The Swastika on My Wall

Editorial Notebook

By Jane Eisner

Published August 01, 2010, issue of August 13, 2010.
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Does the swastika represent animus against Jews alone, or should it be considered a symbol of universal hatred when it is directed against a Hispanic immigrant or an African-American family?

The Anti-Defamation League has decided that the infamous, four-pronged symbol has become a broader expression of hatred and therefore won’t automatically consider its use anti-Semitism. It will depend on the circumstances.

Well, there’s nothing new in that. For centuries, the swastika has held different messages and meanings, some of them contradictory, as it has evolved or been appropriated by various religious, political or nationalistic groups. I am reminded of this every time I look on my living room wall.

I’ll explain: Our family home in Merion, just outside Philadelphia, was built in 1915. Shortly after we moved in many years ago, we were given a beautiful, framed map produced for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1920, one of a series of renderings of the streets, houses and other structures in neighborhoods surrounding the regional rail line that begins in the city and stretches far into the suburbs. For map-lovers like myself, the details are intoxicating: each house is represented by shape and construction material, with the name of the owner hand-written next to each plot. While open space abounds, the map also reflects a variety of housing stock that would make an urban planner smile.

You can see how paths that eventually became full-fledged roads took their names from those who lived on nearby estates, and that buildings now used as schools and houses of worship were once grand mansions.

And you can see “Swastika.” That was the name of Edward Bok’s residence, and the first time I noticed that word on the map on my wall, I was stunned. Bok is a lauded name in Philadelphia — a Dutch immigrant, he became a community leader, philanthropist, publisher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Among his many civic-minded enterprises, Bok endowed the Philadelphia Award, given annually to a person who best served the interests of the region.

Hardly the type of man who would chose a symbol of hatred for his postal address.

I was a trustee of the Philadelphia Award for eight years, along with two of Bok’s descendants, and they helped me make sense of this. Bok was introduced to the swastika through Rudyard Kipling, whose work he published. Kipling may have learned of the swastika in India, since it is a religious symbol widely used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, turned this way and that, incorporated into flags, carved into buildings and molded into coins in many Eastern cultures.

Bok not only named his house “Swastika” but also used the moniker to describe a musical quartet housed at the famous Curtis Institute (Bok’s wife was a Curtis).

In the early 1930s, after the Nazis appropriated the symbol, turned it on an angle and brandished it as a sign of nationalist aggression, the Boks purged it from their lives. The house was renamed. Possessions with the swastika were covered up or destroyed. The musical group was called the Curtis Quartet from then on.

Once I understood this history, I was proud to have “Swastika” on my wall, proud to tell the story of Bok’s forthright response. The latest reformulation of the symbol’s meaning should remind us that words and shapes and even colors are organic and evolutionary, reflecting specific times and cultures, sometimes to be rejected, other times embraced. Our obligation is to understand.

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