The Duveneck House at Hidden Villa featured tiles with pre-Nazi swastikas, a common symbol in Eastern religions, in Los Altos Hills. (Photo/Courtesy Hidden Villa)
The Duveneck House at Hidden Villa featured tiles with pre-Nazi swastikas, a common symbol in Eastern religions, in Los Altos Hills. (Photo/Courtesy Hidden Villa)

Uproar over historical pre-Nazi swastikas forces Bay Area summer camp to cancel sessions

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Hidden Villa, a Los Altos nonprofit farm and wilderness preserve, abruptly canceled all sessions of its summer camp after the camp director and three other leaders resigned on June 5 after the organization was slow to remove two historical swastika tiles from a main building.

The tiles, embedded in the architecture of the Duveneck House, depict two Buddhist swastikas separated by a lotus flower. The founders of Hidden Villa purchased them as art pieces in 1913 in Asia, where they are a sacred symbol of good fortune in a number of traditions — though the symbol was later usurped by the Nazis as a symbol of hate and white supremacy.

While the swastika tiles were at the center of the staff resignations, they were part of a larger issue related to perceived structural and institutional racism at Hidden Villa, according to the Los Altos Town Crier.

Mimi Elias, the camp’s assistant director who was living in the Duveneck House, was one of the four staffers to resign. Elias told the Los Altos Town Crier that the swastikas made her deeply uncomfortable as someone who identifies as a queer person of color.

“Every day I had to go to my place of residence and had to look at swastikas and walk beneath them,” Elias told the Los Altos Town Crier, which noted that other staffers shared her discomfort. The swastikas were removed by camp leadership on June 7, two days after staff resigned.

Board president Peter Hartzell responded to the community in a June 8 letter posted on the website: “Hidden Villa has been investing in issues of racial equity over the last couple of years, such as the formation of the JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) Council, the DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) Advisory Committee, and staff training, but for some, the pace of change has been too slow,” he said. “Unfortunately, in organizing a complex and inclusive process, we were too slow to respond to the voices that expressed pain and concern over the symbols on the house, and we recognize how that was interpreted as a lack of concern.”

The camp, which serves K-12th grades in day camp and overnight programs, planned to host 900 youth this summer, teaching wilderness and farm activities, leadership skills and environmental sustainability. The resignations pushed the camp’s already low staffing numbers into unmanageable territory, which prompted all summer sessions to be canceled.

Hidden Villa has not responded to J.’s requests for comment.

The Nazi party appropriated the swastika in 1920 as its own symbol, known in German as a Hakenkreuz (hooked cross), but the swastika symbol dates back thousands of years and is sacred in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Odin traditions.

Assembly Bill 2282, a hate crimes bill supported by the Anti-Defamation League, was revised last month by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (Orinda), a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, to distinguish between the Hindu swastika and the Nazi version.

RELATED: New California hate crime bill differentiates Hindu swastika from Nazi emblem

Ramya Ramakrishnan, the East Bay-based director of community outreach at the national Hindu American Foundation, appreciates the distinction. Most Hindus abhor the appropriation of one of their holy symbols by the murderous Nazi regime, and have faced negative consequences when displaying a sacred swastika outside their home for good luck or during holidays. The Hindu American Foundation wishes to restore the symbol to its original meaning.

Toward that end, Ramakrishnan called Hidden Villa’s removal of the swastikas “disappointing” and “upsetting.”

“Honestly I’m fearful of what’s in store for Hindu, Buddhist and Jain communities and the students, the little kids that are growing up in this kind of an environment,” Ramakrishnan told J.

She contacted Hidden Villa administrators on June 10 to offer her support for the camp’s efforts to educate staff about the historical swastikas and provide additional resources.

“I’ll try and help clear the confusion,” she said, noting that Hidden Villa administrators responded within hours and were open to discussions.

She also wants the 12-by-12-inch tiles restored to the Duveneck House, noting that the lotus flower in the tile design represents the Buddha’s feet.

“It couldn’t have been more sacred than that,” Ramakrishnan said. “I’m really upset that such an ancient tile that was brought from a different continent … was actually removed. I honestly think it should be put back on.”

The swastika tiles, and the Duveneck House itself, have a storied past. Frank and Josephine Duveneck, the founders of Hidden Villa, purchased the tiles while on their honeymoon in 1913 traveling through Asia, Hartzell wrote in his letter. The couple acquired Hidden Villa in 1924 and constructed their house with the tiles on the exterior in 1929, according to “The History of Hidden Villa.”

The Duvenecks donated 900 of the 2,500 acres to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and left the remaining 1,600 for a nonprofit trust. Josephine Duveneck was well known for her passion for advancing social justice, and used the Duveneck House as a center of social activism.

The house was even a refuge for Jews during the Holocaust.

“The Duvenecks sheltered refugees fleeing from the Nazis, assisted Japanese American families returning from internment camps, and hosted groups for social and educational reform,” the history guide notes.

Morgan Blum Schneider
Morgan Blum Schneider

Morgan Blum Schneider, the director of the JFCS Holocaust Center, which serves more than 28,000 students, teachers and community members annually, routinely teaches about the history of the Holocaust and patterns of genocide. That includes the symbol of the swastika and its impact today as a powerful symbol of antisemitism, hate and white supremacy.

Schneider also understands the visual differences between Eastern swastikas and the Nazi symbol. Nazi swastikas are angled, while the lines of a Hindu or Buddhist swastika are horizontal and parallel. The Nazi swastika also has arms that hook to the right, while Hindu or Buddhist swastikas traditionally hook to the left.

“What’s complicated is that I understand the nuance. This is my field,” Schneider said. “But not everybody understands the nuance of how that symbol appears.”

The teaching staff at the Holocaust Center starts with Jewish history first, because historical context matters, Schneider said. “I think that with anything, you need context, and you need an understanding of different cultures.”

She said she supports Ramakrishnan’s push for greater education around Hindu swastikas as well.

“I think that there is such a need in our classrooms for an increase in cultural sensitivity,” Schneider said.

In a June 13 update to the community, Hartzell shared that the camp may have some programming resume later in the summer, and that steps are being taken to reaffirm Hidden Villa’s commitment to being “a refuge that builds connections and inspires a deeper appreciation and respect for nature, food, and one another.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.