Monday, December 5, 2022

Lessons From Camp Siegfried

Can it happen here?

Gilda and I caught the final performance of “Camp Siegfried” at Second Stage Theater Sunday. It’s a provocative, disturbing play set in 1938 at a summer camp for German, or rather, would-be Hitler youths in Yaphank, Long Island. 

Don’t think for a moment this was a playwright’s creation. Such a camp truly existed, an extension of the German American Bund seeking to mold maleable minds to thoughts of Aryan superiority ( 

The camp prospered in the 1930s, closing only after America joined the Allies in the war to defeat the Axis Powers in Germany, Italy and Japan. 

Perhaps the most powerful line of the play comes near the end when the young female lead relates to her boyfriend a conversation she had with a doctor. 

“Anyone can fall into anything really. Anyone can be seduced,” the doctor told her. 

It’s too late for me to recommend the play. Yet it’s warning that, as in the 1930s, seductive forces are at play throughout our country is unmistakeable. We are witnessing an unimaginable surge of racist, homophobic and antisemitic activity by individuals including public figures, alt-right groups and government entities and officials. 

Camp Siegfried elevated bias, planting or reinforcing parental beliefs of discrimination in pliable minds of a younger generation.

Truth is, I spent my summers in the 1950s-1960s in Jewish camps that were just as dedicated as Camp Siegfried in pursuit of indoctrinating campers, not to an ideology of superiority and discrimination but rather to the values of Judaism and Zionism. No doubt, there were some who distilled the message differently. They were transformed into bigoted, egotistical ideologues. 

They were the exception, though recent actions in Israel would suggest discrimination by Jews may be becoming more common, even against fellow tribesmen who do not share their level of religious observance. 

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the film “Cabaret,”considered by many one of Hollywood’s best. Through the interplay of characters the audience sees the transformation of German society into Nazi extremism.

A pivotal scene near the end of “Caberet” is of a blond youth singing in a beer garden about the future belonging to him. He is dressed in the uniform of the Nazi Youth. Those listening to him, it is gradually revealed, are similarly garbed in Nazi attire. 

To accommodate another couple, Gilda and I reluctantly went to an Octoberfest beer garden in Queens in 1977. Sitting at a long picnic table, nursing our beers as Germanic music played, we were stunned when the music stopped and the crowd enthusiastically shouted, “Heil.” But what was truly chilling was the smiling, nodding heads staring at us from nearby tables. In my lifetime before and since I have never felt so obviously Jewish. And out of place. We quickly departed.

Perhaps, most probably because I am Jewish, as are most of my friends, and we are mostly septuagenarians or older, we are keenly aware of Naziism and World War II. We did not require metaphors, science fiction shoot-em ups, to learn about the dangers of fascism, totalitarianism, and mass killings of innocents. The Holocaust was made part of our intimate education. 

I wonder, how much do generations later than mine know about World War II, how easy it has become to manipulate masses into hating, how susceptible our government has become to leaders who lie, repeatedly lie,  through their own words and deeds, aided by a complicit media that values revenue more than truth? 

Antisemitism is but one of the scourges affecting America and the rest of the world. Never completely eradicated, it was thought to be on the wane a decade ago. How naive we have been shown to be.

Listen to Senior Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple of LosAngeles deliver a short commentary on that unfortunate reality during Sunday’s “CBS Sunday Morning” (