small town on Long Island, and spent the first twelve years of my life there. It was an idyllic life for a child. The town, known as Yaphank, had a population of about 300, and had no amenities other than a grade school, a grocery store, two gas stations, and a post office. No high school, no beauty parlor or barber shop, no movie theater. No pool hall or bowling alley. In spite of the lack of these services and conveniences, we were never bored. There were two lakes in town which we used for swimming, boating, and fishing in the summer and skating in the winter. The townspeople held several "clam bakes" using the grade school grounds. We had weekly card parties where the adults played pinochle while the kids played bunco. All this took place during the Depression. We had no money for entertainment even if it had been available to us. In spite of this, all in all, in my preteen years, life was good.

Then the Nazis came to town. After purchasing a house and grounds less than a quarter of a mile from the house I lived in, they took over the town. Masquerading as a summer retreat for German youth, they were committed to the Nazi philosophy and (we learned later) dedicated to taking over the United States. They frequently marched down Main Street, which was in fact the only street, holding aloft the hated Swastika and forcing traffic to stop for them. They also took over the lake, bullying those of us who were too young and too timid to resist. They were superior, arrogant, and hated.

Sundays saw the arrival of Nazi adults from New York City and surrounding areas. They held noisy and unwelcome rallies where anti-Semitic speeches were given and Hitler was extolled to loud applause.

I had no concept of the significance of these people, or why they were in town. I only knew that my parents, particularly my father who was a WWI veteran, hated them and did whatever they could to make life miserable for them. (I could write a book on that subject.) A few of the year-round residents of the Bund Camp (known as German Gardens) had children who attended school with us. I became friends with one of them who, like me, had no political or philosophical agenda. We were two boys who enjoyed playing marbles, baseball, and the like. Incidentally, unlike most of the Bund Camp residents, his family was loyal to America and remained in this country when the war broke out.

The hostility between the townspeople and Camp Siegfried, as the compound was called, often resulted in confrontations that required police intervention. Yaphank's police department consisted of a sheriff and a part-time deputy. The sheriff was as antagonistic to the Nazis as the rest of us were, so disputes were almost always settled in our favor. In the rare instances when fines and punishment were imposed on the townspeople, they were minimal and seldom enforced.

Whenever a fire broke out in Camp Siegfried or German Gardens, the fire department had difficulty getting there in a timely manner, and to the best of my knowledge never extinguished a fire in time to save whatever structure was ablaze (usually a house). It was of course a volunteer unit, and all of the firefighters were residents of Yaphank, and extremely opposed to the Nazi presence. There is no question that the animosity toward the camp's inhabitants influenced their actions.

I believe, in light of the circumstances, that it is entirely understandable why the fire department behaved as it did in those days. Failure to respond quickly to fires in the camp was simply an extension of the behavior of the townspeople toward Camp Siegfried and the German Gardens. Any means that could be used to get those people out of our town was considered fair. They weren't welcome, they weren't friendly to our way of life, and in fact they were often spying for Hitler. We were not yet at war, so we could not legally evict them--but we saw them as the enemy and acted accordingly. Of course, at the time we were not aware of the atrocities being committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. But the repugnance of their beliefs and actions, particularly after 1939 when the war in Europe started, was reason enough for us to behave the way we did. Harrassment, vandalism, and dereliction of duty by the police and fire deparment. These were our weapons.

But in fact, these people were not breaking any laws. They were in this country legally, and were entitled to equal protection under the law. Still, I cannot criticize the actions of the fire department, the police, or the citizens of Yaphank. Feelings about this are too ingrained in me to believe any other way. Am I wrong to feel the way I do?

This article will give you a lot of information concerning camp Siegfried and its leaders: german/american/bund

As a footnote, on December 8, 1941, the Camp ceased to exist. German Gardens was decimated when the feds descended on the settlement and deported a large number of its inhabitants. A few, like my friend's family, remained.

16 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fascinating post, Herschel. We used to drive past Yaphank on our way to Hampton Bays (at that time only a poor relation to the fashionable Hamptons) when I was a kid (before the Long Island Expressway was built), and we always found the town's name very funny. But I had never heard this bit of Long Island history.

John Floyd said...

Herschel, this is an interesting and eye-opening look into the past. I knew incidents like these happened here, but I'd never known anyone who saw them firsthand.

Note to readers: If you click on the link to the Camp Siegfried article and there seems to be nothing there, just page down a bit to see the text.

Janice Law said...

I can remember how suspicious my Scottish immigrant parents were of the local Bund during the war- this was also on Long Island.

Eve Fisher said...

Great post, Herschel. I'd never heard of Camp Siegfried. It's such a slippery slope, isn't it? You can't prove that the fire department was late on purpose, you can only suspect it, either in Yaphank or Winfred, SD. And there are some things that are so heinous, that, as you said, everyone feels just fine about letting their personal animosity rip. Nazis - well, I admit, I'd rank them up there with the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK as being damn close to fair game.

Here's another: Up here, a serial child molester was released from prison a while back and moved in to an apartment near a school. When it came out, people were really upset. He was not made welcome. He was "urged" to move. What do you do? What's right? Morally squishy, to say the least...

Herschel Cozine said...

Thank you, John, for your generosity in allowing me to take your place, and for all your help in getting it posted.

Yes, Liz, even the townspeople thought the name was strange. Irving Berlin used it for his musical "Yip Yip Yaphank" when he was stationed at Camp Upton in WWI.

Eve, there are moral dilemmas here, but in the case of the child molestor I would have no second thoughts. Unlike other lawbreakers who pay their debt to society, child molestors don't change their stripes.

Thank you all for your comments.

R.T. Lawton said...

Ah, up-close observed history with a moral dilemma. Thought provoking with my late morning coffee. Thanks, Herschel, enjoyed your post.
And you're correct, child molesters can't be cured, just incarcerated.

Leigh Lundin said...

Herschel, thank you for the article, the second about this Camp I've read in recent months. It's dismaying how easily so many fell under the Nazi spell.

Eve, the owner of our local drive-in theater was supposedly a molester. Local adults kept an eye on things and kids were forbidden to work for him. I didn't hear of any 'rough justice', but the town's attitude and vigilance seemed reasonable.

Eve Fisher said...

I agree - personally, I believe in the death penalty for serial killers and serial child molesters, mainly because, as many of you said, neither can be cured, just incarcerated.

Herschel Cozine said...

RT, Thanks for validating my remark. I believe in second chances. But if it is at the expense of a child, I will err on the side of caution. Allowing a child molestor to live next to a school is irresponsible.

Eve, there are times when even an opponent to the death penalty would have to agree. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful post. As a child in Norfolk, VA, I used to see the young Nazi soldiers in the trucks near the Naval Base - we hated them - the very word Nazi still brings horrible sensations to my whole body! Then bits and pieces from the Nazi subs washed up on the beach in front of our house - we knew they were horrible - but as children had no idea what it all meant, of course! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Anonymous said...

I have to speak up here. It's commonly believed that sex violators are untreatable, but what's really meant is that sex violators remain untreated. Even without help (God forbid our prison system offers treatment), at least 1/3 never repeat. It would be instructive to learn how far beyond 30-some percent therapy might help. Rachel D, licensed sexual therapist

Dixon Hill said...

Good post, Herschel. And, quite thought-provoking.

It’s a tough call, isn’t it? At what point is it a matter of conscience to help eliminate a potentially evil influence from an area of society, versus at what point it’s a matter of conscience to support a person’s right to believe and do what s/he chooses?

A simple answer might seem to rest on whether or not the actions/practices in question are harmful or damaging to others. But, those harmful effects may be a future result that doesn’t seem quite so obvious in the early days of a movement—obfuscating a better moral decision at the necessary time.

In hindsight, the correct decision may seem clear—particularly where Nazis are concerned. But, when it comes to contemporary organizations and influences, knowing what action to take – on the ground, and at the time – these are decisions “… that try (wo/)men’s souls.”

Herschel Cozine said...

Rachel, I hear and understand what you are saying. The problem I have is this: How do you know whether or not any particular offender is cured? The stakes are too high to make an assumption. Unlike an alcoholic who falls off the wagon or a kleptomaniac who repeats, a human life is involved. I hate to paint them all with the same brush. But until we come up with an ironclad guarantee, I have to assume the worst. And that goes against the grain.

Anonymous said...

Cured? I can't blame anyone for asking the question, but when was the last major attempt to seriously treat sexual offenders? There have been unfunded and poorly funded efforts from the 1840's to the 1950's, but most of our so-called "knowledge" comes from the 1920's and 1930's, the "heroic" era, the days of lobotomies and electroshock and special programs for homosexuals. In other words, what we think we know is little different from research of the Nazi era.

In our present enlightenment, our courts have permanently labeled 6yo boys as sexual offenders for kissing for caressing classmates. We jail and permanently label 15yo Romeos for sleeping with their girlfriends. We nod when SVU or TV experts tell us people can't be cured without quoting sources or telling us people won't be cured if we don't try. (I need to mention "cure" isn't a professional term. In many psychiatric situations as in physical medicine, patients can be treated and made better but not necessarily cured.)

Sex education could help reduce incidences of offense but the nation can't even agree to do that, not just in the so-called Bible Belt (which is often more reasonable) but in places like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. So a boy gets arrested for flipping up a girl's skirt or a sister is beaten for peeking in her little brother's PJs. Who's helped here? Most of today's sexual offenders suffered early childhood trauma, not just molestation as is often stated (and that happens), but terrorization from physical or emotional punishment or ridicule. Is jail (or death as suggested in the comments) really the best answer?

No one can get funding to prove it, but it's possible bringing sexual offenders in out of the cold might improve the situation. But that's another too-long story. Sorry to rant and ramble on. Rachel D

Toe Hallock said...

I am not trying to ruffle any feathers here. Mr. Cozine: your follow-up history lesson was both fascinatng and informative. My late Dad was a WWII vet who survived Europe, especially Germany. Notice how we never impounded people in this country who may have been Nazi sympathsizers. But on the Pacific Coast took away the rights of loyal citizens of Japanese descent and placed them in camps. Plus took away their property and respect. Yet many of them still ended up serving in the American armed forces. Crazy, huh? As far as firemen letting the home of that odd individual burn down in South Dakota. Did this happen before or after the fatal ambush of two firefighters from the town of Webster in upstate New York? Yours truly, Toe.

Herschel Cozine said...

Toe, Our treatment of the Japanese was shameful. My guess is that, because Japanese could be identified by their physical appearance they were treated differently. That, of course, is no excuse.