Emboldened by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, and fueled by the Great Depression, anti-Semitism increased throughout the United States, and over 100 anti-Semitic organizations sprung up across the country. They had names like the Friends of the New Germany (Nazi Bund), the Silver Shirts, Defenders of the Christian Faith, the Christian Front, and the Knights of the White Camellia, among others. Protected by the constitution’s First Amendment, they held public rallies, paraded through the streets in their uniforms carrying Nazi flags, published scurrilous magazines, and openly flaunted their hatred for Jews. American Jews were intimidated and frightened. Fearful of stirring up even more anti-Jewish sentiment, the American Jewish establishment’s response was often tentative and cautionary. They worried that what happened in Germany, home to Europe’s elite Jewish community, could easily happen in America. One group of American Jews who had no compunctions about meeting the anti-Semites head-on were Jewish gangsters. Not bound by conventional rules and constitutional legalities, they took direct and violent action against the Jew haters.
Nazi Bund rallies in New York City in the late 1930s created a terrible dilemma for the city’s Jewish leaders. With 20,000 members, the Nazi Bund was the largest anti-Semitic group in the nation. They organized large public rallies and marched to drumbeats wearing brown shirts and swastikas, and carrying Nazi flags. Jewish leaders wanted the meetings stopped, but could not do so legally. Nathan Perlman, a judge and former Republican congressman, was one Jewish leader who believed that the Jews should demonstrate more militancy. In 1935, he surreptitiously contacted Meyer Lansky, a leading organized crime figure born on the 4th of July, and asked him to help. Lansky related to me what followed.
Perlman assured Lansky that money and legal assistance would be put at his disposal. The only stipulation was that no Nazis be killed. They could be beaten up, but not terminated. Lansky reluctantly agreed. No killing. Always very sensitive about anti-Semitism, Lansky was acutely aware of what the Nazis were doing to Jews. “I was a Jew and I felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering,” he said. “They were my brothers.” Lansky refused the judge’s offer of money and assistance, but he did make one request. He asked Perlman to ensure that after he went into action he would not be criticized by the Jewish press. The judge promised to do what he could.
Lansky rounded up some of his tough associates and went around New York disrupting Nazi meetings. Young Jews not connected to him or the rackets also volunteered to help, and Lansky and others taught them how to use their fists and handle themselves in a fight. Lansky’s crews worked very professionally. Nazi arms, legs, and ribs were broken and skulls cracked, but no one died. The attacks continued for more than a year. And Lansky earned quite a reputation for doing this work.
Lansky later described to an Israeli journalist one of the onslaughts in Yorkville, the German neighborhood in northeast Manhattan:
“We got there in the evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speaker started ranting. There were only 15 of us, but we went into action. We attacked them in the hall and threw some of them out the windows. There were fist fights all over the place. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up, and some of them were out of action for months. Yes it was violence. We wanted to teach them a lesson. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”
Reflecting on his role in these episodes to me, he fumed that he helped the Jewish community, but all he got for his trouble was abuse. He believed the city’s Jewish leaders were pleased with his actions, but they failed to stop the Jewish press from condemning him. When the newspapers reported on the anti-Bund incidents, they referred to Lansky and his friends as “the Jewish gangsters.” This infuriated him. “They wanted the Nazis taken care of but were afraid to do the job themselves,” he said. “I did it for them. And when it was over they called me a gangster. No one ever called me a gangster until Rabbi Wise [Stephen Wise] and the Jewish leaders called me that.”
‘We went over there and grabbed everything in sight—all their bullshit signs—and smacked the shit out of them.’
Judd Teller, a reporter for a New York Jewish daily, relates how he met one day with “several men who said they were from ‘Murder, Incorporated’ and wanted a list of ‘Nazi bastards who should be rubbed out.’” Teller took the request to Jewish communal leaders. They told Teller that if the plan would be put in motion, “the police would be informed promptly.” Teller relayed this warning to his Murder, Inc. contact. Upon hearing this, the mobster angrily replied, “Tell them to keep their shirts on. OK, we won’t ice [murder] the bodies; only marinate them.” According to Teller, this is exactly what they did. He said the attacks by the Jewish mobsters was sufficient “marination” to drastically reduce attendance at Nazi Bund meetings, and discouraged Bundists “from appearing in uniform singly in the streets.”
After a series of attacks, the Bundists protested having their meetings violently broken up and asked Mayor Fiorello La Guardia for protection from the Jewish mobsters. La Guardia agreed under certain conditions. The Bundists could not wear their uniforms, sing their songs, display the swastika and Nazi flag, and could not march to beating drums. The Bundists agreed to his terms. La Guardia confined their parades to Yorkville and assigned Jewish and African-American policemen to patrol the route. Thereafter, any Nazi dignitary passing through New York was assured of a mixed Jewish and black bodyguard detail.
The Nazi Bund was also active across the river in Newark, New Jersey, which had a large German-American community. As a Jew, Abner “Longie” Zwillman, who bossed the rackets in that city, was not about to allow the Nazis to operate with impunity in his territory. In 1934, he turned to Nat Arno, a Jewish ex-prizefighter, and asked him to organize an anti-Nazi group. Arno recruited tough Newark Jews and ex-boxers, and the group called itself The Minutemen. They borrowed the name from the Minutemen of Revolutionary War fame. The original Minutemen got their name because they were expected to be ready to fight the British at a minute’s notice. Newark’s Jewish Minutemen wanted to emulate them in their fight against the Nazis.
The Minutemen saw to it that no Nazi Bund meetings would be held in the New Jersey area, particularly in Newark and the small towns surrounding it. Arno and his men monitored the movement of the Nazis and, after finding out where their meetings were held, would break them up. Arno had financial and political support in these forays from Longie Zwillman. In those days, Longie controlled Newark’s police. Whenever the Bund met, the police informed Longie of the time and place and conveniently abandoned their posts so the Nazis were left unguarded.
With Zwillman’s encouragement, one of his prime enforcers, Max “Puddy” Hinkes, joined the group. The Minutemen’s most famous exploit occurred in Schwabbenhalle on Springfield Avenue bordering the German neighborhood in Irvington. According to Hinkes:
“The Nazi scumbags were meeting one night on the second floor. Nat Arno and I went upstairs and threw stink bombs into the room where the creeps were. As they came out of the room, running from the horrible odor of the stink bombs and running down the steps to escape to go into the street to escape, our boys were waiting with bats and iron bars. It was like running a gauntlet. Our boys were lined up on both sides and we started hitting, aiming for their heads or any other parts of their bodies with our bats and iron bars. The Nazis were screaming blue murder. It was one of the most happy [sic] moments of my life. It was too bad we didn’t kill them all. In other places we couldn’t get inside, so we smashed windows and destroyed their cars, which were parked outside. The Nazis begged for police help and protection, however the police favored us.”
Heshie Weiner, another participant in the fracas, remembers that one of the Nazis who came running down the stairs, had the indiscretion to shout “Heil” and was met by a chorus of iron pipes. Weiner claims that after this attack, “I never heard any more of Bund meetings by the Nazis in our area.”
In Chicago, blond-and-blue-eyed Herb Brin, who worked as a crime reporter for the City Press, joined the local Nazi party as a spy for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of the B’nai B’rith. He told me, “I joined the Nazi party at the Hausfaterland on Western Avenue across from Riverview Park. It was a hotbed of Nazi activity,” he recalled. From 1938 through 1939, Brin kept the ADL informed about Nazi activities. What the ADL did not know was that he fed information about Nazi marches and rallies to Jewish gangsters. “I marched with the Nazis,” said Brin, “but I came back later with Jewish gangs and we beat them up good.”
Minneapolis, Minnesota was also a center of anti-Semitism during the 1930s, except here the problem was William Dudley Pelley’s pro-Nazi Silver Shirt Legion. A California native, Pelley was a former screenwriter, crime reporter, novelist, and magazine journalist. He hated President Roosevelt and wanted to rescue America from an international Jewish-communist conspiracy. Pelley claimed he created the Silver Shirts to “save America as Mussolini and his black shirts saved Italy and as Hitler and his brown shirts saved Germany.”
Minneapolis had a long history of anti-Semitism and was one of the few American cities to bar Jews from service clubs such as the Rotaries, Kiwanis, and Lions, and civic welfare organizations. Because of Minneapolis’ anti-Jewish tradition, Pelley felt it would be easy to gain a foothold there. At the time, the city’s gambling czar was David Berman, an associate and sometimes rival of Isidore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld, the head of an all-Jewish crime syndicate.
According to Berman’s daughter, Susan, Berman despised anti-Semites and determined to destroy the Silver Shirts. He found out where the Silver Shirts met and prepared his men for a raid. Meanwhile he notified his men that the next time he heard about a meeting, they were going to break it up. A call came one evening to Berman’s bookmaking operation in the Radisson Hotel. The caller informed Berman of a meeting of Silver Shirts at 8 o’clock that evening at the Elks Lodge. Berman immediately called his men. “Be at the office at 7 p.m. and bring anybody and everything you’ve got,” he said. When his men arrived, Berman distributed brass knuckles and clubs. He and his men then drove in a convoy of Cadillacs to the Elks Lodge and waited for the right moment to attack.
As soon as the Silver Shirt leader mounted the podium and began shouting for an end to “all the Jew bastards in this city,” Berman’s lookout signaled to him. Berman and his men charged through the door and began beating every Silver Shirt within reach. The meeting turned into pandemonium, with the audience screaming and running for the exits followed by every Silver Shirt still able to stand. The attack lasted 10 minutes. When it was over, Berman, his suit covered with blood, took the microphone. “This is a warning,” he said in a cold controlled voice. “Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse.” He then took out a pistol and fired a shot into the air. He and his men then left the hall. It took two more such attacks to frighten off the Silver Shirts. Berman and Blumenfeld paid off the police and there were never any arrests connected with the incident.
The Silver Shirts and Nazi Bundists were also active on the West Coast, especially in Los Angeles. Although few in number, they were noisy and brazen and alarmed the city’s Jewish community. During the height of Nazi activity in the summer of 1938, West Coast mobster Mickey Cohen was serving a short sentence in the Los Angeles county jail. He happened to be sitting in the bullpen (the barred enclosure where prisoners are kept temporarily) waiting to go to court, when Robert Noble, a notorious local Nazi Bundist, and another Nazi were brought in for questioning. Cohen knew what Noble was and Noble knew who Cohen was. The police made the mistake of sitting the anti-Semites near Cohen and leaving them alone.
In his memoir, Cohen tells what then happened. The two Nazis tried to move away but Cohen grabbed them before they could. “I started bouncing their heads together,” he recalled. “With the two of them, you’d think they’d put up a fight, but they didn’t do nothing. So I’m going over them pretty good. The windup is that they’re climbing up on the bars, both of them, and I’m trying to pull them down. Now they’re screaming and hollering so much everybody thinks it’s a riot,” said Cohen.
The noise and tumult brought the police on the run. By this time Mickey had moved back to his seat and was nonchalantly reading a newspaper. The officer in charge went over to Cohen and demanded to know what happened. “What are you asking me for,” said Cohen. “I’m sitting here reading the newspaper. Them two guys got into a fight with each other. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t want to mix in with them.” After he was released, Cohen enjoyed telling his friends how good he felt about beating up anti-Semites.
As news of the incident spread, Cohen began getting calls from Jewish organizations and leaders asking him to help them oppose the Nazis. One of his callers was a Jewish judge who informed Mickey about a Nazi Bund meeting. “I told him all right, don’t worry about it,” said Cohen. Cohen gathered together some of his Jewish mobster friends and raided the Nazi meeting. “We went over there and grabbed everything in sight—all their bullshit signs—and smacked the shit out of them, broke them up as best we could,” said Cohen.” Nobody could pay me for this work. It was my patriotic duty. There ain’t no amount of money to buy them kind of things,” he said.
What did Jewish communal leaders think about this? Publicly they evinced shame and horror at the criminal activities and notoriety of the gangsters because they epitomized the “bad Jew,” the evildoer who would bring hatred on the whole community. Privately they appreciated the mobsters who boldly took action against the Nazis and anti-Semites. Although the gangsters may have distressed the Jewish establishment, they did earn the admiration of the Jewish man-on-the-street, especially among Jewish youngsters. Talk show host Larry King admitted that when he was growing up in Brooklyn, “Jewish gangsters were our heroes. Even the bad ones were heroes to us.” The 1930s were a time fraught with danger for Jews. For some Jewish mobsters, it proved to be a time when they could do something positive to protect their community from Nazis and anti-Semites.
Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.