The great stock market crash of 1929 brought an abrupt end to the “roaring twenties” and brought us the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment rates reached 25% and immigration, both legal and illegal plunged. It was the only time in American history that more immigrants left the United States than came.
In many ways it was easier to be destitute in Italy or Ireland, where food and housing was much less dear, than it was in New York City. Malachy McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” reflects the story of many who returned to their home countries.
The dominant immigrants in New York in the 1930’s were the eastern European Jews, the Italians, Germans, Irish, and Puerto Rican/Caribbean peoples, particularly the Dominicans. Blacks had also moved to New York from the south in great numbers putting down roots in Harlem.
It was among the top four immigrant groups that conflict erupted as a result of the international situation in Europe.
New Yorkers suffered through the economic hardships of the great depression and many were likely to blame someone, anyone for their problems. Jews blamed anti-semitism for their inability to find jobs. Christians blamed the entire economic catastrophe on supposed Jewish control of Wall Street and the slowness of recovery on Jews administering the New Deal. Blacks and Puerto Ricans blamed their persistent poverty on white racism.
The Spanish Civil War provoked passionate debate among the various immigrant groups with most Catholics supporting General Franco while leftists supported the Spanish Republic.
The rise of Mussolini and Hitler also divided the communities; Germans and Italians tended to take pride in the prosperity and new respect their homelands enjoyed while those on the left were aghast at the oppression of the authoritarian regimes.
The governments of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were all unabashedly anti-semitic, something which made New York’s Jews especially uneasy as so many still had family in Europe.
What made them more uneasy however was the appallng increase American Anti-Semitism. Some of the nations most vocal anti-semites, like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were mid-westerners whose influence in New York seemed minimal.
New York’s Jews felt much more concerned by two groups which flourished in the city – the German-American Bund and the Christian Front.
The Bund, founded in 1936 was essentially the American affiliate of Hitler’s Nazi Party, complete with swastikas, fascist salutes and storm troopers. Only Germans or those who could prove “Aryan” ancestry were permitted to join. Fritz Kuhn, its leader, fought for the Germans in WWI, came to the United States in 1928 and became a citizen in 1934. He ran the Bund from party headquarters on the upper east side of Manhattan, a German immigrant neighborhood.
American Fuehrer Fritz Kuhn
The Bund had far more members in New York than in any other place in the country. Its great moment came at its “Rally for Americanism” staged at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. Nearly 20,000 attended and cheered as Kuhn, standing beneath a giant picture of George Washington (whom he called the first Fascist) denounced FDR and the New Deal – “Frank D. Rosenfeld and his Jew Deal.”
Shouts of “Kill the Jews” brought out the usual arguments over the First Amendment. Judge Nathan Perlman a Polish Jew and former Congressman found another way. He met with Meyer Lansky, the Jewish mobster and offered to pay him to break up Bund rallies so long as no one was killed. Lansky did exactly that but refused the money, “They were my brothers and we weren’t going to take it anymore.”
As menacing as the Nazis of the 1930s seem today, New York Jews saw the Christian Front, an organization inspired by the weekly radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Michigan as more of an immediate threat for, you see, Father Coughlin was wildly popular among New York’s Catholic Irish.
Father Charles Coughlin
Coughlin supported FDR’s New Deal but became convinced that due to the influence of Jewish bankers, labor leaders and communists, the President wasn’t doing enough. At a rally in a Philadelphia stadium in 1936 the NY Times reported ominously “The men and women in the stands thrust their hands upwards and forward in what closely resembled the Nazi salute.”
Coughlin called for the formation of a Christian Front against a predicted Communist takeover of America and soon Christian Fronts began appearing in the northeast and mid-west where there were large Irish Catholic populations.
His virulent anti-Semitism and defense of Hitler’s policies towards Jews became so strident that several radio stations, including in New York refused to continue carry his broadcasts. This of course convinced his followers that Jews controlled the media.
Members of the Front began appearing all over New York selling Coughlin’s magazine Social Justice and loudly condemning the influence of Jews in America. Jews were appalled as speakers began appearing in their neighborhoods on the upper west side and Flatbush; their harangues leading directly to anti-Semitic vandalism and violence. Jews were assaulted in the streets by teens shouting anti-Semitic slurs and Jewish businesses all over the city were vandalized.
This was not the usual polite anti-Semitism practiced daily in the United States; this was a “militant hate-breeding organization” and because it was 90% Catholic “it merits the title “Catholic Klan.”
And the New York police were doing little about it. They did nothing when speakers hurled invective at Jews but arrested those who shouted back with their own invective. As it turned out some 500 Irish police were members of the Christian Front and some 1,500 had applications in for membership. Eventually, after investigations the police started to arrest Front members, culminating in the arrest of Salvatore Ninfo, the 29 year old son of a city councilman after telling a crowd at Broadway and 72nd street that he “would like to see every Jew in the United States hanged.” He got 75days hard labor at Rikers for disorderly conduct.
He had wished to see “Jewish blood flow all over America.” Eventually many Irish Catholics came to see the irony in it all – considering how they themselves had been treated when arriving at these shores. Opposition to Papism was still in vogue in 1940s America.
J. Edgar Hoover tried to put the lid on the coffin arresting 18 members including the Front leader, John Cassidy of Brooklyn on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. They had weapons, bombs and planned to seize the government and eradicate the Jews, according to Hoover. Cassidy was found not guilty – he had those weapons to defend against a communist take-over, said his lawyers. The others got hung furies and were never re-tried.
As Jews fled Hitler the United States would not raise its quota for immigrants to meet the refugee emergency. Thousands of Jews were left stranded in Europe, unable to get a precious visa slot.
One of New York’ Senators, Robert Wagner, himself a German immigrant, proposed to allow 20,000 German Jewish children under the age 14 to enter the country over two years above and beyond the normal quota.
It failed. The wife of Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Immigration, James Houghteling explained that her husband opposed Wagner’s plan because “20,000 children would all too soon grow up to be 20,000 ugly adults.”
No one would take in the Jews trying to leave Germany and Europe; it culminated in the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis which the Times ruefully concluded “cries to high heaven of man’s inhumanity to man.” While it is easy to condemn Roosevelt, the United States did admit more Jewish refugees than any other nation.
Italian American fascists and Bund members at joint rally on Long Island.
Meanwhile New York’s Italians weren’t exactly quiet. More about the Fascist Clubs, pitched battles in the street between left and right and corporate America’s love for Mussolini in our next episode.