Harley Abrams at Temple Israel of Riverhead last week. Photo: Denise Civiletti

More than half a century later, it’s still a painful memory.

It was a big weekend for the Abrams family. It was graduation weekend, recalls Harley Abrams, who had turned 12 earlier that month of June 1969. His family had much to celebrate. 

Harley’s older sister, Evanne, had graduated at the top of her class from Riverhead High School, where their father Irwin was head of the English Department. Known as “Ev”, she tied with classmate Cheryl Ross for honors as valedictorian of the Class of 1969, according to the 1969 edition of the Blue Peconic, the Riverhead High School yearbook.

The family’s joy that weekend dissolved on Sunday morning when they woke up to discover a large swastika painted on the driveway of their Riverhead home. 

For Harley Abrams, the memory is in some ways still vivid; in other ways, it has grown fuzzy over the decades. He vividly remembers the upset caused by the appearance of that symbol of antisemitism. The anger, the fear, the hurt — and for him, the confusion — are still real. Who would do this to them? And why?

Certainly their Jewish faith and heritage made the Abrams family a target of antisemitic hate. But there were other Jewish families in Riverhead, where Temple Israel of Riverhead, a center of worship and community traces its roots back to 1911, when mostly Russian immigrants incorporated the Brotherhood of Jews of Riverhead, according to a history published by the synagogue. For some reason, the Abrams family had been singled out. 

Was it the attention drawn to the family by Ev’s academic achievements and her place of honor in the Class of 1969? Was it the activism of his parents, who worked for the election of the first Black to the Riverhead Board of Education that year, Richard Byron? 

Or was the fact that they were Jewish enough to motivate that awful act. 

The swastika is an ancient symbol that was found on cave paintings. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit _svastika_, meaning “good fortune” or “well-being.” In the early days of the 20th century it was widely used in Europe and had numerous meanings, most commonly as a symbol of good luck — that is, until, after World War I, when it was adopted by far-right nationalist movements in Germany as a symbol of a racially “pure” state.  

The Nazi Party adopted the swastika as its symbol in 1920, depicted on the flag conceived by Adolf Hitler, the flag that would become the infamous symbol of antisemitism, hate and genocide. In September 1925, Hitler’s swastika flag became the official national flag of the German Reich. The Reich flag law was among the Nuremberg Race Laws that targeted Jews, stripping them of German citizenship and prohibiting them from marrying or having sexual relations with non-Jews.

It was only the beginning.

And so the swastika became the symbol of antisemitism, hate and genocide, so inextricably linked to the terror forged on Germany and the rest of Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s that, after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the use of the swastika was prohibited and criminalized in Germany — as it remains to the current day. 

The identity of the person or people who painted the swastika on the Abrams’ driveway overnight on June 28-29 remains a mystery, Harley Abrams said. The family called the police and Abrams has memories of a police car parking near their family home for a period of time after the incident to see whether someone would return to do it again. As far as he knows, Abrams, now 66, no one ever came back.

What’s not a mystery is the terror that symbol evoked in 1969.

In 1969, barely more than 20 years had passed since the defeat of Nazi Germany and the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials when 21 of the 24 indicted leaders of Nazi Germany stood trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Hitler, the notorious Heinrich Himmler, who implemented the “final solution” — the systematic, state-sponsored mass murder  of 6 million Jews as well and millions more other people deemed by the Nazis as unworthy of life — propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and head of the German Labor Front, Robert Ley, committed suicide, avoiding public reckoning and punishment. 

In 1969, there were plenty of people alive who had lived through and remembered the 1930s, World War II and the genocide of the Holocaust. So too, many survivors of the Nazi death camps were still alive to bear witness to the horrors of what took place in those camps. And many more people had personally heard their first-hand accounts.

In 1969, it was all still fresh in their memories. 

So, for a family like the Abramses, the meaning of the symbol painted on their driveway that June morning was clear. And it was real.

For Harley Abrams, it’s still real today, all these years later. 

That’s why, when Abrams learns of swastikas being drawn on desks and blackboards in public school classrooms — or anywhere else — in Riverhead, he shudders. It brings back the morning of June 29, 1969.  It rekindles memories of ethnic slurs being hurled at him as a kid by bullies who picked on him in school. He also remembers his father being verbally harassed for being Jewish, he said.

Today, the meaning of the swastika extends beyond antisemitism. It is recognized as a symbol of hate and racism in general. 

Abrams, was recently appointed as a member of Riverhead Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, says it’s imperative that the community not take lightly the appearance of that symbol of antisemitism and hate anywhere in our town, especially in our schools. It still has meaning, and serious implications, even if the young people who scrawl or etch the symbol don’t realize it, Abrams said.

He said he’s troubled by how little time is spent teaching about the Holocaust in schools today. “What happened in the concentration camps is mentioned probably one day out of the entire school year,” Abrams said.

The lack of attention and the consequent lack of understanding by young people can only serve to advance “Holocaust denial,” the distortion of historical facts to negate the existence of the genocide that took place in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. Holocaust denial, itself a form of antisemitism, and pushed by right-wing nationalists and white supremacists like former KKK leader David Duke, took root in the United States beginning in the late 1960s but spread to Europe, the Middle East and other places around the world. Holocaust deniers maintain that the facts of the Holocaust — a very well-documented historical event — were actually invented or exaggerated by Jews. 

Antisemitism continues to exist, even in the local community. 

In November 2022, a 21-year-old Aquebogue man was arrested with a Manhattan man after making several threatening social media posts against a synagogue in the New York City area. After a tip, MTA Police recovered a knife, a Swastika armband and a ski mask from Brown’s backpack, according to the Manhattan district attorney. A backpack containing a firearm, extended magazine and 19 rounds of ammunition was recovered from the Manhattan apartment of Matthew Mahrer, with whom Brown allegedly conspired to purchase the weapon, giving him $650 to buy the gun in Pennsylvania, according to prosecutors. Both face multiple felony charges in New York criminal court, have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for trial beginning in January, according to online court records.

Swastikas were recently found on desks at a Riverhead High School classroom, on a piece of artwork in Riverhead Middle School and on a blackboard in the middle school. The incidents were investigated by the school district and where students were identified, they were issued warnings or disciplined. 

MORE COVERAGE:School district and Riverhead Police investigating another swastika incident at middle school
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The school district advised the community about the swastikas when they were discovered, and in letters posted to the district website following each incident, urged parents to talk to their children about what the symbol means and why its wrong to draw it.

The district is hosting Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan at the middle school next month to talk with students. As a child, Lazan was a prisoner in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany during World War II, until the camp was liberated in April 1945. She has spent her life speaking about the Holocaust, bearing witness to new generations. She is the co-author of a memoir about her childhood in Nazi Germany, “Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story” and is the subject of a PBS documentary, “Marion’s Triumph.”

Swastika symbols found around the community outside of school grounds do not generally receive publicity. When swastika graffiti is found in the community, Riverhead Police do not generally publicly report them, Police Chief David Hegermiller said. Police report graffiti in general as a criminal incident and sometimes are able to identify and arrest a person for the crime of making graffiti, a class A misdemeanor in New York.

The soft-spoken Abrams said he believes it’s important to talk about the meaning of the swastika symbol, especially with children and youth. That’s the only way they will know what it means and what its implications are, Abrams said.

He praised the school district for planning to bring a Holocaust survivor to the middle school following the recent swastika incidents. 

Antisemitism and antisemitic incidents have been on the rise in the U.S. in recent years, Abrams said.

The Anti-Defamation League tracks incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and violence in the U.S. each year and publishes an audit of those incidents annually. Antisemitic incidents are at their highest levels in 50 years, reaching a new record high in 2022, according to data collected by the ADL. The organization logged 3,697 antisemitic incidents in 2022 — up 36% over 2021 and the third time in the past five years that the year-end total has been the highest number ever calculated.

Antisemitic attitudes are also on the rise, according to findings of research done jointly by the ADL, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the One8 Foundation. Researchers surveyed a representative sample of 4,000 Americans last fall and found “the number of Americans harboring extensive antisemitic prejudice” had doubled since 2019 and “widespread beliefs in anti-Jewish conspiracies and tropes at rates unsee for decades,” according to the report, released in January.  

Do the recent swastika incidents in Riverhead school buildings reflect the rise in antisemitic incidents and attitudes generally as documented by the ADL?

“It’s hard to know for sure,” Abrams said. “But they shouldn’t be dismissed.” It’s important to be aware, alert and proactive by educating children about the meaning of the symbol and discussing it openly as adults, if the Riverhead community is going to combat the potential rise of antisemitism here, Abrams said. 

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