WHEN JAQUELINE ANTONOVICH FIRST SAW the flag, her body flooded with fear. She would recognize that flash of red anywhere. Antonovich is a historian at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, and she had recently purchased a mid-1800s-era farmhouse in Allentown. Antonovich’s new house kept offering her small gifts from its long history—an antique glass baby bottle, an old trunk. And the flag, folded in an army-green metal box behind the kitchen’s wood-burning stove.
She found the box while dusting, a few days before Christmas 2020. She brushed away grime to reveal the words “Gas Casualty First Aid.” Antonovich, who is also co-founder of the digital history of medicine journal Nursing Clio, figured it was a World War II medic box, but when she opened it, she found dog tags and a registration card—and the telltale crimson.
At first, the find was alarming. “I got really scared for half a second,” Antonovich says. But the flag wasn’t part of a racist collection: Upon closer look, Antonovich found that it was a memory of the defeat of the Nazi regime, signed by the American World War II veterans who had captured the flag in Europe. Among the names and hometowns of soldiers—Jack Schallehn from Saratoga Springs, New York; Anthony Belpanno, from Brooklyn—was a note, “Captured by 385th Infantry, March 29th, 1945.” The flag also bore a proclamation from Belpanno: “May this flag never fly again.”
Antonovich was floored. “I may have teared up,” she says. She posted news of the find to Twitter, sharing images of the signatures but not of the swastika itself, out of sensitivity to the violence of the symbol. Her followers were equally fascinated. Yet when Anotonovich’s giddiness at her historical find faded, she was left with a perplexing question: What should she do with it?