The Swastika on My Wall

Editorial Notebook

By Jane Eisner

Published August 01, 2010, issue of August 13, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.