The powers that were would have criticized this article. They would have found it foolish to risk the publicity, possibly even dangerous. What good is scaring everyone?
At least, that appears to be how they handled things. The only reason we know anything happened is because one person felt compelled to photograph it. He saved those photographs, and then his family sent them to this newspaper — some 63 years later.
The photographer was Clarence “Code” Gomberg. He was a lovely man, a proud veteran, a jack-of-all-trades. His photographs show the entrance to Minadeo Elementary School in October 1960, covered in swastikas, slogans and other antisemitic graffiti.
After months of searching, I’ve been unable to find this incident in the historical record — not in any of the local newspapers, not in the records of the leading Jewish organizations. An inquiry to the “Minadeo Alums” group on Facebook yielded nothing.
What I did find were similar incidents. And not just a few, but a lot — hundreds, possibly even thousands of acts of antisemitic vandalism all over the world that year.
It began on Christmas morning 1959, when neo-Nazis defaced the Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne, Germany. Soon, other German synagogues were defaced. Within a week, similar acts of vandalism started occurring throughout England. Over the next few months, it spread to some 34 countries, including the United States. By early March 1960, the Anti-Defamation League had recorded 637 incidents in 236 American cities.
It became known as the Swastika Epidemic of 1959-1960. While historians still regularly study the event, it is surprisingly absent from popular Jewish memory.
The Minadeo incident came six months after the peak of the epidemic, but it fits the trend. In a paper from April 1961, sociologist Howard J. Ehrlich analyzed American communities where incidents had occurred. He found that both the size and the growth rate of a Jewish population correlated with increased incidents of vandalism.
Minadeo had only opened a few years earlier in 1957. The Jewish population along the border between Squirrel Hill and Greenfield was increasing, and there is anecdotal evidence about the hard time Jewish kids were facing from their non-Jewish peers. According to the ADL report, some 20% of the American incidents occurred at non-sectarian colleges, at public libraries and public schools like Minadeo.
The Swastika Epidemic prompted a United Nations investigation into global antisemitism. (At least one historian has since argued that the UN’s response led, in a roundabout and perverse way, to its infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1975.)
The epidemic also received a lot of media attention. Throughout 1960, the Jewish Criterion and the American Jewish Outlook both published dozens of editorials and wire reports on incidents of antisemitic vandalism across the country and around the world.
And yet neither newspaper reported directly on the Minadeo incident. Here and elsewhere, the Swastika Epidemic was often discussed globally but suppressed locally.
A few weeks before the Minadeo incident, the two local Jewish newspapers both reprinted comments from Rabbi Amiel Wohl, addressing vandalism at his synagogue in Waco, Texas. The Jewish Community Relations Council there had “elected silence,” asking the press to withhold the antisemitic nature of the incident from its coverage.
But Rabbi Wohl privately identified his vandals and confronted them. They were local teenagers. “I tried to reason with the boys and discover what made them desecrate a House of God, writing obscenities and drawing swastikas,” Rabbi Wohl wrote. “Didn’t they know about Hitler’s mass murders? No. Did they know American men had died fighting Nazism? Hardly. Wasn’t it a low blow to desecrate a ‘church?’ Well — sort of.
“They didn’t know anything about anything. Except that a swastika did belong on a Jewish house of worship. They had read about it. It was fun to do.”
The incident at Minadeo appears to have been something similar— the work of young people who had “read about it.” Among the swastikas and death threats are some toilet humor, as well as schoolyard-type taunts that have nothing to do with Jews.
Based on little more than a gut feeling, the lack of coverage surrounding the vandalism at Minadeo was a deliberate strategy by community leaders to contain the viral nature of the swastika epidemic by reducing publicity. Or maybe their goal was to reduce fear among a Jewish population that was just 15 years out from the Holocaust. Or perhaps they did address the incident publicly, but the documentation doesn’t survive.
Silence is a source of historical insight but is highly prone to misinterpretation.
I don’t have the historical expertise to compare our moment to the Swastika Epidemic, but I do have a sense of my own psyche. Ever since I was little, I have been told that societies can degrade quickly — that, to steal a line from Hemingway, stability can disappear “gradually, then suddenly.” I suspect many of you heard that, too.
In her memoir “Roses in December,” Florence Berman Karp recalls standing with her siblings on the back porch of her home on Washington Avenue in Altoona in the 1920s, looking over a distant hillside where the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses.
“As small children we could not have understood the implications of fiery crosses, but I remember vividly the shuddering fear, the sobering terror we felt when we saw them … we all felt these fears and sort of inhaled them from the air in our house, probably from Mama’s behavior and attitudes if not definite words,” Karp wrote. Her mother was a survivor of violent antisemitism in Europe, with a worldview shaped by those experiences. Karp continued, “Even though no truly antisemitic act was ever experienced by any of us, the fear of such a thing was quite definite, at least in me.”
I imagine there are millions of Jewish children right now, and many adults, too, who are standing on their back porches, shuddering at the fiery crosses in the distance.
Things are different today. Containment doesn’t work in a digital age. Even if it did, there is a growing sense that it is better to announce and condemn hateful acts than to obscure and deplore them. Having to debate which approach is better is itself a tragedy. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center and can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.