Once upon a time, there was an Adolf Hitler Street on Long Island
Catch a Long Island Rail Road train at New York’s Penn Station and head about 60 miles east to Yaphank, a hamlet in Suffolk County with a population of about 6,000. When you arrive, find yourself a time machine and travel back to the late 1930s. Now look around. There’s Adolf Hitler Street. And Goebbels Street. And Goering Street.
And Camp Siegfried.
“It was basically a summer camp for German-American families and kids,” said Bess Wohl, author of a new two-character drama called “Camp Siegfried.” “It was run by the German American Bund. You could swim and you could hike and you could sail. And you could also become indoctrinated with Nazi ideology.”
Camp Siegfried operated from about 1936 to 1941, until it was closed by the federal government as the U.S. entered World War II. The camp was extremely popular, Wohl told me in a telephone interview. At its height, she said, tens of thousands of people arrived via Long Island Rail Road, from Penn Station, taking a train called the “Camp Siegfried Special.”
“It’s really astounding and chilling to think about this now,” Wohl said. “There were topiary swastikas. You can find photographs online. When I first started looking into it, I thought, ‘these can’t be pictures of America. These must be pictures of Nazi Germany.’ To realize that this was happening on Long Island really shocked me.”
Wohl grew up in Brooklyn and is a graduate of Harvard and the Yale School of Drama. Her play “Small Mouth Sounds,” set at a silent retreat, was an off-Broadway hit at Ars Nova in 2015 and at Signature Theater in 2016. Her Broadway debut, “Grand Horizons,” in which a woman, after 50 years of marriage, tells her husband she wants a divorce, was a best play Tony Award nominee in 2020. “Camp Siegfried” received critical acclaim last year in a production at London’s Old Vic theater.
Wohl learned about Camp Siegfried almost by accident, she said.
“It was during the pandemic summer of 2020,” she said. “I was with my family. We were renting a house to get out of the city because I have three little kids and I needed a place for them to run around. So we rented a house on Long Island about 10 minutes away [from Yaphank]. It sounds so wild, but as I was Googling the area, looking for things to do with my children, I found this really, really dark history that nobody was talking about. I had never heard of this place. I had never imagined that such a place could exist right in my backyard.”
She felt compelled to write about it, she said, especially because it was so relatively unknown. “It was the summer of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, and there were so many extremist groups popping up,” she said. “The ugliness of that time — it felt like it was everywhere — and so I immediately started to see the parallels and the frightening connections.”
In order to find a way into the subject, she focused in on one aspect of Siegfried — its special camp for youths. “I felt compelled to write, but I didn’t know how,” she said. “I kind of had the sense that I didn’t want to write about the whole camp. I didn’t want to write about the adults. I really wanted to write about the young people there. And the sense of what it takes to be indoctrinated, how people get indoctrinated. So I thought I would focus in on a 17-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl who’ve been sent there for the summer, and chart their path toward indoctrination.”
She consulted the writer Arnie Bernstein, author of “Swastika Nation,” which dealt with the German American Bund. “He told me the kids there were in a very abusive situation a lot of the time,” she said. “They did all the manual labor, because the camp didn’t want to hire any outsiders. The camp was afraid of federal spies and unions. And the kids were encouraged to have sex and make Aryan babies.”
Wohl says her Jewish heritage and her current life gave her a special reason to write about Camp Siegfried. “I’m a mix,” she said. “It’s a weird mix. I’m Jewish, Mormon and Irish Catholic. I have one Jewish grandparent — Wohl. My husband is Jewish. And we’re raising our children in a Jewish family. So our family is Jewish. And the day after Trump was elected in 2016 our neighborhood playground in Brooklyn was graffitied with swastikas.”
“I feel for my children,” Wohl told me. “This real sense of terror of what kind of world are they growing up in? The rise of antisemitism, and the acceptability of antisemitism, the way it can really infiltrate in even the most seemingly benign spaces.”
Those fears are also part of what interested her about Camp Siegfried, she said. “It’s like, ‘we’re just, it’s just a summer camp,’ but right under the surface is this really hateful, pernicious thing that’s obviously going to lead to genocide,” she said. “The play takes place in 1938, in the summer, so it’s right before Kristallnacht, coming in November, so there’s this sense of we’re right on the precipice of something, and we can’t see what’s ahead of us. And I think there’s the terror right now that I feel, of could we be on the precipice of something, and how scary might that be? And I think that’s part of what compelled me to tell this story — the sense that we have to look at these things in order not to repeat them. Hopefully.”
After Camp Siegfried was closed, it became a residential community — with a rule restricting ownership to people primarily of German heritage. The rule remained in effect until 2017, when it was removed under a settlement with the New York state attorney general.
“Isn’t that incredible?” Wohl said. “To be honest, when you walk around there today it’s still not the most welcoming feeling. There’s a very strong sense that this is a private community, and keep out.”
The swastikas, she said, have been replaced by Trump banners.
“Camp Siegfried” begins performances Oct. 26 and opens Nov. 15 at Second Stage’s off-Broadway Tony Kiser Theater. David Cromer, a Tony Award winner for “The Band’s Visit,” directs.