Learning From the Swastika Epidemic of 1959
By Nadine Epstein
Those of you who have read my columns know I’ve been troubled by the sudden appearance of anti-Semitic flyers, graffiti and incidents in my Washington, DC neighborhood, not to mention the rest of the United States. Frankly, these kinds of brazen expressions of anti-Semitism took me by surprise, since until now I had not personally witnessed anything like them.
But, of course, the surge we are currently experiencing is not unprecedented. Just the other day I learned about one such earlier outbreak known as “The Swastika Epidemic.” Like others who were not born yet, or who were not old enough to be paying attention, I’d missed this ominously named pandemic.
Here’s the story: On Christmas morning in 1959, two men painted swastikas on a recently rededicated synagogue in Colon, Germany. News of the desecration was widely publicized and sparked a wave of overt anti-Jewish incidents, including death threats and destruction of property throughout Germany, England, Holland and Austria; then it swiftly jumped the Atlantic, infecting Canada and Brazil. The United States was not immune: On January 3, a large swastika was painted on Temple Emanu-el in New York City. The outbreak also spread to South Africa and Hong Kong. Within a month reports of such episodes had come from approximately 34 countries and almost every major capital city, with incidents reported in the hundreds.
There are, of course, plenty of papers, articles and books on the Epidemic, which by now has faded from public memory and is remembered only by scholars or those old enough to follow events as they unfolded. At the time, Jews were extremely concerned. “No one knew if it would ever end,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and professor of Jewish Studies and English at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Was the ugliness ephemeral, or would it be part of a longer term trend? Some said it was a harbinger of bad things.”
As it happened, the Swastika Epidemic died out after a few months. Says Rosenfeld: “We have to raise the same question: Is what we are experiencing now ephemeral, or is it part of a trend that will deepen?”
No one knows the answer, but the knowledge that the 1959-1960 Swastika Epidemic came to an end provides much-needed perspective. I feel oddly comforted by remembering that, while purveyors of anti-Jewish sentiments have always pressed their advantage during unsettled political times, they always vanish back into their netherworlds. I can only hope that our nation rights its course soon and today’s epidemic too shall pass.