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A New York enclave's hidden Nazi past

World

New York – One of the first signs that something was wrong at the exclusive Siegfried Park enclave was the interview.

Philip Kneer and his then-fiancee, Patricia Flynn – both first-time homeowners – were told they had to be approved by the German-American Settlement League's board of directors before they could close on the two-bedroom house in Long Island.

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Included in a lawsuit against the German-American Settlement League, this archival photo shows men in Italian Blackshirts uniforms marching under a Nazi flag in Long Island. File picture: Court filing, US District Court, Eastern District of New York/Handout

But board members took one look at them and said the interview wouldn't be necessary, the couple said in a lawsuit. They had the board's blessings.

They later learned the reason they received such a quick stamp of approval back in 1999: They're white.

White with German roots, to be precise.

Philip Kneer has German on his mother's side. Patricia Flynn-Kneer's grandmother was German and lived in Berlin. And one of the German-American Settlement League's primary purposes, according to its bylaws, was to "cultivate and propagate in every direction true Germanic culture and to cultivate the German language, customs and ideals."

But Siegfried Park's German connection went much deeper – and darker – than that.

The community was founded by Nazi sympathisers in the 1930s and had been an enclave for training Aryan youth, according to lawsuit filed by Kneer and Flynn. The German-American Settlement League's goal: Raise the future leaders of America – and make sure they were steeped in Nazi ideals.

In an article about the community, Untapped Cities, a site that covers New York's secrets and hidden history, called Siegfried Park "an indoctrination camp."

Decades ago, German Americans marched in the community under a Nazi flag and delivered "Heil Hitler" salutes near where the Kneers' home stood, according to the New York Daily News.

Since the fall of the Third Reich, the community has distanced itself from its Nazi past. The Nazi flag bush is gone. "Hitler" and "Goebbels" streets have been renamed.

But vestiges remained, including the housing bylaws designed to keep out blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, according to the New York Attorney General's Office.

This week, state prosecutors announced that they had settled with the German-American Settlement League to fix nearly a century of racially discriminatory housing practices. Officials were alerted to the problem by a 2015 New York Times story about the Kneers' lawsuit, which called the league's housing policies and practices discriminatory and alleged that they were in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman felt similarly, saying in a statement that the league's "discriminatory practices were a remnant of a disgraceful past that has no place in New York or anywhere. This agreement will once and for all put an end to the GASL's discrimination, ensuring that all New Yorkers are afforded equal access to housing opportunities – regardless of their race or national origin."

The league settled with the Kneers a year ago, agreeing to pay $175 000 for damages and attorney fees, according to Newsday, citing court records.

State prosecutors got involved because "there still wasn't a significant turnover after the private settlement," Assistant Attorney General Diane Lucas said. "We didn't want it to just be changes in policies and procedures without an actual effect."

No one answered the phone at a listed number for the German-American Settlement League. But in 2015, the group's president, Robert Kessler, told the New York Times that the community had moved on from its racist past. "Most people don't even know any of this happened here; it hardly comes up," he told the Times.

Of the Kneers, Kessler said then: "They're just bitter they couldn't get the price they wanted for their home."

According to the couple's lawsuit, filed in federal court in 2015, people who live in the community don't own the land their homes sit on – they lease plots from the league.

And the league dictated who could live in Siegfried Park – and who couldn't.

Under the settlement with the attorney general, the league is now prohibited from discriminating against people because of race or national origin. It was also required to revise its membership policies and to ensure that its housing codes are in line with fair housing laws.

The attorney general's office got involved after the Kneers filed a lawsuit with the help of Long Island Housing Services.

The couple's family had outgrown their two-bedroom house in Siegfried Park, and they wanted to sell – but it was hard to find buyers.

The bylaws prevented them from advertising in any real estate publications.

They said they told the league's board president it was difficult to find buyers, but were told "these rules were not going to be changed because the members wanted to keep it the way it is."

At a membership meeting shortly afterward, a motion to let the Kneers put a "for sale" sign in their yard was rejected.

So they filed a lawsuit, which detailed a nearly century-old connection to the Nazis and modern-day discrimination.

The 50-home community in Yaphank, Long Island, started out as Camp Siegfried, just a train ride away from New York City for German expatriates.

A group of Nazi sympathisers snapped up 40 acres of land next to a lake and opened what was then called the Friends of New Germany Picnic grounds in the late 1930s, according to the Daily News. It was named after a pro-Nazi group that later became known as the German American Bund.

To outsiders, it looked like a place for German Americans to congregate with people who had a similar heritage. There was a pool and archery competitions. Women in German peasant costumes greeted people at the gates.

But photos showed that the club also flew Hitler Youth flags. One photo, which was included in the lawsuit, shows men in Italian Blackshirts uniforms marching at Camp Siegfried beneath a Nazi flag. The Blackshirts were the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party in Italy, one of Germany's allies during World War II, and were distinguished by their black uniforms.

Other photos from the New York Department of Records showed people sitting at picnic tables wearing Nazi military uniforms.

The lawsuit also included a newspaper interview with Henry Hauck, the manager at what was then called Camp Siegfried.

The reporter asked if camp members and visitors supported Nazi ideas.

"Generally speaking, yes," Hauck replied, "but only as they concern Germany, not the United States."

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