Karen Sutton

Of subways and swastikas — if you see something, say something!

Do the supervisors of the New York transit system really think riders need to be told not to draw symbols of hate on the train walls?
The sign in the New York City subway car. (courtesy)
The sign in the New York City subway car. (courtesy)

Is drawing a swastika evidence of a hate crime? “Two swastikas key to clerk’s hate-crime trial,” was the headline of an article published in the Chicago Tribune on September 9, 1996. At that trial, a brand new employee of the Anti-Defamation League, a young Holocaust historian, gave her expert witness testimony stating that “the swastika, adopted as the official government symbol of Nazi Germany, is so entwined with the systematic elimination of millions of Jews and others that it has become the ultimate symbol of Jew hatred.”

The historian acknowledged that in earlier times the swastika in its original form (before the Nazis inverted it) had other uses and represented some peaceful and positive images. In her educated opinion, however, in this post-Holocaust world the only intent in producing a swastika is to elicit hate. During the Nazi era, that hatred rapidly became rabid and viral, leading “ordinary people” to commit acts of terror and mass murder. For survivors, even child survivors, seeing a swastika can only be an agonizing reminder that their precious loved ones were not given a chance to live out their years, that their own lives and homes could have been so filled with relatives and friends, the essence of long life. And so, the weight of that very nervous young historian’s testimony helped gain a hate crime conviction for Assistant State’s Attorneys Nicholas Grapsas and Michael Holzman. That young historian was me.

And now, the swastika is still the subject of acts of bigotry, hate crimes, as well as its controversial but continued use as eastern religious symbols. You can imagine my surprise and upset when one of my students recently brought me a very curious picture she had taken with her phone on the subway ride to our class, “20th Century Genocide: Lessons Unlearned.” Directly over the subway map a trilogy of rather mundane “no no’s“ is illustrated. Usually as seen in pictures, it is “no smoking (cigarette), no littering (crumpled paper on floor) and no music (boombox).” In the photo my student produced, the third illustration was not a boombox but a swastika! Granted it had a line through it, but who wants to see a swastika on their commute to and from Manhattan. And what is it doing on a subway?

In their wisdom, do the supervisors of the MTA think they have to call their riders’ attention to the fact that they don’t want swastikas drawn on subway car walls? Is that really necessary here in New York?

What is really pathetic, is that the picture was shown to me in March and it is now June. I simply haven’t the time or energy to pursue the issue. But, especially in my occupation, as a Holocaust professor, I should have done something — taken some action in the direction of protest or at least investigated the source.

Was I too smug, too busy or to secure to find out what the transit agency, a branch of the mayor’s office, was thinking? Now that it is June and I have a moment to investigate, I will do so, but is waiting ever a good idea? The slogan of the transit system is, after all, “If you see something say something.” Certainly that should be the case whenever a swastika appears in any form. That, at the heart of it all, is a lesson that should not go unlearned.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro University, in New York City.
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