RIVERDALE — Local historian Tom Riley will be presenting his popular presentation "Nazis in Riverdale?" at the borough library on Wednesday, Oct. 3.
The retired educator, who grew up in Bloomingdale, said he first learned of the infamous German Bund camp on Federal Hill from the ghost stories in his youth.
The camp, active in the 1930s, was in Bloomingdale but was reached from behind Slater's Mill off Hamburg Turnpike in Riverdale. The bridge behind the mill was washed out in 1903.
"There really was a German camp on Federal Hill," Riley said. "So, of course, that just got my imagination going and I was just a sponge for anything to do with Federal Hill."
Camp Bergwald was raided several times by the FBI, and 19 members were put on trial in 1944. Four were convicted as spies for conspiring to transmit military information to Germany in violation of the Espionage Act in 1943.
"So you had spies right here looking down at you from Federal Hill," Riley said.
The camp was ultimately confiscated by the United States government and the land eventually bought by Tilcon Quarry, which owns more land on Federal Hill.
Riley recently had a chance to do some exploring on Federal Hill as part of the production of a new documentary available on YouTube called: "Bloomingdale — An American Small Town."
Remnants of a camp building, visible today, are included in the film, along with some archive footage of camp activities. The film producers received special permission to explore the camp site, accompanied by Tilcon security.
Riley's presentation also includes photographs. Camp Bergwald was a youth camp for boys and girls 8 to 18, Riley said. Members spoke German, and along with normal camp activities they were indoctrinated with a "heavy dose of national socialism," he said.
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Members handed out fliers and sold pamphlets and Nazi collectibles, he said. At its height there were 20 chapters across the United States, most concentrated in the Northeast.
"Make no mistake: They were just as anti-Roosevelt-administration as anybody possibly could be," Riley said. "The same spiel that Hitler was spreading across Europe at this time, this German American Vocational League are spreading right here."
The group evolved from the Friends of Hitler Movement, the Friends of New Germany and then, by 1936, the German American Bund. Riley cited a 1944 New York Times article that traced $13,000 used to purchase the land on Federal Hill back to Nazi Germany, the Vocational League and the German Labor movement.
Federal Hill, it turns out, also played a role in the Revolutionary War and was part of a beacon system. The early-warning system was used to alert Gen. George Washington of British troops' movements.
Washington even put down a mutiny on Federal Hill, and two of the three mutineers were executed. So the ghosts stories about mutineers that Riley heard as a child had some merit. So did the ones about Nazis on Federal Hill.
The site where Camp Bergwald and the beacon were located may end up being quarried, the historian said. There is no access to the old Bund Camp site, he said, and the area is fenced off. The camp is now within the active blast area of Tilcon.
Register online for the event at riverdalelibrary.org, or call the library at 973-835-5044.
Riley is also known for his presentations on the connection of Babe Ruth and minor league baseball to the area. Keep an eye on the local library calendars for his talks.