“In 1933, I was approached by someone respectable, a Jew not involved in any criminal activity, and asked for my help. He wanted me to contact some of my underworld pals in a plan to kill Hitler.” I stared at the man sitting across from me. I was incredulous. A plan to kill Hitler in 1933? Involving Jewish American mobsters? Was he serious? The story seemed far-fetched, a bube meyseh (old wives’ tale). I was skeptical.
Still, I wrote down what he told me. He said the hit man or men selected for the job had to be Yiddish speakers, so they could get around any language problems in Germany. He said they would be paid $2,500 plus expenses. He said the “respectable Jew” told him, “There are people in Germany ready to assist us.” This is how he remembered the scheme to kill Hitler.
My source’s nickname was “Dutch.” He was one of the elderly “retired” mobsters I interviewed for my book, But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters. According to my notes, I met him on Aug. 15, 1988, at the Picasso Café in Herzlia Pituah, an upscale seaside suburb of Herzliya, 15 miles north of Tel Aviv. When we met, he was living in Israel. He said, “My friends call me Dutch. You seem OK, so call me Dutch, too.” This was our only face-to-face meeting, and he asked me not to use his family name while he was still breathing. I promised him I would not. He died in 1993. Later I learned his last name was Goldberg. As far as I know, I was the last person he spoke to about this.
I recall Dutch as being about 5 feet 7 and of stocky build with thinning gray hair. I estimated his age to be somewhere in the 80s. I surmised he must have been good-looking in his youth. But time took its toll. His skin showed age spots, and his right hand shook slightly when he lifted his coffee cup. At first, he asked me to tell him about my work and background and why I wanted to speak to him. I told him that I’d grown up in Detroit, got my doctorate in history at the University of Michigan, and was teaching at Tel Aviv University. I explained that I was researching Jews and organized crime in the United States. We then discussed some underworld figures, including Meyer Lansky, whom I interviewed in 1980.
Dutch looked at me for awhile. “Gangsters,” he said. “Why is a nice Jewish professor like you writing about that stuff? There are a lot of other things you could write about, but gangsters is not one of them.” For the next 10 minutes or so, we went back and forth about my research and topics Dutch thought I could pursue. Then he told me about his background. He said he grew up on New York’s Lower East Side. He dropped out of school at the age of 13 and stole from peddlers and robbed drunks to make some money. Because he was tough and a good fighter, he worked as a shtarker (muscleman) and for a price would beat up someone who owed money. He sometimes worked as a strikebreaker and for bootleggers during Prohibition guarding their shipments of illegal liquor. He claimed he was arrested more than 40 times and said he had killed “more than one man.” In the early 1930s he became a soldier in the Bug (Siegel) and Meyer (Lansky) mob in New York.
Dutch finished his story about the alleged scheme to kill Hitler by saying that after he had been approached, he “talked to some of the boys about it. They hated the Nazis and knew what was happening to the Jews. And they were willing to go to Germany and do the job.” But before the contract could be formalized, “that mamzer [bastard] J. Edgar Hoover and his feds started snooping around and asking questions.” So “the boys” thought it was wise to drop the matter. It was bad for business. Reflecting on the plot, Dutch concluded: “It was really a shame. I wish we’d done it and killed the son of a bitch. Can you imagine? We woulda been heroes. They woulda given us all medals.”
When he finished, I asked him if he had hard evidence on this plot. “Evidence,” he asked. “What kind of evidence?”
“I’m talking about documents, letters; I’m a historian after all. I like documents.”
He laughed. “You gotta be kiddin’,” he said. “There’s no documents.” A moment later though, Dutch told me that Hoover probably wrote something about it and that maybe I should check in Washington. Other former Jewish mobsters I had interviewed told me how they had helped Jews and how they had taken action against anti-Semites and Nazi Bundists in the United States during the 1930s. Maybe they were trying to impress me. Maybe in their old age they wanted to erase some of the more nefarious deeds of their youth. They conveniently forgot to tell me that they got their start in crime by beating and robbing Jews in their neighborhood. The same, I thought, might be true with Dutch. Maybe he made the story up, or told me what he thought I wanted to hear.
A year later I was doing research in the archives of the FBI building in Washington. I was seated at a desk waiting for a file to be brought to me when a file on the adjacent table caught my eye. It was labeled “Adolf Hitler.” I wondered why the FBI would have a file on Hitler. I opened the file and found memos, reports, and letters documenting an alleged attempt by American Jews to assassinate Hitler in 1933. Maybe Dutch had told me the truth.
The file, number 65-53615, details a plot involving one man. The plot passed the initial planning stage but may have been foiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. In an effort to prevent an international incident—an American citizen assassinating a German leader—American law-enforcement officials might have helped save Hitler.
The tale of the conspiracy to kill the German chancellor came to the attention of the American government by way of a letter dated March 23, 1933, typed on plain white paper and addressed to “The German Ambassador, Washington D.C.” The ambassador passed the letter to the Secretary of State Cordell Hull on March 28, and Hull forwarded it to the U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings. It read:
I have asked President Roosevelt to publicly remonstrate with your government [about] the outrages committed upon the Jews in Germany, and to demand an immediate and complete end of this persecution.
In the event that he does not make such a statement, I notify you that I shall go to Germany and assassinate Hitler.
German diplomats demanded an immediate and full investigation of the threat. It should be mentioned that the German ambassador, Friedrich Wilhelm von Prittwitz, resigned from the German government in April 1933 in protest over Hitler’s appointment as chancellor.
Franklin Roosevelt had been in office only a few weeks and had a nationwide Depression to contend with. Events in Germany, including Hitler’s accession to power, hardly concerned the government or most of the American public. Nonetheless, the threat expressed in the letter could not be ignored or simply attributed to a crank. More militant members of the American Jewish community had reacted to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies by taking to the streets. Hundreds picketed German consulates, businesses, and stores selling German products. Thousands attended protest rallies and parades in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and other cities. In this atmosphere, Stern’s personal declaration of war against Hitler was taken seriously.
Attorney General Cummings turned to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Justice Department’s Division of Investigation, and asked him to locate Daniel Stern and stop him. Hoover headed the division since his appointment by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. The division became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Hoover’s “G-Men” (agents of the FBI) searched for Stern through the spring, summer, and into the fall of 1933. Among their primary contacts were figures in the Jewish American underworld, where Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Dutch Schultz, and Lepke Buchalter—all associated with New York’s Murder, Inc. syndicate—had well-earned reputations for using violence to protect their business interests or to defend their communities.
Hoover assigned one of his top agents, Dwight Brantley, to coordinate the national investigation. An early lead from Detroit sent that city’s G-Men scrambling but went nowhere. Another lead came from a special agent in charge of the division’s Chicago office. He’d heard about a Daniel Stern who was rumored to have mob associations and who had moved to Philadelphia, where the letter to the German embassy had been postmarked. Agents in Philadelphia searched local telephone directories, but they failed to turn up the name Daniel Stern. They did find a reference to a Daniel Stern in the city directory. When they went to the address, the janitor told them that Daniel Stern had “left the apartment over a year ago and that his present address is unknown.”
The agents then turned to Jewish gang contacts for information. Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, who dominated Philadelphia’s criminal enterprises at the time, offered to cooperate. He talked to Agent G.R. Hardy for several hours but could not recall meeting Stern or knowing anyone else who had met the man. Harvey interviewed several of Hoff’s associates, but all claimed they’d never heard of Stern or of a plan to kill Hitler. However, almost all of them, Harvey reported, were impressed by the scheme and thought it was “a great idea.”
On the other hand, the German consul in Philadelphia stated that, “in all probability, it was written by some crank, who is a sympathizer of the Jewish element.” The consul further stated that “he is besieged by individuals who make threats upon him, but that they are all of the crank type, and he dismisses them and pays no attention to them as he does not consider their threats serious.”
In April, the Justice Department received a promising lead from a letter dated April 21 to the German embassy and postmarked Highbridge Station, New York. The translation of the letter from German stated, “Having overheard a conversation between several Jews in New York, I learned that there is a movement on foot to assassinate Chancellor Adolf Hitler and that a young American Jew has already been selected to commit this murder. The Jews present were joyfully enthused over this plan. I communicate this to you in order that if possible any such act be prevented. Very respectfully, C Portugall.”
Hoover had Agent Brantley pass along the information to the division’s New York office. From July 18 to July 23, agents scoured city directories, telephone books, and postal records. They tapped their covert sources in the underworld in search of Stern and the so-called “joyfully enthused” Jews. Every clue led to a dead end.
Meanwhile the Criminal Division received a letter dated May 27 from the German embassy that had been written by an individual staying at the San Carlos Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. The writer, whose name has been blacked out of FBI memos, reported that “he overheard two Jews say Hitler was to be assassinated between May and September 1933 by an agent of New York City Jews.” He wrote that Hitler was either to be poisoned or shot and “a young American Jew had already been chosen to perform the act.” He immediately sent a letter reporting what he had heard to the German embassy.
Brantley immediately dispatched agents from Los Angeles to Phoenix. When they interviewed the man, he was reluctant to discuss the matter and was unclear about the details. The agents later reported that the man “is a political exile from Mexico and is a citizen of that country. It seems that he is strongly pro-Hitler and anti-Jewish in his conversation.” The agents searched the hotel register from April to June 1933, without finding anyone by the name of Stern or Stearn registered. They then interrogated everyone on the hotel’s staff. No one remembered anything of the alleged meeting or recalled anything unusual. The agents examined the hotel’s registry and wrote down every “Jewish sounding” name. They transmitted the names and the results of their inquiry to division headquarters in Washington.
The trail went cold again.
On Aug. 19, 1933, Special Agent J.M. Keith sent a progress report, “Daniel Stern and the Threat to Assassinate German Chancellor Hitler” to Hoover. Keith summarized the investigations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix, and New York. He conceded that that the division had failed to locate Stern or to uncover any assassination plot.
On Sept. 2, Special Agent Brantley submitted a final report to Hoover. He wrote that all outstanding leads regarding the threat to assassinate Hitler “have been completed without any definite information having been obtained. Accordingly, this case is being closed at the Washington field office.” Brantley assured Hoover that the case would be reopened if the German embassy received any additional information.
Upon my return to Israel, I called Dutch and told him what I’d found in the FBI files. I asked him if he had heard of Daniel Stern. Was the name an alias? Was he a professional killer? He said he heard a rumor about a young man named Stern but didn’t know much about him and had never met him. “Supposedly this Stern fellow had a lot of enthusiasm, but not a lot of brains or seykhl [sense]. Maybe he was meshuge [crazy]. He was determined to kill Hitler, and someone thought he was expendable. The timing was all wrong,” he said. “And maybe somebody backed the wrong horse. Nobody knew much about Stern. That was supposed to be good at first. But you never know. You never know.”
“That summer of 1933, we learned that just about everybody and his brother thought about taking a whack at the Fuhrer. When you got to Germany, I mean, you had to take a ticket and get in line for your shot. Later someone said there were more than a dozen attempts to get Hitler in the 1930s. Public figures are well-guarded, but Hitler, he was somethin’ else. I mean someone even tried to kill Roosevelt in 1933. That was close. But Hitler? He was bulletproof. I swear to God, the devil was his bodyguard. And you gotta remember that in the end, the only guy who could whack Hitler was Hitler himself.”
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.