by Dr. Ivette Alt Miller
When Jewish Boxers fought Nazis in the 1930s in America.
It all started with a birthday party.
Five years ago, Leslie Barry’s mother was turning 90. Leslie, an entertainment industry executive living in northern California, wanted to assemble a huge celebration for her mom, Esther Levine Kaplan. “She’s from Newark, from an immigrant Jewish family from Lithuania,” Leslie Barry recently explained in an Aish.com exclusive interview. Leslie’s family is close knit and enjoys celebrating Jewish holidays and events together. Leslie, her husband Doug and their four kids often enjoy Shabbat dinner together. Leslie was determined to mark her mom’s 90th birthday with a beautiful celebration.
Lots of relatives and family friends attended the party, and soon they started reminiscing about growing up in Newark in the 1930s, as Nazism rose in Europe and Jews all over the world watched its growth in fear. Leslie’s mom had an older brother – beloved Uncle Harry – and the relatives recalled that he’d been a boxer and even won the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament in Madison Square Garden in 1936. Then the conversation turned bizarre. “Yeah,” one relative remembered to Esther, “remember when your mom used to get so upset when your brother used to go out and beat up Nazis?”
Leslie didn’t know what the relative was talking about. When did American Jewish men have the chance to beat up Nazis? Some relatives explained that in the 1930s, Nazi ideology flourished in many American cities. Leslie started doing some research and what she found shocked her. Nazis did indeed recruit Americans to their hateful cause – and some young American Jewish men risked their lives to fight them.
In the 1930s, the German American Bund was a popular, openly pro-Nazi organization. About 25,000 American citizens were formal members, with others sympathizing and attending Bund events. Incredibly, in addition to the dues-paying members, the German American Bund also organized 8,000 uniformed members known as Sturmabeteiungen, or Storm Troopers, who would demonstrate and march in American cities. Their activities weren’t limited to marches. Leslie discovered that they joined the NRA, the National Rifle Association, who would give you a free gun and training. The German American Bund seemed to be planning for a violent confrontation on American soil.
Fritz Kuhn saluting marching Bund members at Camp Nordland in New Jersey.
The German American Bund brazenly called for hatred against American Jews. They put up posters urging Americans not to vote for Jewish candidates in local elections, published magazines and other literature, held rallies, and even ran Nazi youth camps for hundreds of American children to indoctrinate a new generation of American youth in their hateful ideology. Leslie found that there were 25 German American Nazi youth summer camps. At some of these camps children even dressed in Nazi uniforms where they were indoctrinated in hate. Girls were often abused at these camps, Leslie found. One goal of the camp organizers was for German American girls to have as many babies as possible to increase the number of “Aryan” Americans.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that “(a)side from its admiration for Adolf Hitler and the achievements of Nazi Germany, the German American Bund program included anti-Semitism, strongly anti-Communist sentiments, and the demand that the United States remain neutral in the approaching European conflict,” World War II.
The largest Bund event was a “Pro America Rally” in New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939, celebrating George Washington’s birthday – just three years after Leslie’s Uncle Harry won the Golden Gloves championship there. In those few intervening years, the world had become a much darker place for Jews.
Uncle Harry, the boxer
Over 20,000 Americans attended the 1939 Pro America Rally. Streaming into the Gardens, they saw a thirty-foot high picture of George Washington, flanked by massive swastikas. Speaker after speaker railed against “job-taking Jewish refugees” and the supposed “Jewish domination of Christian America.” Participants yelled “Heil Hitler” and booed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saying he was a puppet of Jews. One of the most popular speakers of the evening was Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, the Bund’s public relations director, who told the jubilant crowd that Nazism was an American sentiment, imbued in the country’s racist Jim Crow laws and exclusion of non-white immigrants: “It has then always been very much American to protect the Aryan character of this nation,” he said to rapturous applause.
As the German American Bund’s leader, a racist and anti-Semite named Fritze Kuhne, launched into the main speech of the night, one Jew who’d snuck into the audience had finally had enough. Isadore Greenbaum was a 26-year-old Jewish plumber’s assistant from Brooklyn. Earlier that evening, he’d left his wife and young child, and come into Manhattan, where he’d snuck into the Bund rally. He went up to the stage, pulled out the cables of the microphone, and yelled “Down with Hitler!” Greenbaum was immediately set upon by the uniformed Nazi Storm Troopers. He might have been killed had New York City police officers – who’d been watching this odious rally without interference – stepped in to save Greenbaum’s life. (Click here to read full story about Isadore Greenbaum.)
This was far from the only time that an American Jew risked his life to openly defy American Nazis. Leslie discovered that young Jewish men flocked to fight American Nazis, her Uncle Harry among them.
Pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, New York City, in 1939
During the 1920s and 1930s, a Jewish mafia flourished in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and some other American cities. These groups were active in smuggling liquor during prohibition. Though they could be violent and hardly represented the best in Jewish life, Jewish underworld criminals were horrified by the rise in Nazism and anti-Semitism, and wanted to do all they could to help their fellow Jews. Their propensity to violence, in this case, made them valuable in the fight against Nazi thugs.
In many cases, Jewish resistance to Nazi rallies was ad hoc, with individual Jews stepping up to fight Nazis. In 1937, however, New York State Judge Nathan Perlman reached out to the infamous New York City Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, and asked him to formally organize groups of Jewish men to break up Bund rallies. Lansky obliged, and created a group he called the Minutemen, after the American Colonists who organized themselves into informal militias to resist British rule in the 1700s.
Like the Minutemen of old, these Jewish Minutemen would be ready at a minute’s notice, as their name implied. Judge Perlman offered Lansky payment for organizing the group, but Lansky turned him down, insisting he’d help fight Nazis for free. “I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers,” Lansky later observed. (Quoted in But He Was Good to His Mothers: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters by Robert Rockaway, Gefen Publishing House: 1993.)
Leslie’s mother, Esther Levine Kaplan, reading her book
As she researched, Leslie found that after some New York City Minutemen injured a Nazi, the New York City Minutemen were disbanded – Jewish leaders feared it would look bad for the Jewish community if Jews injured American Nazis. The Jews were being asked to disrupt Nazi events, but not to seriously harm anyone. Instead, a Jewish boxer named Nat Arno in nearby Newark stepped in to reconstitute the Minutemen there. Nat’s real name was Sidney Nathaniel Abramowitz. He’d grown up in a Jewish home and he turned the Newark Minutemen into one of the most effective anti-Nazi forces in the United States in the 1930s, recruiting local Jews.
One of the men who joined Arno’s group was Max “Puddy” Hines. He later described disrupting a Nazi meeting, along with other Newark Minutemen members: “The Nazi scumbags were meeting one night on the 2nd floor. Nat Arno and I went upstairs and threw stink bombs into the room where the creeps were. As they ran out, from the horrible odor, running down the steps to go into the street to escape, our boys were waiting… It was like running a gauntlet. Our boys were lined up on both sides… The Nazis were screaming blue murder.”
Newark was a prime location to counter the German American Bund. Out of a German-American population of about 45,000, approximately 5% of Newark German-Americans were Nazi sympathizers at the time. Newark also had a large Jewish community; often, Jews and Nazis or Nazi supporters lived side by side in the town. Leslie Barry also discovered that the FBI gave tacit support to the Newark Minutemen. The Jews of this informal militia were told not to punch any Nazis in the head so as not to cause serious injury, but would go and find Nazi rallies to break up, she explains.
“The goal was to thwart this Nazi party from rising,” Leslie learned. “Somebody would find out that the Bund was having a rally or a meeting at City Hall. They would get the word out to everybody: go out tonight, get ready to disrupt this ray that’s going on.” Sometimes the fighting became pitched – hence her Uncle Harry’s cuts and bruises that Leslie’s neighbors reminisced about at her mother’s birthday party.
The Newark Minuteman also went undercover to find out what the German American Bund was planning. One big project that Newark Minutemen worked to disrupt was the Bund’s efforts to map American infrastructure for possible use in wartime. Other groups fought Nazis across America, but it seems that the Newark Minutemen were the most active. “The Bund was most heavily concentrated in New York and New Jersey,” Leslie explains, “and the Newark Minutemen were the most organized of the resistance groups.”
Leslie notes that many of the Newark Minutemen never spoke about their anti-Nazi activities. She thinks that’s perhaps because many of these men were soon drafted and fought in World War II; they had even more dramatic stories to tell their kids and grandchildren.
She recalls that her Uncle Harry was a gentle man. “He was big, 6’4”, and a lot older than my mom,” Leslie explains. He was a “loveable teddy bear uncle.” Uncle Harry lived in Newark until he was drafted, then served in the American Army during World War II as a Military Policeman. After the war, he returned to Newark and became a policeman to support his wife and son. “He led a pretty simple life,” Leslie explains. He spoke very little about his days as a Newark Minuteman.
As Leslie delved more and more into this incredible story, she decided to write a book. Leslie’s first novel, Newark Minutemen: A True 1930s Legend About One Man’s Mission to Save a Nation’s Soul Without Losing His Own, is coming out October 6, and has already been optioned for a movie by a group of investors that includes the television host James Corden. The book tells the story of a Jewish man named Yael Newman who uses his boxing skill to fight Nazis as a member of the Newark Minutemen – and also rescues a German American girl who’s been abducted and forced to live in a Nazi summer camp.
After years of writing, she’s gratified that her forthcoming book is being extensively reviewed and anticipated. Writing Newark Minutemen has also deepened the pride she feels in her family. “To learn your legacy is empowering,” she notes: “you kind of start to learn about what you’re made up of.”
She also has advice for people today. “Don’t be complacent; stand up for what you believe in. I’ve internalized this while researching this book: if you see something that’s not right, do something.” It’s also crucial to write down people’s stories while you can. Particularly when writing about World War II, Nazism and the Holocaust, the chance to record history is fast slipping away. “Record these stories while these people are still here,” Leslie urges.