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.