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History

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General Montgomery, right, with generals George Patton, left and Omar Bradley (center). Public domain photo

By Rich Acritelli

Between the invasion of France and the fall of Paris in the summer of 1944, the Allies were not prepared for the vicious fighting that ensued directly after the D-Day landings in Normandy, France.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his planners prepared for every type of problem before Operation Overlord, but they were shocked at the brutality of the warfare that awaited their land forces against the well-hidden German military. As more men and materials were dispatched from England to this area that was known as the “Bocage,” Eisenhower and his key subordinate General Omar N. Bradley were dismayed over the extreme losses and puzzled over how to handle this costly opening offensive campaign in France. They did not fully know how to engage an enemy who was difficult to see and was eager to make the Allies pay for their successful landings.

At a time when Eisenhower looked to push his leaders like that of Bradley and Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery to gain military results against the enemy, progress was slow. The Germans dug in and they halted the advance of the Americans, British, and Canadians. Whereas General George S. Patton was a talented, but controversial leadership figure, he was absent from the Normandy landings.  Through the Slapping and Knutsford Incidents, Patton added to the immense pressures that was placed on Eisenhower. He was not dismissed from the service, but Eisenhower kept this feared tank commander in the dark as how he would be used within the future military campaign in France. It was not until well after D-Day that the Third Army became operational and Patton would be its commander.  He eventually directed this army that pushed the enemy across France and towards the Rhine River.  And through the historic Battle of the Bulge, Patton’s armor would eventually drive back this German surprise attack to the relief of Bastogne and the paratroopers that were surrounded by Hitler’s forces.

Before D-Day, General George C. Marshall, supported Eisenhower’s threat to send Patton home in disgrace, but he also informed this figure that nothing should be done to weaken his hand in fighting the difficult German military machine. Patton was not an easy general to guide and his mouth often put him in trouble, but he was the most talented armored leader that the United States had in its ranks. There were some points during the Normandy Campaign that Eisenhower openly stated that he wished that Patton’s unyielding presence was there to fight this difficult battle, but this was wishful thinking, as allied tanks played no pivotal role during this tenacious battle.  

With the huge amount of resources that Eisenhower had at his disposal in the hedgerows, the Germans extracted some 40,000 casualties against the Allies. Through a maze of vines, bushes, and trees that seemed to be connected, there was no telling if a German was hidden within the foliage of Normandy.  Several weeks after D-Day, Eisenhower and Bradley were frustrated at the lack of progress and the increase in casualties. As the Germans stymied the Allies, the Wehrmacht was unable to reinforce their own lines and they lost the immense leadership skills of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel who was seriously wounded by British fighter planes.

This was a hard time for the Allies as Montgomery was known for moving too cautiously and he lived up to this negative reputation when he failed to take the French city of Caen. Bradley lost his patience and he fired several generals through their inability to overrun the Germans. On July 4, 1944, as American soldiers celebrated Independence Day, an intense artillery barrage of fire hit the well covered Germans.  It was a strenuous campaign that tested Allied officers and soldiers to push the Germans out of their strategic defensive positions. Although the Allies were less than a year from winning the war, there were always strains on the military relationship between the Americans and British. Marshall believed that Montgomery received far too much credit for being an army commander that had to be prodded to move. The Army Chief of Staff wanted stability within the alliance, but not at the demise of American prestige. With our nation providing the bulk of men and materials on the Western Front and taking the recognizable direction against the Germans, Marshall was concerned that Eisenhower favored the British a little too much and he ordered him to leave England and set up his command in Normandy, where he would take over the direction of this intense fight.

At same time when some senior German military figures tried to assassinate Hitler in East Prussia on July 20, 1944, Patton arrived in France. He was told by Bradley that a massive carpet-bombing assault was to target the stubborn German positions and break open their lines to be exploited. It was the expectation that “Operation Cobra” would create a large enough corridor to allow American armored forces to penetrate deeply within the open lands east of Normandy. After 3,400 tons of bombs were dropped, this campaign successfully developed when four American armored divisions pushed through this opening in the lines.  This allowed the Americans operate south westward and take the French port of Cherbourg and to drive in a different direction to liberate the major prize of Paris.  

Once Patton’s tanks were employed, the German Higher Command in France never stood a chance in defeating the sheer pressure from air and land that Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton had at their disposal.  The summer of 1944 was a dangerous year for the Germans, as the immense amount of force that the Americans delivered against Hitler’s beleaguered armies.  And while Eisenhower had a difficult relationship with Patton, keeping him in command paid large dividends towards victory in Western Europe against the Nazi Regime.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

From left, Steve Henaghan is still active marching for LGBT rights; Leah Gustavson is a regular participant in Long Island’s historical martial arts scene; David Kilmnick is the president of the LGBT Network on LI.

For several weeks in a row people of all races have crowded the streets of Huntington, sidewalk to sidewalk, calling for an end to prejudice.

A 1991 front page of Newsday along with the one of the original tank tops for the first LGBT pride parade in Huntington. Photo by Kyle Barr

Those same streets in Huntington village have held other marches, but one started just under 30 years ago still holds unique significance today. Go back to June 9, 1991, the sky was open blue while the sun blazed down on people who also marched through Huntington against prejudice. It was a time of oversized glasses, poofy hair and tees tucked into jeans. Many marched with rainbow flags in their hands and pride on their faces, but some also reportedly marched with bags over their heads. It wasn’t a fashion statement, it was a way to hide their identities during a time when many people in the LGBT community would be retaliated against at the workplace or even at home. 

About 800 people stood between close to 3,000, according to what journalists wrote at the time. Most cheered for the marchers, but others screamed at them, warning of eternal damnation and holding signs reading, among other expletives, “Kill Yourself.” SWAT teams lined the surrounding roofs because there had been threats of violence toward the marchers.

It was June 10, 1991, when the first Long Island LGBT-led parade strode through Huntington. Marchers shouted “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” That parade would be a landmark day for the LGBTQ community on Long Island, but for the people who marched, it meant much more than that.

“It was the proudest day of my entire life,” said Leah Gustavson, a Rocky Point resident and one of the original members of the committee who established the parade. “I felt like we started something, stuck to it and got to an end goal.”

That parade took place 24 years before the U.S. Supreme Court gave gay people the right to marry. It was 29 years before the court confirmed it was unconstitutional for businesses to discriminate against people on the basis of sex, a huge boon to the LGBTQ community, which has long experienced discrimination when applying for jobs and in the workplace.

But getting it together would take months of backbreaking effort destroying barriers, including taking a Long Island town to federal court to win their right to assemble.

Today, as protests and marches have broken out at every corner of the U.S., the memories of the struggle to have voices heard three decades ago adds a new perspective for those advocating for an end to prejudice. It’s a glimpse of how far Long Island has come and how far it might still have to go.

Beginnings of the March

The Lesbian/Gay Pride and Freedom Committee was established after June, nominally known as pride month, in 1990. It was after the group had attended other major pride celebrations that year, including the New York City pride parade as well as one earlier in March on St. Patrick’s Day, where members of an Irish gay and lesbian protest group led a parade before the main parade could start.

A few members of the local gay and lesbian community were having meetings at a gathering place near Stony Brook University. The school had an active LGBT scene with a school club found in the basement of the old Union building on campus. It was in a space that was once a closet, something that became an oft-used joke in the small burgeoning community. 

No one who was there remembers who exactly brought up the idea, but everyone who was in that room one spring day remembers the conversation about pride parades and the simple question, why wasn’t there one on Long Island? Why didn’t they try to start one, because, after all, how hard could it be?

In that small group of likeminded people, what would become the 10-member Long Island Pride and Freedom Committee was born. Gustavson related that gung ho attitidue to a sense of ”ignorant optimism,” something that can be a powerful force, especially for people who know things need to change, and that now is the time to do it.

She, and other original members of the committee, said coming together to plan this march was a way for many of these people who have long felt marginalized on Long Island to finally show they have a voice. Even still, numerous people on the committee would only publicly go by their first name, knowing they could be retaliated against in the workplace.

“We knew we were not necessarily welcome by people, but the point wasn’t to be welcomed, we were demanding that we would have equality.”

— Steve Henaghan

Those who were there look back on it as a time that was not nearly as fraught and violent as previous decades, but there still was massive underlying prejudice toward the gay community. Steve Henaghan, of Mastic, was another of the original committee members trying to get the parade started. In the 1980s, he and other gay/lesbian rights activists helped create a political action committee called Citizens for Equal Rights PAC to raise money for candidates that would support issues of equality. 

“At that time very few would come forward and say they were supporting our issues,” Henaghan said. “In 1988 and ’91 we were making inroads politically especially within the Democratic Party.”

The committee approached several places throughout the Island to hold their march. In March of ’91 they received rejections from multiple towns and villages on the Island, including both the Village of Port Jefferson and Village of Northport. 

The Record, one of a few Port Jefferson area newspapers at that time, wrote about the village board rejecting the application, saying trustees felt the committee was not “locally based,” citing that it was based in Upton, though committee members argued that was simply their mailing address. 

The Port Jeff mayor at the time, Harold Sheprow, was cited as referencing the controversy of that year’s gay rights group in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Trustees argued a Sunday march would hurt businesses, create congestion and open up the village to having to host other marches. Trustee William Glass Jr. was quoted at the time as saying, “This is political with a ‘P.’”

Henaghan could not help but laugh at hearing that quote read to him again.

“It didn’t surprise us we were rejected, it angered us,” Henaghan said. “We knew we were not necessarily welcome by people, but the point wasn’t to be welcomed, we were demanding that we would have equality.”

Northport rejected the parade for similar reasons, especially citing it was policy to only permit “community based organizations” to schedule parades. 

David Kilmnick was one of the original members of the LGPF Committee who now is president of the nonprofit LGBT Network, an association of nonprofits that looks to support the LGBT community on Long Island. He said if the committee didn’t end up securing a march route and permit, they were willing to do one anyway somewhere on Long Island, even if it potentially meant being arrested.

“We were told we would be arrested, we didn’t care,” he said. “It was our right to be able to do this. We were being flat out discriminated against because of our sexual orientation.”

With a number of rejections under their belts. LGPFC members knew they had to settle on one place, and that place was going to be Huntington.

Taking a Town to Court

The committee worked with police on creating a route through the town. Their original path was longer, about 1½ miles, but in speaking with Inspector Alden Berry of the Suffolk County Police Department, the group determined on a newer, shorter route that reduced the overtime cost for officers, closed only one lane of traffic and offered more protection to those demonstrating. By April 12, 1991, that route was approved by police and sent to Huntington.The group had already sent a request to the Huntington Highway Department. While they had confirmation the request was received, they didn’t hear back until after they sent out the notice of the parade route. 

Huntington Highway Superintendent William Naughton, a Democrat, responded to the marchers with a letter the same day they sent in the revised route. The language used in the letter would become the basis for further legal action, one that would bring in the support of the American Civil Liberties Union.

From left, Steve Henaghan is still active marching for LGBT rights; Leah Gustavson is a regular participant in Long Island’s historical martial arts scene; David Kilmnick is the president of the LGBT Network on LI.

Along with citing overtime costs for the highway department and police, it said those looking to hold parades in the town should instead ask to be included in separate parades. It also read that, “Requests from several groups have been made in the past to hold additional parades, but my policy has always been to approve the traditional parades only.”

“We saw that as blatant discrimination, and we had the right just like every other group to have a march or parade,” said Kilmnick.

March planners got in contact with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which in turn picked out several attorneys to work on the issue. Two local attorneys were picked to lead the effort.

Mitchell Gittin, who is now an East Setauket resident and attorney with the Hauppauge-based Fitzgerald Law Firm, was then a volunteer on the legal committee of the NYCLU Suffolk Branch. He was tapped to lead the litigation effort alongside fellow attorney Joel Kupferman, who described himself as having been just recently out of law school back in early ’91.

“We tried to negotiate with them and asked them why they were so concerned and their reasons for denying the permit,” Kupferman said. At the time he was also a resident in Huntington. “[Huntington attorneys] said people get drunk and destroy property in these parades. I I told them we’ll concede that as soon as you stop having St. Patty’s Day parades — they were ridiculous concerns.”

The attorneys quickly noticed the language of the highway superintendent’s letter was not concurrent with basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution. Outright denying a march in line with the First Amendment because it was not one of those “traditional parades” did not stand up to scrutiny.

“That’s what was so gratifying with the case, because frankly the law was on our side,” Gittin said. “The other side didn’t have any kind of legal counterargument, you can put restrictions on gatherings … there was no reason from a logistical perspective the pride parade would have been more burdensome than any other parade — it really did come down really to discrimination.” 

The attorneys sent a letter to the town May 9, but did not receive a response. Both the committee and Town of Huntington would end up in court. 

The deadline of June 9 for the parade was fast approaching. In early June, both sides appeared in front of U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler. Instead of a protracted back and forth, after just a few hours in court, the town agreed to grant the group a permit for the march.

Though the group did experience pushback from local elected officials there were a few that showed support, even if in small ways. New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) was a Suffolk County legislator back in 1991. He said the LGPFC approached his office after being rejected by the Huntington highway superintendent. He told the assembled people that he was giving them approval to use his office’s parking lot as the end point for their parade.

“Back then there were a lot of officials who were afraid to take a stand,” he said. 

Gitten said that recalling the case gives him a unique sense of pride. 

“I look back on it, and not that it was a heroic thing, it was a lawyer job, I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It feels nice as a lawyer to look and having been part of a movement and part of a wave that’s still going on.” 

The Day Of

The parade itself would be just three quarters of a mile, a short jaunt made by many pedestrians today in what is normally glowing nights on the town in historic Huntington village, or at least it was prepandemic. For the people at the march, it would be an experience none of them would ever forget.

The committee members took up positions at the head of the column. Moving up along Gerard Street, they marched down New York Avenue then turned east onto Main Street. Above them, marchers could see the hints of helmets and glint of rifles in the sunlight. SWAT snipers had been positioned on rooftops to watch over them, as there had been several threats of violence.

That was when the marchers saw the true extent of the crowds. Newsday reported at the time 3,000 people came out to see those in the parade. It was more than they expected, and surprisingly many were shouting support. Of course, there were many community members shouting at them, saying they would “go to hell” for what they were doing. Before it became well known thanks to the show “Game of Thrones,” those marching found use in shouting “shame, shame” at those heckling their procession.

“Our adrenaline was flowing so hard and strong and then we turned the corner, that’s where the protesters were,” Henaghan said. “It was like electricity was running through our bodies, we were so charged. You realize at that moment, you are not standing down, you are going to stand up. It was one of the greatest days of our lives,”

“In 30 years I will never forget that day, that day was a victory for all of Long Island.”

— David Kilmnick

There was a general sense of both exhilaration and apprehension. This was uncharted territory for them, despite participating in other pride parades. This one was theirs, and they had to own it.

“People would call it a parade, but it was a march,” Kilmnick said. “We didn’t have the pageantry, we marched down New York Avenue and had a rally in the back of Huntington Town Hall … In 30 years I will never forget that day, that day was a victory for all of Long Island.”

When they finally reached the end, the emotions of the day were overflowing. 

“The relief was palpable,” Gustavson said. “People were hugging each other and cheering … A lot of people came to celebrate with us. Some of them were not gay, but a lot of them were. It was a party in the best sense of the word, it was celebratory.”

Douglas Futuyma, Stony Brook professor emeritus of evolutionary biology,  was convinced to speak at the 1991 march in back of the town hall building. The professor has long been known on campus as an openly gay man, unafraid to talk about it in front of students when it came up. When it came time to speak at the rally, he wanted to talk about things beyond the biology of it, that gays and lesbians did not simply choose to be so, they were born that way. He spoke of Huntington’s native son Walt Whitman, and how that poet spoke to the quick of “humankind’s exploratory and vibrant spirit.” It was the fundamental question of human rights.

“It was certainly exhilarating, despite the heckling or harassment,” he said. “It was as it should have been, a celebration.”

Today and the Future

This month, the annual pride event was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead the LGBT Network held an online pride event June 14 featuring multiple celebrities and other local elected and civic leaders as speakers. 

It’s been a roller coaster ride for the past 30 years with the annual pride parade. Gustavson left the committee after the third year. Henaghan stood on for several years before leaving as well. He came back on in the early 2000s, but again left the committee to its own devices. 

The pride parade came under the auspices of the LGBT Network in its later years, and because of lagging participation a celebration was held instead of a parade in Huntington’s Heckscher Park. In 2017, the parade moved to Long Beach, and Kilmnick said the parade picked up steam once again. The LGBT Network president said last year an estimated 30,000 people participated. The biggest change from just a few decades ago, he said, is the number of young, school-age people coming out to march and support the annual parade. 

SBU evolutionary biology professor Douglas Futuyma spoke at the first LI pride parade in ‘91. Photo from SBU

“In ’93, so many kids were being bullied in school, afraid to come to the parade,” he said. “We didn’t have any student groups that marched in that parade. Now they make up more than 50 percent of that parade.”

This year, the parade was set to move to Jones Beach after a dispute with Long Beach over a $70,000 fee the LGBT Network said other organizations did not have to pay for similar events. Leaders of the parade are hoping for a renewed involvement come 2021, which will be the 31st pride parade and its true 30-year anniversary.

But the fight for equality is not one lane for just one group of people. Those who spoke about their experience with the first pride parade all identified with those marching against police brutality and racism today. 

Gustavson said things changed for the better in the past three decades, such as general awareness along with much more acceptance at the grade school level, but some things have not progressed nearly enough. For white gay people, she said things are “a lot better.” For gay people of color, trans people and especially trans people of color, there are way too many problems with prejudice both on the governmental and societal levels.

“It was as it should have been, a celebration.”

— Douglas Futuyma

“I don’t want to see violence, I never want to see violence,” she said. “But there are times when that’s what gets people talking and thinking and there are always people who will never understand why riots happen and why they destroy their own sh**. They will never understand that, and it’s passionate. When you’re passionate and you’re screaming because you’re afraid for your life, that it doesn’t really matter so much what gets ruined as far as ‘things’ go. Things are things. We’re fighting for our lives here, we’re fighting for our sanity, we’re fighting for our ability to walk in society without fear of being beaten to death because you’re a ‘fag,’ or because you’re Black.”

Henaghan, despite saying he has occasional bouts with pessimism, does believe the world is heading in the right direction. His partner for 23 years became his husband eight years ago, just a year after the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. For the people marching in the streets today, he said many of those who spoke out against that march in ’91 are the same people or the ideological descendants of those who verbally harassed them 30 years ago.

“Many people will not let go of that hate they have, whether it’s for people of color, gays or lesbians, trans people, there are many people in our society they will not let go of that hate,” Henagan said. “They will fight you to the end. We still won’t stand for it.”

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The Miller's Place Academy. Photo by Kyle Barr

Evelyn Wheeler Cramer. The name now adorns a bench outside the Miller Place Academy Free Library in recognition of a woman who passed away in 2017 at the age of 93, who had long shown care for one of the few lingering historical institutions of the North Shore and Miller Place. It’s also significant, not just because of her passing, but because she had been a part of the two-story, white facade structure for close to a century.

Thomas Cramer, 66, Evelyn’s son, said that after his mother died they asked people to send e digital.donations to the library in lieu of flowers. He also inherited stock in the corporate nonprofit that runs it. Using donations, he bought the bench he said cost about $1,000 and laid bricks, which he had leftover at his own house, as a platform for the bench. 

“My mother went to school there when the school district rented it for a while,” Cramer said. “I have quite a history with it, but it’s pretty much the way it’s always been.”

The location is considered a free library, meaning membership does not depend on people paying municipal library taxes. In fact, the location and the people who run both the library and maintain the building reveal a much stronger sense of old-time spirit. There are no computers inside, and instead volunteer librarians run everything off the Dewey Decimal System along with a card catalogue. The inside smells of old wood and dusty tomes. The place is even heated during the cold months the old-fashioned way, with a large black iron stove in the center of the space. It is the only source of heat for the entire building.

It occupies a unique space in Miller Place history. Built in 1834, the building provided secondary education that was not yet provided by New York State. Funds were raised by subscription, and students came from all over Long Island. Both boys and girls participated.

Once New York began providing secondary education, the student numbers declined and the academy was closed in 1868. While in 1894 the academy was used as a public school because the original one-room schoolhouse was in disrepair, it would later be used as a Sunday school for the Mount Sinai Congregational Church, a polling location and a forum for people to speak on various topics. Several notable people spoke there, including Martha Wentworth Suffern, the city vice chair to the suffrage party, who spoke to 80 people on women’s suffrage before they got the right to vote in 1920.

In 1934, members of the academy held their centennial celebration, where two notable old families of the North Shore were present in Corinne M. (Davis) Tooker of Port Jefferson and Elihu S. Miller of Wading River.

The Miller Place Academy is still operated by the descendants of those venerable families who bought shares to construct the building in 1834. The free library currently occupies it as a separate entity and though it’s open on weekends and hosts school trips and children reading times, there are concerns of a decline in the number of patrons.

But for Cramer, and for the many trustees who run both the nonprofit that oversees the building and the library itself, modern challenges and a declining number of patrons and the constant need for volunteers means the stewards now have to think about the future in ways they may not have before.

Richard Gass, the president of the board of trustees for the academy and a member on the free library board, has been involved for over 30 years, longer if you consider him helping his parents when they were both actively involved. 

The free library was opened in 1938. Since then, it has been in continuous operation, and last year almost 4,000 books were circulated, according to the library. Volunteers do everything from preparing books to chopping wood for the iron stove. Books are replenished by subscriptions to book clubs and donation gifts from other libraries; but volunteers are all retired, and the academy board president said it has been hard to attract younger volunteers.

Gass’ mother and father Margaret and Richard Gass, had long been stewards of the place as well. They helped establish community events such as an art and craft show that lasted for nearly 20 years up until the early 1990s. Such an event occupied not just the academy’s front lawn but also neighboring lawns as well. Once Gass’ father grew too old to handle that event, it stopped, and other than biannual book sales, the lack of community participation has helped the library inch toward obscurity.  

But for the families that still live in the community and love the academy building, that simply cannot happen, if not for the sake of the community’s heritage but for the community at large. 

Cramer, who when he was 16 helped do an Eagle Scout project to beautify the front of the building with two large trees, now cut down, said there’s something special about the place.

“As kids, we always went up there to the library,” Cramer said. “It’s not quite Comsewogue or Port Jeff library. It’s just books, maybe not the newest books, but books. It’s unique.”

Gass said there are certainly issues with trying to modernize. While Cramer said he plans to create a website for the location, there comes a point when modernization eclipses the historical nature of a place. Should they look to install a new heating system or keep with the old? Should they find more uses for the building other than the library, or would that hurt its historical pedigree? Those are questions the academy trustees continue to ask.

“Some people love the idea of sitting in a chair, enjoying the smell of wood smoke and old books,” Gass said. “Other people complain about all those same elements. You have to really love it, but if you don’t it’s not the place for you.”

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Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton. Public domain photo

By Rich Acritelli

“The question is just how long can you keep this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there.” 

These were the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the hours before the June 6 D-Day amphibious and air drop landings. While Eisenhower was surrounded in this meeting by noted leaders like General Omar N. Bradley and Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery, the immense strain of making this momentous decision was on the shoulders of this native of Abilene, Kansas. Through the poor weather conditions that almost derailed the landings, Eisenhower was concerned that if this massive forces waited any longer, it was possible that the Germans would have learned of the true landings were to be at Normandy and not Calais, France. Judging the factors that were against his naval, air and land forces, Eisenhower simply stated, “Ok, we’ll go.”

U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Public domain photo

As Eisenhower feared the heavy losses that were expected to penetrate the “Atlantic Wall,” he was confident of the Allied plans to achieve victory against the Germans. While German leader Adolf Hitler made numerous military miscalculations, one of his worst was the full belief that Americans that lived under capitalism and democracy which could not defeat the German soldiers that were indoctrinated within Nazism. Eisenhower was representative of the average soldier from the heartland, small towns and cities of this nation that wanted to fulfill their duty, save the world from tyranny, and return home to their families.  

As a young man, Eisenhower grew up in a poor, rural, and religious family. While he was a talented baseball and football player, the young man did not stand out amongst his peers as being the best.  There was the belief that he had lied about his age to show that he was younger to be originally accepted into the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, but he was turned down by this school. But Eisenhower gained a congressional appointment for an army education and he was ordered by the War Department to head to West Point in June 1911. Due to the two years of work at a creamery, Eisenhower was a bit older and experienced and the hazing that he took as a freshman was not challenging for the 21-year-old during his first semester. This Class of 1915 was one of the most highly promoted groups to graduate from West Point with over sixty officers attaining the rank of general during World War II.

Eisenhower had two main interests that stayed with him for most of his life. He was an avid card player that supplemented his low army pay with winning numerous hands against his fellow officers and like that of Ulysses S. Grant, he was highly addicted to nicotine. There are many parallels between the lives of Eisenhower and Grant, as both officers were from the mid-west, they were not from wealthy families, and as Eisenhower was a strong football player, Grant was one of the finest horseback riders in the army. Both men graduated in the middle of their classes at West Point, though much of this was due to a lack of interest that they demonstrated with some of their studies. The other key attribute was that they were extremely likable men that were easy to approach, they used common sense to make difficult decisions and they were not swayed under highly stressed war time situations.

Athletic promise and some mischievous was seen when Eisenhower played minor league baseball under an assumed name during the summer months when he returned home to Kansas. Eisenhower did not admit to playing professional baseball until he was President some decades later. During his years at the academy, Eisenhower was a talented football player that suffered a career ending knee injury. He was fortunate that the doctor wrote a medical report that stated he was physically able to complete the rigors of his army responsibilities. In September 1944, during the Operation Market Garden air drops into the Netherlands, Eisenhower was unable to leave his plane during a meeting with Montgomery because he still had severe pain from this chronic knee ailment. 

For the two years leading to Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war in 1917 against Germany, Eisenhower served in the infantry and was a football coach at a prep school near his San Antonio army base. During this early period that Eisenhower showcased his coaching knowledge, many of the American soldiers kept a watchful eye on the border after it was attacked by Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. There were also pressing issues that the United States would be pushed into the Great War that raged in Europe. Unlike other older World War II officers, Eisenhower had no combat experience during World War I. He distinguished himself running a tank training center in Camp Colt Pennsylvania that was outside of Gettysburg. For his efforts, Eisenhower was promoted to the rank of colonel, but the fighting ended as he was preparing to ship out. Eisenhower was an extremely capable officer, but he believed for the next twenty years that he would never have the chance to prove his abilities under enemy fire.

After WWI ended, the National Defense Act of 1920 drastically cut back the army promotions that were seen during the war and Eisenhower was demoted to a permanent rank of major. At this time, Eisenhower convoyed across the nation from Maryland to California and he observed the poorly connected roads that led from cities to the rural areas. Later as President this knowledge pushed him to build more infrastructure projects during the 1950’s. Living at Fort Meade, he also met George S. Patton, where both men and their families became good friends. Eisenhower enjoyed listening to war time exploits of Patton and both men had endless discussions on military tactics. 

It has been stated that these officers were not friendly during and after World War II, but this was far from true. These two men were completely different from each other, Patton was extremely wealthy, and he lived a vastly different life than Eisenhower. Patton furnished his house with furniture from France, had sports cars, servants and the best polo horses. Eisenhower had to rely on the poor military pay and he took furniture from the nearest dump that he refurnished. 

There were many other connections that surely aided the professional development of Eisenhower.  During World War I, General Fox Connor was a key planner that pushed American troops into the first battles against the Germans on the Western Front. He was a trusted leader that listened to the early military doctrine that these younger officers sought within the next major war. Eisenhower credited Patton with meeting Connor whom he considered to be a teacher and father figure that cultivated his earliest approach to leadership. Connor was a well-rounded officer that understood the need to work well with allies and to establish the most efficient military organization. These traits were all exhibited by Eisenhower’s command style during World War II and Connor advised his protégé to gain a position that enabled him to work with the brilliance of George C. Marshall. Although both men knew of each other and had brief encounters, they would not have any major connection for some twenty years until the start of World War II in 1939. 

Whereas Eisenhower did not serve in France during World War I, he had the unique opportunity to visit the battle sites with General John J. Pershing. The Battle Monuments Commission was established in 1923 to identify the different places that Americans fought from 1917-1918. While this was at first seen by Eisenhower as a limited position, he was in the presence of Pershing and he was able to show his considerable talents with his writing. Like that of the other senior officers, Pershing was extremely pleased with the ability of Eisenhower to accurately present the American contributions to this war.  Several years later when Pershing wrote his own memoirs, he asked Eisenhower to review the portions of this book that pertained to the battle sites that he commanded. In an interesting twist of fate, Eisenhower would again see these locations as the senior Allied commander during World War II.

In 1926, Eisenhower entered the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Missouri.  Armed with the knowledge of the terrain around Gettysburg, he was able to decisively speak about the tactics of this Civil War battle that made him shine amongst his fellow students. Graduating first in his class, he was given some help by his friend Patton who provided his notes to Eisenhower from his own time at this school. By the end of the 1920’s, Eisenhower completed the prestigious education through the War College. This school was established to train our future army leaders and Eisenhower was evaluated as being one of the most superior officers within his class. When he graduated his paper on mobilization was sent to the War Department, and some ten years later, his ideas were used during the tumultuous mobilization, training, and planning years of 1939-1941. 

In 1930, General Douglas MacArthur became the youngest Army Chief of Staff to hold this position.  While promotions were slow for Eisenhower, he was widely liked, and he continued to work with the best minds in the army.  As he respected the experience of MacArthur, Eisenhower did not like the the man’s ego and often clashed with some of his rash ideas. In 1932, World War I veterans widely suffered from the Great Depression and they descended on the capital to wage a massive protest. They sought an early payment of bonds that were promised to them for their service during the war. Army veterans organized themselves into groups, lobbied politicians, and slept on the lawn of the Capital Building.  

After there were hostile actions between the police and veterans, Hoover ordered MacArthur to use limited force to push these people out of Washington D.C.  Although MacArthur led many of these men, he was convinced that there were communist radicals intermixed within the protesters ranks and that they had to be driven out of the capital by excessive force. Eisenhower was appalled MacArthur’s action who he believed severely misinterpreted his orders from Hoover. As he later traveled with MacArthur to live in the Philippines to run their military, by 1939, he requested a transfer back to the states. He was burnt out for handling the numerous responsibilities of working for MacArthur and he wanted a fresh start away from this demanding officer. At this time, his son John asked him about entering West Point, Eisenhower stated that the army was good to him, but he would shortly be retiring as a colonel.

With World War II starting in Europe, General George C. Marshall was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt the position of Army Chief of Staff. It was known that Marshall kept an eye on promising officers that he was bound to place in key leadership positions. While he barely knew Eisenhower, Marshall was giving a glowing recommendation by General Mark Clark on his effectiveness. At one point, Eisenhower believed that Patton was destined for the highest rank and responsibility. While Marshall respected Patton, Eisenhower was one of the few officers that understood the big military picture, he respected his planning during the 1941 military maneuvers, and his ability to solve complex problems with little help from others.  

From 1941-1944, Eisenhower in quick time went from an untried senior officer in battle, to organizing the greatest coalition ever assembled to defeat Hitler’s forces in Europe. As Eisenhower pondered attacking Normandy in the hours before the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings, his many decades of service, experiences, and relationships helped him make this momentous decision. Always armed with the will to succeed for this nation and the world against this totalitarian power, Eisenhower’s presence some seventy six years ago made the tremendous decision to bring the beginning of the end to Hitler’s terrible rule on the European mainland.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

American Red Cross nurses on duty during the 1918 Spanish Flu. Photos from CDC

By Rich Acritelli

It was a little over a hundred years ago that the Spanish Flu struck the world community during the height of the Great War, World War I. While the casualties and deaths were staggering on the Western Front, there was little talk about this flu until the outbreak of COVID-19 today. 

A sign on a streetcar in Cincinatti, Ohio, during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Photo from CDC

As Americans prepared to fight the enemy in the form of the Central Powers, this silent sickness completely devastated the world with an estimated 200 million people killed from this pandemic. In cities across the U.S. from San Francisco to New York, 675,000 Americans from all walks of life were killed from the influenza. Like the concerns that we see today over the impact of the coronavirus, our country has always had the resiliency of rebuilding from many extremely low moments that have tested the will of our people.

The difficulties of handling this flu were seen during World War I under the leadership of then Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. Outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at a tank training center, he commanded 10,600 officers and soldiers who were expected to be sent overseas to France. By October of 1918, one third of Eisenhower’s soldiers were sickened with the flu and a quarantine was established on the base neighboring town to contain its spread. As the war came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to meet with the victorious powers.  While these figures were determining the merits of the faulty Treaty of Versailles, he was diagnosed with the flu. It was observed that Wilson was sick and fatigued from a deadly sickness that did not discriminate against any one person.

There is no one generation that has been completely immune from national hardships like that of the Spanish Flu. In March 1783, after eight years of war that saw General George Washington defeated on Long Island and New York City, preserve his army at Trenton and through its glorious victory at Yorktown in 1781, there was a major threat by the officer corps. Many of these men were disheartened that they were not yet paid by the Continental Congress and reimbursed for expenses that were owed to these officers. After learning of a possible revolt, Washington traveled to Newburgh, New York, and only months before England completely pulled out of New York City, he spoke with these dissatisfied men and persuaded them not to ruin a historic victory by the army. With attaining the total defeat of the British at hand, the presence of Washington prevented a possible disaster towards independence.

By 1865, Abraham Lincoln was at the cusp of defeating the South and preserving the Union. He did not want any additional setbacks that would allow the continuation of this war. Lincoln lost his son William in February of 1862 and in the same year there were the costly battles of Shiloh and Antietam. Up until placing Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general of all armies in 1864, Lincoln was constantly disappointed by poor direction of his northern generals who were charged with preserving the Union.  He was saddened at the 53,000 casualties at Gettysburg between the North and South and he desperately wanted to win the war and end the killing between the states.

An unemployed man on the street during the Great Depression. Public domain photo by Dorothea Lange

In 1932, 25 percent of our population was unemployed, there was a lack of confidence under the presidency of Herbert Hoover, and Americans lived in a desperate state. Many of our citizens looked towards New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to guide this country during the Great Depression. Roosevelt was an unlikely figure — an extremely wealthy individual who had lost the ability to walk through the polio disease. He became a major champion of reform and his decisive leadership created programs like that of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Fair Labor Standards Act that established overtime and minimum wage.  

Armed with a big smile, Roosevelt could be seen shaking the hands of farmers and miners and he was motivated to try new ideas. While he did not end the Depression, his presidential commitment demonstrated his resolve to present decisive leadership. Roosevelt guided this nation with determination during an extremely dark time.

Even before America fought in World War II, Roosevelt was the Commander in Chief of one of the weakest military forces out of the industrialized powers. Directly after this nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the so called “sleeping giant” was awoken and led by Roosevelt went on to defeat the totalitarian countries of Germany and Japan. Roosevelt was at the helm of this global fight against these two brutal nations.  “This date that will live in infamy,” he stated at the start of the war and quickly under his direction, Americans moved against the Germans in North Africa and the Japanese at Guadalcanal. Citizens from every part of our society pitched in at home and abroad to fight and gain a total victory. When Roosevelt passed away in the spring of 1945, many Americans recalled the saddest moments of the Depression and the war, and they descended in large numbers to pay respect to his coffin that was moved by train from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Hyde Park, New York.

Older Americans often say that they knew where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated or during the moments that the U.S. was attacked by terrorists on 9/11. Now our people will recall and thank the health care workers that spent countless hours during the height of COVID-19 to aid all of those citizens, especially our local residents that were inflicted with this “silent enemy.”  Every generation has endured some truly terrible moments and right now, we have devoted people that are constantly looking to make each day a better one for those impacted with this current sickness. Like that of years ago, our nation has and will always bounce back from adverse moments to be a genuine example of pride to the current and future generations who will continue to make the United States a dynamic nation.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

By Corey Geske

Two hundred thirty years ago, George Washington planned a tour of Long Island during the third week of April 1790 to thank the members of the Culper Spy Ring of Setauket, whose courage and resourcefulness played a significant role in helping to win the American Revolution. 

The First President chose to begin his tour on April 19, the 15th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military encounters of that war, when thirteen colonies fought to become independent from the British empire. Washington’s Long Island tour marked that day, which since 1894 has been known as Patriots’ Day. More recently, in 2017, the work of the Culper Spy Ring was recognized by the New York State Legislature and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Washington planned to set out from New York City, then the capital of the young American nation, on Monday April 19, 1790, but weather delayed him for a day. After touring the South Shore, he headed north to the Coram area and then west to Setauket, arriving on April 22, nearly nine years to the day (April 23, 1781) when his chief spy Abraham Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper, Sr., of Setauket, wrote to him that his spy ring faced imminent danger. 

Washington’s itinerary demonstrates a keen sense of place timed to show his personal appreciation for how important the intelligence from Setauket was to the winning of the war, information that helped save West Point in 1780 and the French navy at Newport, RI, so it could sail south for the ultimate American victory at Yorktown, VA. 

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

On April 22, 1790, Washington recorded in his diary “. . . thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect.[decent] with obliging people in it.” He arrived at Roe Tavern with an entourage led by Selah Strong, a Patriot imprisoned by the British during the Revolution, the grandson of the builder of the 1703 home that became part of the tavern; and husband of Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, a key member of the Culper Ring. 

The President slept at Roe Tavern run by Captain Austin Roe, a critical courier and messenger for the ring, who frequently rode from Setauket to New York City to deliver information vital to Washington. It is a tribute to Roe and the Setauket-based ring, that Washington mapped his Long Island tour from the South to North Shore to travel from Setauket west to New York, as Roe had done.

On Friday morning, April 23, 1790, Washington “left Roes, and baited the horses at Smiths Town, at a Widow Blydenbergs – a decent House 10 Miles from Setalket . . .” The stone doorstep, which still exists, of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern, may well have supported Washington’s footsteps and serves as a reminder of Jonathan Harrington of Lexington, who, fatally shot by the British, crawled back to the doorstep of his home fronting the common to die at the feet of his wife.

The Arthur House in Smithtown

Washington’s carriage passed by what is now known as the Arthur House, circa 1752, on West Main Street, Smithtown, the future home of Mary Woodhull Arthur, daughter of Abraham Woodhull, the critical correspondent in the spy network set up by Major Benjamin Tallmadge. Born in Setauket, Tallmadge relied upon his boyhood friends to supply intelligence at great risk and was Washington’s spymaster and director of military intelligence.

In 1781, Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay and New York City, code name Culper Junior, could not trust to writing the news of the ring’s probable discovery by the British and risked the journey from New York City to personally inform Woodhull in Setauket. Immediately thereafter, Woodhull wrote Washington on April 23, 1781: “I had a visit from C. Junr. and am sorry to inform you that he will not write any more on any account whatever.” 

In this darkest of moments, the Culper Spy Ring faced the ultimate challenge of surviving and finding another way to convey information to Washington knowing that  British spy William Heron, code name ‘Hiram the Spy,’ had already reported to British General Sir Henry Clinton that “Private dispatches are frequently sent from New York to the Chieftain here (George Washington) by some traitors. They come by the way of Setalket, where a certain Brewster receives them at, or near, a certain womans,” that is to say Anna Strong signaled Woodhull, via the arrangement of clothes on her clothesline, when Captain Caleb Brewster arrived in his whaleboat to carry messages across Long Island Sound.

The stone doorstep of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Inn in Smithtown

In 1789 during his first year as the unanimously elected First President, Washington decided he would visit each state to determine their feelings about the new United States as a nation; and traveled to New England from New York City through Connecticut to New Hampshire. He completed his mission with a Southern Tour in 1791. 

During a pandemic, as we mark the 245th anniversary of Patriots’ Day and the 230th anniversary of Washington’s 1790 tour of Long Island, let us remember the future First President was said to have been seen on his knees at Valley Forge praying as the American army, outnumbered by the enemy, starved, froze and faced the scourge of smallpox, a devastating virus that thinned the ranks of his army and put Boston into lockdown.

Facing a situation akin to what we face today, Washington established isolation hospitals in New York to control the epidemic – while the ‘cordon sanitaire’ that worked in Europe against the plague was reinstated in North America to control the smallpox virus. 

During the British occupation of New York, nearly 11,000 American patriots died on British prison ships in Wallabout Bay near the present Brooklyn Navy Yard, many succumbing to the disease. These ‘martyrs’ included the woman who historian Morton Pennypacker believed to be the mother of Robert Townsend’s son. It is a staggering number brought home by this past month’s coronavirus losses. 

Historic preservation is important: it reminds us that others, too, have faced crises, and that there were many challenges to overcome to win the American Revolution.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

Photos courtesy of Corey Geske

 

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“One of the things that attracted me so greatly to Masonry, that I hailed the chance of becoming a mason, was that it really did act up to what we, as a government and as a people, are pledged to — of treating each man on his merits as a man.”

— Theodore Roosevelt to the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Nov. 5, 1902

Author Ronald J. Seifried

Many of us have been intrigued by the society known as the Freemasons but most know little about its history. Huntington Station resident Ronald J. Seifried has written Long Island Freemasons to offer background and anecdotes of this organization while still respecting its privacy. Seifried, a Freemason for over seventeen years, succinctly defines the Order:

“Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organization that is a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.  Formally organized in London, England, in 1717, Freemasonry initiates men from various professional and social backgrounds, well recommended, with a shared belief of a supreme being without prejudice of religious affiliation. A society with secrets, but not a secretive society, Freemasons forbid the discussion of politics or religion in the lodge, creating an atmosphere of harmony and removing any conflictive or divisive nature. Charity has been an important aspect and virtue of Freemasonry since its foundation.”

The introduction provides a brief history before focusing on Long Island’s connection to the association, which traces its roots to George Washington. Seifried then gives a detailed timeline of Long Island’s various lodges, some of which still exist today. He cites the challenges faced by the earliest members, including the traveling of great distances and economic struggles. His presentation is well thought-out and his research is a wealth of detail.

Suffolk No. 60 Lodge in Port Jefferson

The book is rich with hundreds of photos. There are pictures of lodges and meeting halls, both interiors and exteriors. Seifried gives descriptions of the buildings’ histories and architecture as well as the costs of construction. Faith in the Freemasons’ goals has historically attracted generosity with many wealthy individuals and families donating money and land for lodges and their locations. There are explanations of lodge names, many of them obtained from Native American sources. Pictures of gathered lodge members give background on the individuals and their positions in the lodge. There is a mammoth amount of information in this slender volume.

The author acknowledges the enigmatic nature of the Freemasons:  “The secrecy of this group of men lent a certain level of mystery and respect when the members appeared in public. Schools were dismissed and locals turned out en masse to see the Masons parade.”  Often, this is the only time the community ever sees the members in their Masonic regalia. In addition, dedications were also public events and several images show these gatherings.

The book is divided into geographical sections: Central Suffolk; Western Suffolk; Oyster Bay; Town of Hempstead; North Hempstead; and Glen Cove.  Seifried finds what makes each area special to the group and offers a range of photos that pertain to the region. The final chapter touches on affiliated groups, including the Shriners, Eastern Star, and the Scottish Rite, among others.

There are intriguing accounts scattered throughout: “Part of a brother’s introduction into Freemasonry included a drama representing the building of King Solomon’s Temple, with chief architect Hiram Abiff as the central character, murdered for not revealing the secret word of a master mason; the lodges are often referred to as ‘temples,’ as an allegorical reference to King Solomon’s temples.”  

The Hawkins-Mount Homestead, in Stony Brook, was used several times in 1802 as a meeting place for the Suffolk Lodge; its owner, Major Jonas Hawkins, was a member of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution. Chief Crazy Bull, grandson to the famous Sioux Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Tripe, was a member of the Suffolk No. 60 Lodge, which is still located on Main Street in Port Jefferson. 

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was invited to speak at Huntington’s Jeptha No. 494 Lodge, in commemoration of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He was late due to inclement weather and traffic and quipped that the island should be named “Longer Island.”

The color plates in the book’s center are striking. They have contemporary shots of existing lodges, explaining the various rooms. There are paintings that depict the three degrees of Freemasonry, offering a insight to the overall core of spirituality. The Long Beach No. 1048 Lodge’s stained glass window dome is photographed beautifully and the symbols are clearly explained.  

Today, there are 28 active lodges across Suffolk and Nassau counties. Ronald J. Seifried’s Long Island Freemasons is an excellent look into the local history of the world of Freemasonry as well as a tribute to its survival and contribution.  

Long Island Freemasons by Ronald J. Seifried, part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing, is currently available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com, www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com.

Holocaust Survivor Werner Reich's passport with a large red “J” for Jew. File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

By Rich Acritelli

This past January marked the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz Extermination Camp in Poland. Like that of the horrific surprise of the American and British military forces that freed the western and central European camps in the spring of 1945, the average Soviet soldier who entered this camp never knew what its main purpose was before they walked into Auschwitz. They unknowingly freed the largest extermination camp that the Germans built some five months before the war ended.  

‘Here heaven and earth are on fire

I speak to you as a man, who 50 years and nine days ago had no name, no hope, no future and was known only by his number, A7713

I speak as a Jew who has seen what humanity has done to itself by trying to exterminate an entire people and inflict suffering and humiliation and death on so many others.’

—Auschwitz Survivor and Writer Elie Wiesel 

As Auschwitz was not known by most of the Allied combat soldiers, it was understood to be the final stop for many Jews, gypsies, political opposition, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. In 1941, Hitler began to authorize the deportation of the Jews to Poland. While Germany had its own concentration camp system, the later killings of Jews and other “enemies of the state,” took place mostly in the east. As the German military continued to show its dominance against every nation that it fought against, more Jews came under their control. Although the Nazis always needed additional workers, they did not provide any decency to those groups that were deemed to be “inferior” populations against the German Reich.

The SS, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, was determined to capture and kill every Jew in Europe. Most of these plans were to be carried out at Auschwitz, which was located 50 miles southwest of Krakow. This western area of Poland was originally known as Oswiecim, a sparsely populated town that had 12,000 citizens and included some 5,000 Jews. At first, this camp was created to handle the flow of Polish prisoners of war and partisans who opposed this German occupation. During the Jan. 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference that was chaired by SS leader Reinhard Heydrich and representatives of 15 departments of the German government, they met to decide the final fate of the “Jewish Question,” which resided within their conquered territories.

Heydrich, who was later killed by Czechoslovakian-British commandos, was the driving force to carry out the orders of Hitler and Himmler to transport and kill the estimated 11 million Jews in Europe. He worked with the bureaucracy of his government to ensure that there would be enough resources and logistics to follow Hitler’s directives to destroy these self-proclaimed enemies of the regime. 

Auschwitz was established for this exact purpose. Even through the massive fighting that Germans had to wage on every front, Hitler demanded that his orders of the “Final Solution” were to be followed through the creation of other smaller centers at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The first victims at Auschwitz were 850 Soviet military political prisoners of war that were killed by Zyklon B gas. This chemical was primarily used to deter rodents and it later was utilized by the SS to kill almost one million people at Auschwitz.  

This massive area constructed by Germany was broken into two separate places for the prisoners. Birkenau held most of the gas chambers and crematoriums for those people that were selected right away for death. The other portions of Auschwitz were built for massive slave labor where their prisoners worked within factories established inside and outside of this camp. As some were chosen to live, the Germans calculated the minimum number of calories that were needed to survive. These people were expected to eventually die from the spring of 1942 to the fall of 1944. People from all over the German-occupied land, ranging from France on the Atlantic Ocean to the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, were deported to Auschwitz.  

By the end of the war, when Hitler was all but assured that the Allies would defeat his armies, the killing continued at a faster rate against the Hungarian Jews. This was one of the few Jewish populations that were still protected by their own government. But after a regime change that supported the Nazis, many Jews were deported right away to Auschwitz. Adolph Eichmann, who was later captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1961, was driven to capture as many Hungarian Jews and deport them to their death. Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg was sent to Hungary through the indirect support of the United States. When it became apparent that the Germans would not stop, this was a last-ditch attempt to save these Eastern European Jews who were not yet targeted by the Nazis.

Wallenberg bribed Hungarian officials and issued Swedish passes that made these Jews citizens of his nation. Even as he was engaged within this vital humanitarian mission, Wallenberg met with the Soviet military after they liberated Hungary. The diplomat, who regularly risked his own life, was believed to be an American spy by the Soviet KGB. Wallenberg was taken by the Soviets and never seen again.

A main question that people have pondered since 1945 is why the Allies did not do more to limit the extent of the Holocaust. Around the clock, American and British bombers targeted every military and industrial location in Germany. Auschwitz was located near the eastern part of Germany and it was within the range of Allied aircraft that operated from English, Italian and later French military bases. Early in the war, when evidence was sent to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, they initially refused to believe that the Germans were committing wide-scale mass murder. But as the war continued, increased stories emerged from the people who escaped from the death camps looked to identify to the world the true intentions of Hitler.  

Werner Hess shows students the passport Germans required he carry around as a young boy. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

When it was completely proven to Roosevelt and Churchill that the Germans would never halt this policy, the Western Allied leaders did little to stop this genocidal policy. Since 1945, many of the inmates of Auschwitz openly stated that they would rather have died from aerial bombs seeking to destroy this factory of death than by being personally led to the gas chambers. Information was smuggled out of Auschwitz that described the location of the railroad lines, gas chambers and crematoriums that were later analyzed by Allied leaders. Both Roosevelt and Churchill believed that the only way to end the Holocaust was not to divert any major resources from quickly winning the war. The issue with this policy was that there was not even a limited effort to thwart the carrying out of the Holocaust.

Captain Witold Pilecki was a Catholic Polish cavalry officer who gathered intelligence for his government. The Polish were in hiding after their country was taken over by the Germans. When rumors continued to circulate about the true intentions of Auschwitz, he volunteered to purposely get arrested and be sent to the camp. He spent almost two years at Auschwitz, where he smuggled out reports that were read by western leaders. Pilecki organized the under-ground resistance efforts to possibly take over the camp. He believed that if this facility was attacked from the outside by either the Polish resistance or the Allies, that his men were able to control the interior from the Germans. When he realized that help was not coming, Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz. He later fought against the Nazis and was again taken as a prisoner, but he survived the war. After Poland was liberated, he returned home to oppose the communists, and he was later killed by his own government as being an accused spy that supported the democratic government that was in exile in England.

At the end of the war, as American forces were destroying the German army on the Western Front, additional camps were discovered by the U.S. military. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with generals Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton, were sickened at the sight of Hitler’s “Final Solution” in Western Europe. Under the orders of Eisenhower, he directed large parts of his army to personally observe camps like Berga, Dachau, Mauthausen and Ohrdruf. It was his belief that current and future people would deny the existence and purpose of this organized terror. Today, as many Holocaust survivors are well into their 90s, they fear that resentment is at heightened levels toward many different religious and ethnic groups. And like the concerns that Eisenhower presented some 75 years ago, many of these survivors believe that the lessons of the Holocaust are being forgotten, and that there are more Holocaust deniers around the world who seek to suppress the knowledge of these crimes against humanity.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. 

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Village Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning in East Setauket hosted a historic evening with Holocaust survivor Irving Roth  Feb. 23. The 91-year-old Roth, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, shared his story to a sold-out crowd.

“Over 300 people packed our ballroom at Village Chabad to hear Mr. Irving Roth. You could hear a pin drop in the room for over an hour as he shared his fascinating personal story of survival and courage. He left everyone inspired by his unshakable faith in God, his uncompromising hope in humanity, and most importantly, his calling to each of us to do our part to increase goodness and kindness in our world every day,” said Rabbi Motti Grossbaum.

The event also included a performance by violinist Wendy Fogel of the Sound Symphony Orchestra and was followed by a book signing of Roth and his son Edward’s novel, “Bondi’s Brother: A Story of Love, Loss, Betrayal and Liberation.”

How the U.S. Made the Fateful Decision to Enter WWI

Above, President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress in 1917, speaking on entering the war. Photo from Library of Congress

By Rich Acritelli

With the movie “1917” soon to be widely released in theaters, it’s interesting to look back on how Long Island was a key strategic reason the U.S. entered what was known as “the war to end all wars.”

Over 100 years ago, then President Woodrow Wilson agonized over the rationale for the United States to break with its historic policy of neutrality before America entered World War I against Germany. There were many dangerous periods within our history that surely tested our national leadership. This was no different in 1916-1917. At the end of his first term in office, Wilson sought economic and social reform in the U.S., but he had to contend with the terrible conflict over in Europe. Although the Atlantic Ocean separated the U.S. from the brutal fighting on both the eastern and western fronts, Long Islanders did not have to look far to identify the German military presence of U-boats that operated near their shores. During World War I and II, it was common for the U.S. government to order “light discipline” on the coast. German “Wolf Packs” operated near major cities like New York, surfaced, and were able to determine how close they were to the city by utilizing well-lit homes in waterfront locations like Fire Island. For three years, American ships operated within these hazardous waters to conduct trade with the Allies, where these vessels took heavy losses.

A man buys a paper announcing the U.S. has declared war on Germany. Photos from Library of Congress

It was an extremely complicated time for Wilson, who tried to keep the country out of this war. The horrific losses seen by the British, French and Germans were well publicized in American papers, and many citizens did not want their sons, friends and neighbors to be killed in what was thought of as a European dispute. Before he was reelected by an extremely close margin in November of 1916, Wilson campaigned on the promise that he kept “Our boys out of this war.” But behind closed doors, it was a different situation. Since the days of George Washington the U.S. economy was built on trade that always saw American ships traveling to Europe. Germany had most of its own ports blockaded by the strength of the British navy, and this warring government did not believe America was neutral through our business dealings with the Allies.  

The Germans believed they were forced to attack any civilian, commerce or military shipping that sailed toward British and French harbors. Wilson, like the presidents before the War of 1812, was unable to completely halt American maritime toward these hostile waters. Right away, cruise liners like the Lusitania was attacked off the coast of Ireland, and of the 1,198 people that were killed on the ship, 128 Americans were lost. The German government stated it gathered known intelligence that many of these civilian ships were carrying weapons to the Allies. As Wilson was expected to protect the American people, his own secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, opposed any offensive actions to arm U.S. ships or any threats toward the German leadership. In 1916, the Sussex was sunk, more American lives were lost, and Wilson was conflicted on how to respond against this German adversary who seemed unwilling to halt its policy of targeting American freedom of the seas.

Closer to home, in 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, where 19 American lives were lost. With the tense relations between the U.S. and Mexico, Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to lead 16,000 soldiers to capture or kill Villa and his men. This U.S. expedition into Mexico demonstrated how unprepared the government was to conduct modern military operations. Pershing was unable to locate Villa within the Mexican terrain and the expedition was considered unsuccessful. This intervention also enhanced resentment by the Mexicans who gravitated closer to the Germans. The “Zimmerman telegram” by the German foreign minister openly stated that if Mexico went to war against the U.S., it would receive German assistance. These words were intercepted by the British and delivered to Wilson who was startled at the extent of German beliefs that Mexico had the ability to regain some of its lost territories that were now American states. Wilson’s fears were abundant, as he bolstered the U.S. defense of Cuba with an additional division of soldiers to guard against a possible German invasion.

Wilson was in a precarious situation, as there were known antiwar feelings against helping the British and French on the western front. During the election year, Wilson fully understood that the two largest immigrant groups in the country were the Irish and the Germans. He knew that some of these citizens had strong ethnic ties to their home countries and were not overly pleased to support the British Empire. While today we see Spanish as a common secondary language, during the early part of the 20th century, German was widely spoken in the Midwest and West. There was a huge German influence among American cities and towns that had ties back to this European power, and Wilson had to analyze the economic relation to this war of the many industrialists and financiers who looked to push the United States to support the Allies. They knew they could surely profit from the massive amount of weapons sold to these warring countries.

On the eastern front, there was the delicate situation with the ability of Czar Nicholas II to fight the Germans. His government’s conduct of the war was disastrous, and the Russians had abundant shortages of weapons, leadership and food at home. Before declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson watched Russia fall into chaos, as communist groups campaigned on the slogan that they were determined to quickly pull out of this destructive conflict. Although Wilson sided with the Allies and declared war against Germany, it was not without many internal strains. He was surely tested over the eventual American decision to abandon our foreign policy of neutrality that was established in 1789 to side with one European nation over another.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.