There are few excuses for the behavior of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s. The best known Jewish gangsters –Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz — were involved in the numbers rackets, illegal drug dealing, prostitution, gambling and loan sharking. They were not nice men. During the rise of American Nazism in the 1930s and when Israel was being founded between 1945 and 1948, however, they proved staunch defenders of the Jewish people.
The roots of Jewish gangsterism lay in the ethnic neighborhoods of the Lower East Side; Brownsville, Brooklyn; Maxwell Street in Chicago; and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Like other newly arrived groups in American history, a few Jews who considered themselves blocked from respectable professions used crime as a means to “make good” economically. The market for vice flourished during Prohibition and Jews joined with others to exploit the artificial market created by the legal bans on alcohol, gambling, paid sex and narcotics.
Few of these men were religiously observant. They rarely attended services, although they did support congregations financially. They did not keep kosher or send their children to day schools. However, at crucial moments they protected other Jews, in America and around the world.
The 1930s were a period of rampant anti-Semitism in America, particularly in the Midwest. Father Charles Coughlin, the Radio Priest in Detroit, and William Pelley of Minneapolis, among others, openly called for Jews to be driven from positions of responsibility, if not from the country itself. Organized Brown Shirts in New York and Silver Shirts in Minneapolis outraged and terrorized American Jewry. While the older and more respectable Jewish organizations pondered a response that would not alienate non-Jewish supporters, others – including a few rabbis –asked the gangsters to break up American Nazi rallies.
Historian Robert Rockaway, writing in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, notes that German-American Bund rallies in the New York City area posed a dilemma for mainstream Jewish leaders. They wanted the rallies stopped, but had no legal grounds on which to do so. New York State Judge Nathan Perlman personally contacted Meyer Lansky to ask him to disrupt the Bund rallies, with the proviso that Lansky’s henchmen stop short of killing any Bundists. Enthusiastic for the assignment, if disappointed by the restraints, Lansky accepted all of Perlman’s terms except one: he would take no money for the work. Lansky later observed, “I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers.” For months, Lansky’s workmen effectively broke up one Nazi rally after another. As Rockaway notes, “Nazi arms, legs and ribs were broken and skulls were cracked, but no one died.”
Lansky recalled breaking up a Brown Shirt rally in the Yorkville section of Manhattan: “The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We … threw some of them out the windows. . . . Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. . . . We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”
In Minneapolis, William Dudley Pelley organized a Silver Shirt Legion to “rescue” America from an imaginary Jewish-Communist conspiracy. In Pelley’s own words, just as “Mussolini and his Black Shirts saved Italy and as Hitler and his Brown Shirts saved Germany,” he would save America from Jewish communists. Minneapolis gambling czar David Berman confronted Pelley’s Silver Shirts on behalf of the Minneapolis Jewish community.
Berman learned that Silver Shirts were mounting a rally at a nearby Elks’ Lodge. When the Nazi leader called for all the “Jew bastards” in the city to be expelled, or worse, Berman and his associates burst in to the room and started cracking heads. After ten minutes, they had emptied the hall. His suit covered in blood, Berman took the microphone and announced, “This is a warning. Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse.” After Berman broke up two more rallies, there were no more public Silver Shirt meetings in Minneapolis.
Jewish gangsters also helped establish Israel after the war. One famous example is a meeting between Bugsy Siegel and Reuven Dafne, a Haganah emissary, in 1945. Dafne was seeking funds and guns to help liberate Palestine from British rule. A mutual friend arranged for the two men to meet. “You mean to tell me Jews are fighting?” Siegel asked. “You mean fighting as in killing?” Dafne answered in the affirmative. Siegel replied, “I’m with you.” For weeks, Dafne received suitcases filled with $5 and $10 bills — $50,000 in all — from Siegel.
No one should paint gangsters as heroes. They committed acts of great evil. Historian Rockaway has presented a textured version of Jewish gangster history in a book ironically titled, But They Were Good to their Mothers. Some have observed that, despite their disreputable behavior, they could be good to their people, too.
Jews in Nazi-Occupied Countries.
The full truth about the persecution of the Jews is not and cannot be known. Perhaps it will never be known. The anti-Semitic laws that have been enacted are, of course, on record, and so are the numerous ordinances and rulings passed against Jews by municipalities, professional associations, clubs, and so on. They, in their totality, are unparalleled in Europe and would alone constitute a persecution of a terrible kind. While not directly killing a single Jew, they make it impossible for thousands of Jews to live, and it is largely they that have caused the epidemic of suicides amongst the German Jews.
Justice denied to Jews
And yet they are only a part of the persecution. The laws that, theoretically, apply to all German citizens, whether Gentile or Jew, in practice give the Gentile every possible advantage and the Jew every disadvantage. They protect the Gentile from the Jew, but not the Jew from the Gentile. Thus a Gentile may libel a Jew with impunity, but not a Jew a Gentile–at least, not if the Gentile is a Nazi. Brown shirts have committed innumerable thefts in Jewish shops–they have habitually asked for cigarettes and other articles at the counter and have received them without payment–while the shopkeeper has had no means of redress. It is easy for a Gentile to recover a debt from a Jew, but very difficult or even impossible for a Jew to recover a debt from a Gentile. In disputes between Jew and Gentile, the law tends very strongly to work against the Jew. Not that justice is never done in Germany (there are some fair-minded judges and magistrates left), but when the plaintiff or defendant is a Jew justice is rarely done or, when done, it is only partial justice. Often it is crude and consciously malignant injustice. The Jew has all the obligations of German citizenship, but few of the rights. If, as is proposed, he is deprived of that citizenship, he will still have the obligations (he will, for example, continue to pay taxes) and will have even fewer rights. The fiction put forward by the German Government is that he will have the status of a foreign resident, but as he will be without the protection of any foreign Government he will have no such status.
There can be no complete record of the innumerable acts of violence perpetrated against the Jews under the Dictatorship. The body of unrefuted evidence available is enormous–even if it represented all that had happened the persecution would be one of the most frightful of modern times. But it represents only a small fraction of the whole. We have not, and probably never shall have, more than a fragmentary knowledge of the beatings, the murders, the torture, the robbing, the blackmailing, the arrests and imprisonments, not to speak of the humiliations (both public and private) that have been perpetrated by Nazis on the Jews….
The persecution also varies in severity from district to district. There are Jews–who may be quite open minded and intelligent–who, although residing in Germany, honestly maintain that “things are not so bad”. The reason is that in their own district there may be little active persecution, and, as hardly anything appears in the German press, the truth may not have come to their knowledge. In a town like Treves, for example, the cruder excesses have been avoided, although anti-Semitic legislation is operating there as elsewhere. In Baden the persecution of the Jews as well as of the political opponents of the Dictatorship has been relatively mild. In Berlin it has been frightful–in the early days of the persecution hundreds of Jews (and not only German Jews) were physically maltreated. …In Hessen the anti-Semitic excesses went on month after month, so that hundreds of Jewish families were compelled to seek refuge in the forests or to leave for other parts–the emigration of the Jews abroad is only part of the total emigration, many having fled from regions of severe persecution to regions of persecution less severe (in Berlin, for example, there are many fugitives from Hessen, Silesia and elsewhere). The cities of Worms, Brunswick, and Kassel also have an appalling record. In Breslau (the chief Silesian city) and in some of the outlying townships and in some parts of Saxony the persecution has been ferocious. Several townships have expelled their entire Jewish population (the Jews of Neidenberg, in East Prussia, for example, were ordered to leave by the end of 1933).
Many Jews have been victims of double persecution–that is to say, they have been persecuted both as Jews and as political opponents of the Dictatorship. In the concentration camps–that probably hold about 50,000 prisoners–Jews are often selected for special maltreatment….
There can be little doubt that the peculiarly malignant character of the persecution of the Jews in Nuremberg, a persecution which is continually being revived, is connected with the incessant agitation of Stuermer, a weekly that specializes in anti-Semitism. (It is edited by the Nazi leader Julius Streicher, who was in charge of the anti-Semitic boycott on April 1,1933.) Der Stuermer not only incites to ever-renewed persecution but it continually publishes the names of individual Jews, with their addresses, as suitable for victimization. One of its special features is the “Pillory” (“Pranger”), in which it publishes the names of Gentile girls who have associated with Jews (whose names are often published as well), demanding that they shall be boycotted by all, thus exposing them to public execration and possibly to violence and economic ruin. The Stuermer shows no sign up to date (January) of abandoning its campaign….
Amongst the worst persecutors are doctors, dentists, and other professional men who want the jobs of their Jewish colleagues, and conceal this desire under that enthusiasm for the Nazi cause that makes such a favorable impression of youthful fervor and idealism on visitors in Germany. Jewish professional men are continually being denounced as “Marxists” (even when they have had nothing to do with politics) to the Brown Shirts or to the Secret State Police (now the chief terrorist organization in Germany) by envious Gentile colleagues. The German professional journals–the Deutscher Apotheker [The German Pharmacist] and the Berlin Aertzte Korrespondenz [Physicians Correspondent] for example–continually incite to renewed persecution. Altogether, the persecution is the work of educated Germany. Uneducated persons have, no doubt, been instruments of the persecutors, but uneducated Germany as a whole has had no part in it. [22 January 1934]
The Jews in Germany–The Process of Elimination
It is difficult to say with any certainty whether the persecution has been “stabilized” or not. There are signs that it has, although these signs may prove to be transient. The Jews are widely regarded as hostages by the Nazis. They are convenient and defenseless objects of victimization, and if the Government is in trouble it is always possible to create a diversion by letting the Brown Shirts loose on the Jews. The tendency to “take it out of the Jews” is permanent in Nazi Germany.
The more sanguinary excesses that went on in huge abundance during the first few months of the Dictatorship have abated. On the whole the Jews can now walk about the streets with little fear of being molested, although they can never be sure of enjoying the same immunity as Gentiles. The anti-Semitic legislation not only remains in force but it is being supplemented and amplified the whole time. The ruin of the German Jewry is progressive. Many Jews cannot possibly adapt themselves to an existence that is narrowing in the sense that more and more professions are either closed altogether or are becoming more and more restricted.
Emigration grows more difficult as the chances of finding work abroad diminish (if the international labor market were not saturated because of unemployment, German emigrants–Jewish and non-Jewish–would instead of reaching only about 70,000 or 80,000 probably have exceeded that by now), but unless there is a change in the status of the German Jewry–and of this there is no sign–emigration will continue (perhaps at a rate of 2,000 or 3,000 a year if the persecution is not intensified). The emigrants will chiefly be younger people, while the older generation will die out, and, as the Jewish birth-rate is decreasing in any case, the German Jewry will probably sink to perhaps half its present strength–that is, to about a quarter of a million. The remainder will possibly be able to go on existing within whatever restricted limits may be left. The economic situation of the German Jews in Germany, bad as it is, remains far better than that of Polish Jews.
In spite of the exceptions theoretically made in favor of Jews who fought in the war, or lost sons or fathers in the war, the elimination of Jewish lawyers and doctors goes on. In the last week of December there were further dismissals of Jewish doctors engaged in panel practice. Jewish teachers are being robbed of almost every possibility of making a livelihood. The same is true of Jewish journalists. Jews engaged in banking are rather better off, for the Dictatorship has been reluctant to interfere with the delicate machinery of the German and the international banking systems. German newspapers refuse to take Jewish advertisements, but Jews can still do business to a limited extent. Many private firms still employ Jews. In December the Government, in the interest of general business stability, made several attempts that were partly successful to restrain the anti-Semitic boycotts which are continually being started afresh at the instigation of the minor Nazi leaders. Generally speaking, the pressure on the Jews is much severer–at times to the point of being intolerable–in the small townships and villages than in the big cities.
Divorce and Suicide
Innumerable Jewish families are being uprooted or broken to pieces. Many Gentiles with Jewish wives–or Gentile women with Jewish husbands–are getting the divorce they can now obtain without difficulty, because to be married to a Jew or a Jewess is to be classified as a “non-Aryan”, and therefore as a kind of pariah (the Jews in Germany are literally a pariah or a “depressed” class)….
Many Jews in Germany abandoned their Jewish traditions, faith, and usages and became entirely “German”, but as the official test of Judaism now is not religious but racial, and as even those who have a Jewish grandparent are considered Jews, they do not escape persecution by having been baptized or having become “German” in outlook. Those Jews who tried to “Germanize” themselves (some even demonstratively repudiating their Judaism) are hit terribly hard, and many have committed suicide….
And by a strange paradox, the German Jewry has become a stronghold of the finest German civilization. The German theatre, the film, literature, and–in large measure–music and painting have suffered severely during the last ten months. German science has received irreparable damage, not merely by the loss of Jewish and liberal scientists, but by the ascendancy of a spirit that is unscientific, or rather anti-scientific. German thought has been equally damaged–German political thought has ceased to exist. There is a profounder understanding of German classical literature amongst Jews than amongst Nazis. There is a Jewish theatrical company which does superb performances of German drama, though only “non-Aryans” are admitted (not the Jews but the Nazis exclude the many “Aryans” who, wishing to see a good play just for once, would like to come).
It would be an illusion to suppose that there can be any amends for the persecution–the cost in physical and mental suffering, in lives, and in the total ruin of families and fortunes has been far too great. And “surely oppression maketh the just man mad”. A terrible hatred and bitterness that often break out inwardly, poisoning a whole mind, or, in the home, creating rancor, ill-temper, and disruption, are common enough in the absence of any outward justice or possibility of redress. Some German Jews have acquired an extraordinary obsequiousness and a disposition to accept any compromise. But the stupendous disaster that has overtaken the German Jewry, one of the most civilized and intelligent communities in modern Europe, has also produced in many of its members a greater self-reliance, an intensification of the inner life, a deepened religious sense, and a passionate devotion to the permanent values inherent in Judaism. [23 January 1934]