Wednesday, March 2, 2011

From the Archives #8: Incident in Yorkville by Emma Gelders Sterne

Incident in Yorkville begins with the homecoming of Erich and Carola Braun. These two American children have been living in Nazi Germany for 5 years at the insistence of their now deceased father so that they might be educated in Nazi ideology. And it has worked.

Erich, 14, is a proud member of the Hitler Youth, wholeheartedly believing every word that has been preached to him. Carola, 6, isn’t quite as indoctrinated but she does crave her brother’s praise and so will say whatever she thinks will please him. Erich has been well trained to observe everything around him and now everything he sees disgusts him, from the “inferior” Polish boy he met when he arrived in Yorkville to the game of ball being played in the street by the neighbor kids and their dad.

Erich and Carola are now living with their mother, Helena Braun, in an apartment in Yorkville, a section of New York City that is densely populated with Germans, German-Americans and Irish. Also living there is their uncle Wilhelm Kulner, a German who has a barbershop on the ground floor of the building, and his wife Minna, Helena’s sister. The sisters are German-Americans from Wisconsin. All but Helena are virulent Nazi supporters.

Erich is immediately introduced to Herr Wild, a former youth leader in the pro-Nazi German American Bund before it was outlawed. Both men tell him that he must do whatever it takes to fit in and appear to be a well re-assimilated American. For instance, if the Americans laugh at Hitler, he must also, a task Erich find difficult to accept.

To further this pseudo-assimilation, Erich is immediately enrolled in a summer program at the local public school. In his class are Mike Hershey and Stanislaus Prazmian, the Polish boy Erich saw on his arrival. The Hershey’s, parents Mike and Eve, Mary, 14, her twin brother Mike, 5 year old Johnny and baby Dinah live in the apartment above Erich. When eldest son Pat Hershey joined the Army, Eve Hershey had welcomed Stanislaus into their home. The kids are a fun-loving group who try to make friends with Erich and Carola, but find it difficult to do.

Erich’s Uncle Wilhelm notices that Mike Hershey Sr. has rented an empty room in the back of the building that he had wanted to use for secret Bund meetings. He tries to find out what Mike is doing in the room, but can’t. Mike goes so far as to cover the keyhole with his jacket.  Kulner reports this suspicious behavior to the local Air Raid Warden, seeing it as an opportunity to deflect attention from his own suspicious behavior. But this backfires when the FBI investigates and discovers that Mike is hand tooling spikes for the Navy, for which the Navy is presenting him with a civilian medal at an upcoming block party.

Erich continues to desperately cling to his Nazi ideas, his Hitler Youth uniform and especially to this record book, in which he writes down all his observations, practice for the wars to come when he is old enough to achieve his great goal of "dying for Hitler.” But when he learns, early one Sunday morning, that the FBI has arrested a group of German saboteurs that had landed on the Long Island and Florida coasts by U-boat with the intention of blowing up key factories, railroads and water supply systems, he faith in the strength and might of Nazism begins to waiver. Failure was never an option under Nazi ideology and now he is confronted with the possibility that failure could happen even under a seemingly infallible system. For the first time in his life, Erich is faced with a situation for which there is no prescribed rule for him to follow, and worse, there is no one left to tell him what to do when he learns that Herr Wild has committed suicide after being arrested by the FBI.

Incident in Yorkville is an interesting story. It is developed by paralleling the Kulner household in Apartment 2B with the Hershey family over them in 3B. One is a cold distant, angry, seemingly unhappy pro-Nazi family, the other a warm loving happy all-American family. As I read, I could see a chart forming in my mind listing the opposing characteristics of each family, and for that reason, I found the characters a little too stereotypical. The "good" characters were too good, and the "bad" guys weren't bad enough, making it a story constructed to be a piece pure propaganda. I think some of the propagandist feeling the book has come from Miss Sterne’s own passionate beliefs and her participation in the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.   Nevertheless, the book is a good picture of life in a New York City neighborhood. The games and activities of the kids and parents at home and in school are very realistic. And Erich’s keen observations help to add to this picture.

Incident in Yorkville is developed around an incident that really happened. On June 12, 1942, a group German saboteurs landed on Long Island. A member of the Coast Guard found them pretending to be fisherman, but also noticed that they were armed. He was offered and accepted a bribe to be quiet, but reported them to his superiors anyway. The beach was searched and the supplies brought for their planned bombing operations were found. The men were all arrested not long afterward, along with the group who had landed in Florida. Like Wilhelm Kulner, many aliens living in the US who were also supporters of the Third Reich had reason to worry. The FBI has already conducted raids in Yorkville in March 1942 and arrested some alien enemies. Yorkville was closely watched because of its German population. Before it was outlawed, the German American Bund held marches in Yorkville like this one on East 86th Street, two blocks away from the location of Incident in Yorkville at fictitious address of 260 East 84th Street:

This book is recommended for readers age 11-15.
This book was read in the Rose Reading Room of the research branch of the NYPL.

This is book 3 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews


  1. thanks for this post! I'm a new GFC follower!! Love the blog and I'm excited to read more!

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  2. Thanks for the book suggestion - this one sounds really unique. Have a great weekend and. . . I know, Depeche Mode needs to stay where they are LOL!