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Mistaken Identity?

When I lived upstairs from the Jewish Defense Organization, Hitler was a presence on the Lower East Side

Ron Rosenbaum
May 25, 2010
(Collage by Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; East Village graffiti photo by Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis; Hitler photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)
(Collage by Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; East Village graffiti photo by Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis; Hitler photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)

They had the wrong guy. It was a case of mistaken identity. That’s what I told the dudes on the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force that morning when I was coming home to my strange new abode from a peaceful breakfast and these two big guys in trench coats flashed their badges, threw me up against the brick wall, and frisked me for weapons. Aside from the take-out bagel, which on some mornings could be considered a weapon of sorts, they didn’t find any, but they weren’t through with me. They said they were looking for a certain fugitive and they thought I might be he. I had to prove who I wasn’t. Which meant, afterwards, I had to think about who I was.

I didn’t know the whereabouts of the fugitive they were seeking, although I did know who he was. I’d seen him on the floor below me in the red brick tenement building on Bleecker near Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The floor that served as the headquarters of what was invariably called “the extremist Jewish Defense Organization.” Extremist? I’d heard vague rumors of a connection with the attempted murder of an aging Nazi war criminal on Long Island, although I never knew if there was a real connection and still don’t know if that was why one of them became a fugitive.

But they were, in one way or another, extreme. Some might say extreme moralists, in a slightly Dostoevskian Underground Man way. Others might call them single-minded Jewish fanatics because the cause that gave them birth was the bitter struggle of millions of Soviet Jews to survive and escape vicious repression by openly anti-Semitic Russian authorities. A struggle given more emotional intensity by the fact that Americans, and particularly the human-rights wing of American liberalism, composed in great part by Jews, seemed detached if not disdainful of the plight of their co-religionists, content to follow the lead of the Nixon-Kissinger policy: Don’t make noise about Soviet Jews because it threatened the delicate preservation of detente between nuclear powers.

And so it was left to outsider Jews, to “fanatics,” to “extremists,” like Meir Kahane, to make noise about what was happening behind prison bars in the Soviet Union, the prison bars of the Soviet Union: the murders, the imprisonments, psychiatric lock-ups for dissidents, the deprivation of even the few rights of non-Jewish citizens of the Soviet police state.

The more one reads—as in Gal Beckerman’s forthcoming book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone—on the struggle to save Soviet Jews, the more one understands the frustration with official Jewish organizations that gave rise to the impulse to extremism.

Now, the “extremist JDO” is often confused with the original “extremist JDL,” the Jewish Defense League, founded by an extremist, Kahane, which earned its extremist label by being accused of bomb plots against Carnegie Hall and other venues for touring Soviet orchestras and ballet groups that were used as the window dressing for detente.

It should have been considered a universal human-rights cause, but it was often dismissed as a right-wing—because anti-Communist—cause. I must admit to my own guilt here.

In any case I’ve lost track of the details, but there’s extremist and there’s extremist and it’s my understanding that the JDO, my downstairs neighbors, broke off from the JDL because the JDL wasn’t extremist enough. It wouldn’t go the extra mile. And the JDO under its founder, Mordechai Levy, began to focus its attention on other American anti-Semitic manifestations, including neo-Nazi, white supremacist, Klan, and Holocaust-denier groups. And the alleged Nazi war criminals the Justice department was not pursuing vigorously enough for their notion of “justice.”

Perhaps for this reason, “the enemy of my enemy,” etc., the JDO found a haven in the various New and Old Left enclaves of the Lower East Side, long home to Jewish fanatics, now haven for the remains of the counterculture, including such figures as A.J. Weberman, the well-known “Dylanologist” who was a patron of the JDO and someone I became familiar with during my first reporting job, the perilous post of counterculture reporter for The Village Voice. It was a job in which one met all sorts of exotic characters. Indeed I recall when Weberman lived in the JDO building, I had occasion to meet a figure known as “One-Legged Terry,” an American-born Israeli who was said to be responsible for Bob Dylan’s pre-born-again engagement with Judaism.

But I was not seeking a cause, just a refuge, a place to lay my head after a divorce. And it sounded like a good deal, two floors in a solidly built brick tenement building. On the other hand, I didn’t realize the unwanted attention it would entail. I was not seeking to find myself frisked by the Joint Terrorism Squad, however mistakenly.

It was a strange arrangement and a strange episode in my life but, looking back on it, the mistaken-identity episode and my conversations and arguments with the JDO guys did cause me to think about my real identity and its lack of definition. And, eventually, through one Killer Question, gave me the impetus to write Explaining Hitler.

Mistaken identity? What distinguished my Jewishness from the vigilante Jewishness of the JDO?

Well, I was not an observant Jew, not even much of a believer, though not an atheist. Just not a monotheist. So, sue me.

But I loved Jews and Jewish culture and living for the first time in a Jewish city. (I’d grown up in non-Jewish small-town suburb and gone to school in New Haven and had not experienced much anti-Semitism in either locale; now I was drowning in philo-Semitism, and I liked it.) I will admit that what made me identify as Jewish more than anything else was the Holocaust, rage at it and its perpetrators. Even though I had no direct ancestors die in it, I knew they could have. And shortly before he died my father told me about a second cousin of his who lived in Paris and probably died in the camps. I came to feel Hitler’s victims were all part of my extended family.

I know I also had the vague idea for a novel that would attempt to exorcise this, an alternate history in which a group of Jews took on Hitler and the Nazis before they came to power—and won. I think it was derived from a legendary, probably apocryphal, story that back in the 1930s the Lower East Side’s own Jewish mobster king, Meyer Lansky, came to Fifth Avenue to ask august spokesman for the Jewish Establishment, Rabbi Stephen Wise, do you want me to put a contract out on Hitler? And the dignified civilized rabbi said no, it was not the right thing to do, it might backfire, be bad for his image, bad for the image of Jews, something. Too extremist. Lansky left, although there are stories that he didn’t entirely drop the idea right away. I haven’t either.

Still, from day to day it wasn’t visceral, my sense of Jewish identity and rage. I preferred the Simon Wiesenthal approach: hunting down ex-Nazis, bringing them to justice, and trying them (like Eichmann) for their crimes against humanity, not shooting them through Long Island screen doors. But could I utterly condemn the “wild justice” (as revenge is sometimes called) the fugitive I’d been mistaken for had been suspected of? What’s the morality of killing an 80-year-old Nazi war criminal?

But first let me introduce you to the setting and the flaming dogs. I’m glad I talked my way out of the fugitive charge before the Feds decided to take a look inside the entranceway to the four-story tenement building I shared with the JDO.

It was designed, the entranceway, like a kind of non-lethal gas chamber. You opened the heavy door, which quickly slammed behind you, and you were in a chamber facing another locked door, above which were sinister-looking pipes next to a surveillance camera that my landlord—the fugitive—had equipped to pipe in tear gas (or some-such immobilizing agent) by remote control in case of a hostile break-in. Or that’s what I was told. I had no desire to test the system.

And then if the Joint Terrorist Squad guys had ventured beyond the “gas chamber” they would have seen the flaming dog portraits. Hey, it was a building on the Lower East Side! Whadda ya expect? Remember that old folkie standard “Freight Train”—with its refrain: “When I die please bury me deep/ Down at the end of Bleecker Street”?

That’s exactly where I was, not dead, but sort of buried deep down at the Bowery end of Bleecker Street.

The Bowery was still the Bowery of wino hotels and grimy sidewalks littered with broken bottles and broken lives. CBGB’s hadn’t even opened. And some artists felt the flaming-dog muse. Anyway one did.

The staircase up to the top floor where I kept my bedroom was adorned on each landing by huge oil paintings of dogs on fire. Poodles on fire. Schnauzers on fire. And opposite my door: a poor beagle, flames erupting from his spine. Curiously the dogs didn’t seem to be experiencing pain, as I recall it. They seemed to have an almost spiritual stoicism about it all. It was almost like (to depart from Jewish imagery) Pentecostal fire. They were ablaze with holiness, those dogs. Or so I comforted myself to think. See, the landlord’s wife was an artist and she specialized in this—and only this—unique and inimitable concept. I know I lost at least one girlfriend in the trudge up the stairs past the dogs. It was pretty hardcore stuff. But I think someday a dogs-on-fire show documenting the genre will adorn a hip museum.

The rifle was no fantasy however. It was actually a heavy gauge shotgun, which the landlord handed me when I moved in. Now, this was before the rooftop gunfight between rival Jewish extremists that happened after I’d moved out, but he told me that he was under assault by various enemies, Nazi and Jewish, who might try to break in. (And more than once I had to deny entry to guys pounding on the gas-chamber door who were yelling “FBI! Open up!” Well, I didn’t deny entry. I just pretended I wasn’t home.)

Anyway he handed me the shotgun (that I never learned how to use) as soon as he handed me the keys, and I was instructed to take the shotgun up to the roof with me every time the alarm sounded and I had to confront the intruders my landlord was concerned about. Look: Every New York apartment deal has some downside.

He didn’t tell me about the exact soul-shattering nature of the alarm until one night not long after I’d moved in, my ears, my head, my heart and soul were all split open by the violent assault of a piercing nuclear-attack-warning klaxon. Apparently it was designed to temporarily derange the mental capacities of intruders as well as warn them. Anyway it had that effect on me.

When I unlocked the door to the roof, forgetting (or too deranged to remember) to carry the shotgun, but figuring I’d rather die than hear the alarm for one second more, it turned out to be a false alarm. Maybe it was the flock of pigeons roosting near one of the trip wires. When I asked, my landlord told me he had calibrated it to be “very sensitive.” From that point on, my sleep was like that of an R. Crumb character: shaky waves of anticipatory dread radiating from me. Very sensitive.

You might be wondering how I snagged this steal of an apartment, but let’s just say that if your first reporting job is staff writer for The Village Voice and your beat is the counterculture you meet some unusual types. That’s how I became friendly with Abbie Hoffman, for instance, at this same pad some years earlier, when Abbie said what is still the second-wisest thing I’ve heard about the Holocaust. The first I heard in Jerusalem when I was writing my Hitler book and talking to the brilliant philosopher and theologian Emil Fackenheim, who had formulated what he called “the 614th Commandment,” the watchword of post-Holocaust
Jews he believed should be added to the traditional 613 Orthodox rules and obligations: “Thou shall not give to Hitler any posthumous victories.”

What Abbie Hoffman said was in its way equally valid: “After the Holocaust all Jews went crazy.”

But meanwhile I was getting to know my downstairs neighbors, the JDO. Yes, I’d heard their karate classes, but I hadn’t heard their impersonations until one day I passed a half-open door and heard what I swore was the voice of a Klansman inside. It stopped me dead on the landing outside their office. Not just any Klansman, I should say, but a Grand Kleagle as he kept mentioning on the phone to a fellow Kleagle (as in, “Us Kleagles got to whip them boys into shape”).

Through the half-open door I could hear this pitch-perfect lowdown redneck trailer trash deputy sheriff growl, talking big about his plans for big-time cross burnings and the like.

Then when I came through the door I saw that the Klan voice emanated from a nerdy looking bespectacled guy wearing a white shirt, tefillin, and a yarmulke.

The Infiltrator. Through his mastery of telephone hacking, organizational research, and perfection of accent he had—I got the impression—half the Kleagles of the Klan in the South convinced he was running a thriving Klavern out of Northern Louisiana. Or impersonating the guy who was. He was always setting up secret Klaverns and cross-burnings and then alerting the Feds who had paper out on most of these guys.

Of course there were some morally ambiguous aspects to this work. Like one of his operatives way down south in the land of cotton who in order to get inside the inner circle had been forced to demonstrate he wasn’t an infiltrator by participating in some unspecified crime (against property only, I like to believe).

He worked closely with a shadowy, sketchy, Aryan-looking type who infiltrated neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denial organizations. It was he to whom all the Institute for Historical Review, Spotlight, and other bigoted literature that was pushed through the “gas-chamber” mail slot was addressed. There was talk about a previous infiltrator who had gone over to the dark side. Had done so many things to prove himself to his racist brethren that he’d begun to sound racist himself. Had he become a triple agent?

And then there was The Archivist, whose files weren’t limited to anti-Semites only—although he was tracking just about every Jew-hating rabble-rouser in America it seemed—but encompassed The Archivist’s obsessions with the Kennedy assassination, Bob Dylan, and (most impressively to me) James Angleton, the CIA’s legendary madman counterintelligence guru and chief mole hunter. Since I’d just published one of the first long magazine pieces on Angleton and his mole hunt (in Harper’s) I was knowledgeable enough to be impressed by what The Archivist had amassed on Angleton through FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act.

He had used FOIA to ransack government files of every heavily blacked-out piece of paper they’d released on Angleton. There were clues there I knew, though, to what I did not know.

Anyway I found myself originally hanging out there to look through the Angleton files and talk counter-intelligence with The Archivist, but eventually things came down to the Jewish question. The Revenge Question, the Hitler Assassination Question in particular.

I’d challenge them: You go around shooting aging Nazis you’re gonna get some Jewish grandmothers killed in return. I should note they didn’t admit any complicity in the Nazi war-criminal shooting and none was ever charged with it. It was more a “we didn’t do it, but we dug it” attitude.

They’d come back at me heatedly saying the government is letting them get away with it! They killed tens of thousands of Jews! And you think they should be allowed to live out their lives in peace? You call that justice?

And then the killer question: “Let me ask you something, Ron,” one of them said. “You’re so against violence, but what if you were in Munich in the 1920s and you had a chance to assassinate Hitler before he came to power. Don’t you think you should have done it?”

Interesting question, which grew more interesting the more I thought about it. But at the time, because I’m not the type who likes to lose an argument, I countered by saying, Well, knowing what we know now makes it a different question. How could we know then? They shot back: He [Hitler] said it in every speech, he wrote it in Mein Kampf, he demanded it. The murder of the Jews. What more did you need to know?

Well, whether he was a serious threat to get to power, which he wasn’t really until after 1930.

And I added, “OK, say you kill Hitler. How do you know the Nazis wouldn’t come to power anyway and still kill the Jews, maybe sooner because your assassination of Hitler made him a martyr to be avenged on the Jews?”

It was a glib liberal response, and although I still don’t know the answer, from the moment I heard the question, I couldn’t let go of it.

Their response and my initial counter-response turned out to represent two poles of Hitler historiography: two sides of the argument over the centrality of Hitler to the Holocaust.

In a famous Commentary article that appeared that year, the political journalist Milton Himmelfarb had argued, as the title of the article declared: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” In other words, without Hitler an anti-Semitic regime might have come to power in Germany in the 1930s just as such regimes had come to power in nations throughout the world in the past millennia. But just as those regimes had oppressed Jews, instigated pogroms, they hadn’t sought to exterminate them utterly and systematically the way Hitler drove the Nazis and the rest of occupied Europe that collaborated to do so. Extermination was Hitler’s personal and inexorable goal. The Nazi or anti-Semitic regime that came to power—assuming it did after he’d been assassinated—would have likely oppressed the Jews, Himmelfarb argued, but it wouldn’t necessarily have turned the entire continent of Europe into an industrialized killing machine the way Hitler’s unshakable, single-minded drive and determination to exterminate the Jews made the Holocaust Hitler’s act of will, his highest priority, higher, some believed than winning the war. It was the reason the historian Lucy Dawidowicz titled her powerful history of the Hitler regime The War Against the Jews.

This was known as the Intentionalist position. No Hitler, no Holocaust.

On the other hand there was the argument that abstract forces—the pre-Hitler German ideology of “eliminationist anti-Semitism,” the 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, the German hatred of Jewish-inspired Modernism, the need to make room for German occupants of conquered territories in Poland and Russia by killing the Jewish inhabitants made the Jews expendable—made turning them into ashes the most efficient and economical way of disposing making room for Lebensraum. This is known as the Functionalist position.

I had a feeling the answer to the JDO question—why not assassinate Hitler in Munich?—depended in large measure on the question of how much could have been known about Hitler’s intentions. How much was known about him in the years before he came to power? It was one of the factors that led me to focus my research—I was still thinking about a novel, not the nonfiction account of Hitler controversies my book became—on the contemporary journalism about Hitler, the Munich Hitler, Hitler in his adopted hometown, evil in embryo, the Munich Hitler that had been lost in the focus on the Holocaust Hitler, the Berlin Hitler.

A Hitler that had almost been forgotten by history, obscured by the night and fog. A Hitler that could be found more often in footnotes in larger histories that glossed over the pre-Berlin period. In the memoirs of reporters who covered the Hitler movement in Munich for the Western press. Biographers—and the new breed of psycho-biographers—tended to focus on the apocryphal and often fraudulent legends of his childhood, seeking to find there some Original Trauma (usually the fault of an early encounter with a Jew or a woman or a Jewish prostitute or the like, blame-it-on-the-victim biography).

But I was especially intrigued by the footnotes referring to the investigative work of the anti-Hitler journalists in the 1920s, particularly those of the Munich Post, the anti-Hitler Social Democratic newspaper that had dug up damaging and scandalous scoops on Hitler and what they pointedly called “The Hitler Party.”

Eventually I went to Munich and located, in a basement archive, crumbling copies of their daily paper with its daily reports of Nazi attacks on the opposition. (One thing you learn reading the old Munich newspapers is how important a role political murder plays. The daily toll the Post recorded of “Brown murders” as they called the Brownshirt death squad crimes, the physical criminality of the Nazi party, and the blatant assassination of political opponents is often neglected in explaining Hitler’s rise. One sees too much reliance on superficially more “sophisticated” theories of charisma and propaganda artistry. Hitler slaughtered his way to power just as he slaughtered his way out of it.)

The Munich Post was like a dark grimoire of attacks, beatings, Nazi sexual scandals (the Geli Raubal affair), homosexual blackmail plots (the Röhm letters), financial skullduggery, lying Nazi history (the “stab in the back” myth), accompanied by brilliant satiric attacks on Nazi party members and Hitler himself, lots of lampoons and ridicule of Hitler. I decided eventually to write a nonfiction book in large part because I wanted to rescue these reporter heroes who drove Hitler crazy. (He called the Post the “Poison Kitchen” because it was always “cooking up slanders” against him, “slanders” almost always true.)

But in terms of the question behind the question the JDO asked—how much could people know back then?—the most important story I discovered in the Post archives is one that had been tragically neglected by the world at the time and by historians later: On December 9, 1931, the Munich Post published a secret Nazi party document—the party’s plan to dispose of the Jews after it came to power, a plan that contains what is the first known usage of the phrase “Final Solution.”

People could have known if they’d read the papers. Hitler tried to hide the death camps from the world’s view, but his intentions weren’t hidden in his rise to power.

But there was another even more contemporary question my dialogue with the JDO guys raised. A question that has to do with Hitler and has to do with the state of Israel and has to do with a nuclear-capable state in the region whose leaders make threats to eliminate the 5 million Jews of Israel in a second Holocaust (though they deny the first). They have not hidden their intentions. They are close to the means for accomplishing them. Doing in an instant what it took Hitler six years to accomplish.

Let me ask readers of Tablet two questions: What would you do, knowing what we know about Hitler in, say, Munich in 1931: Would there be grounds for an “extrajudicial killing”? Second question: Does it bear any relation to the dilemma the state of Israel faces, deciding what to do vis-à-vis Iran in the next few years? They’ve made their exterminationist wish plain. Emil Fackenheim has said we are commanded “not to give any posthumous victories to Hitler.”

I don’t have the answers, and I’m not saying the JDO did or does. But they made me think about the questions in a more immediate way, flaming dogs or not.

Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars and a forthcoming book on the new age of nuclear war, is a columnist for Slate. He lives in New York.

Ron Rosenbaum’s books include Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and Those Who Forget the Past, an anthology of essays on contemporary anti-Semitism.

Ron Rosenbaum’s books include Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and Those Who Forget the Past, an anthology of essays on contemporary anti-Semitism.