Christmas 1941 in Boyle Heights, and the Japanese Internment

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This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in December 1941. What should we notice about this page?

hollenbeckjrhighdec1941It is at this time a publication with mostly Jewish and Japanese names in the masthead, and the occasional cute spelling slip-ups which reveal there are possibly some Spanish speaker’s hands at the presses typesetting as well. And most interesting, an article by one little Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, about the tone of Christmas in Boyle Heights in 1941, right after the US was thrown into WWII:

CHRISTMAS 1941

Christmas 1941! We are all looking forward to a joyous Christmas season, a time when all would be in a glad holiday mood, a time of peace and good will.

This Christmas season has come but not as we foresaw. It will be a wartime Christmas, for on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire declared war on the people of the United States.

We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us.

They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.

We Americans of all colors, races and creeds must unite to win, that freedom for all people may be possible.

Marilyn Greene

The apprehension felt in this immigrant community was justified.

Shortly after their Japanese Americans neighborhoods were taken and interned in camps, such as those erected at the stables of Santa Anita Park racetrack. The neighborhood kids would then take the electric streetcars all the way out there to see their friends. Though the kids were never allowed to go inside and their interned friends weren’t allowed to come out; and absolutely no one was allowed to touch the fence that separated them, but they could only talk from afar. And at best hope to sneak a baseball across to them when the guards weren’t looking.

baseballbat

A caucasian American gives a baseball bat to an interned Japanese American, through a wire fence, at the “evacuation assembly center” at Santa Anita. January 1, 1942.

For their Japanese American neighbors, their property and belongings were most often liquidated, before being shipped off to the hastily made internment camps such as those at the racetracks. Then eventually being interned for the duration of the war in more permanent camps in such places as Manzanar and Tule Lake.

In the wake of all this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots as well.1

The rounding up of our Japanese American families in this mostly immigrant eastside community came with an overwhelming sense of horror, especially for the children. Seeing their neighbors, who were just as American as they were, instantly being treated as enemies of the nation. And traumatized by the implications this had for anyone else who might be labeled “un-American.”

The internment of Japanese Americans is still widely considered the most tragic and traumatizing event in Boyle Heights history.

Pictures from Manzanar and Tule Lake, where many Los Angeles Japanese Americans were interned:

Topics for Further Discussion:

  • Notice the section to the left titled, “Anxious to help” by Harold Karpman, he talks about wanting to be helpful when questioned by school authorities and the police. He cautions, “Let’s not become panicky at wild rumors, but be on alert to observe closely all possibilities of the rumors being true.” Before going on to say, “Report any un-American activities to your police department, or to any faculty member of this school. Let us all try to keep our American the way we like it and are used to it.”

  • Notice the lower left poem: “American’s All” by Marvin Wernick. Despite all the racism and xenophobia which was gripping the country, some of the children at Hollenback School were countering that in their newspaper; “Black, Red, Yellow, White, / Side by side we stand and fight…. When hatred and and war strike out at humanity, / they share the blows / In Unity….” In a country that was caught up in the wartime winds of ultra-nationalism and questioning the true Americanism of many, Marvin’s poem declares of those who fight for the cause of justice and right, those who fight for their rights of democracy, “For they are the children of America.”

1Al Waxman, was the uncle of former US Congressman Henry Waxman (D-33rd), also formerly of Boyle Heights and members of the Breed Street Shul.

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Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO-IWO) in City Terrace

The Yiddishists of the eastside hills, a community destroyed by the Red Scare

The JPFO-IWO folkeshul, the most popular network of Yiddish dayschools in the area which was run by Jewish labor socialists.

The JPFO-IWO folkeshul, the most popular network of Yiddish dayschools in the area which was run by Jewish labor socialists.

The Los Angeles neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and City Terrace have always been working-class communities, and the home of many progressive and leftist causes. This is a tradition which was well established early on by the politically and socially active Jewish community which flourished here in the first half of the 20th century.

So many ideas on how to fix society bubbled out of this community! Everyone, young and old, promoting social advancement. However, with so many visions being proposed and tried there were bound to be some contentions along the way. Yet, many of the communal schisms were caused by cautious fears of persecution as much as internal conflict over a social vision.

In 1922 political tensions in the Arberter Ring/Workmen’s Circle created a rift, out of which grew the leftist branch of the organization which would become known as the International Worker’s Order (IWO). However, the rift was so great that the IWO made an official break-away in 1930; promoting leftist, progressive values and operating as a fraternal mutual aid organization and insurance provider.

The organization also organized 13 other major ethnic communities and languages – including Italian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Greek, Portuguese, etc. However, in the first half of the 20th century the Los Angeles Jewish Section was the largest and most important Jewish organization there was.

The group started a couple folkshule sites – two Jewish community centers in two notable locations. They ran two Jewish kindergarten day-schools off Wabash, enrolling most of the kids from the area; one of them being the yellow house sitting at the corner of Wabash and Stone.

Then they founded the Jewish Cultural Center in City Terrace, which was eventually demolished to make way for the off-ramp to the 10-freeway. This Jewish cultural center once sat directly at the spot of the current freeway ramp, just immediately east of today’s City Terrace Spanish Congregation.

However, it must be stated that the loss of these resources for the community was not just on account of displacement. The political tensions and the fear of the community being targeted as socialists during the Red Scare, these also played heavily into the gutting of the resources of the largely progressive Jewish community here.

As the Yiddishkeit website states:

“After the Second World War, the rise of McCarthyism with its intense focus on Hollywood leftism together with the virulently antisemitic campaign of California State Senator Jack Tenney, made IWO a clear target. It also became the prime scapegoat for anti-communists and anti-progressives and for members of the L.A. Jewish community establishment, which sought to publicly distance themselves from leftism.

Children of the International Workers order Jewish-American Section in Los Angeles, holding Yiddish protest signs. Even the children of the neighborhood were encouraged to be involved in labor and political activity from an early age.

Children of the International Workers order Jewish-American Section in Los Angeles, holding Yiddish protest signs. Even the children of the neighborhood were encouraged to be involved in labor and political activity from an early age.

“While the IWO-Jewish Section was one of the most popular Jewish organizations in the city and had more children enrolled in its school network than any other single Jewish organization, a campaign began in 1949 to expel it from the official Jewish Community. Members of the Jewish Community Council claimed that community support should not go to any “international” organization. Although the IWO-Jewish Section had become the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO-IWO) in 1944, this was not enough. L.A. Jewish Community Council members challenged the JPFO as political movement and argued that its leftism was a violation of of the Community’s apolitical stance. When the JPFO argued that Zionist organizations were also overtly political, opponents claimed that its domestic politics were the problem and that support for the fledgling State of Israel was not to be considered a “political” cause. Partly to distinguish their particular liberal-left bent from the more radical JPFO, the Workmen’s Circle along with the American Jewish Congress argued vociferously for the JPFO’s expulsion.

“The L.A. developments followed the pattern of the nationwide McCarthyite witchhunt. IWO was placed on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of “subversive” organizations (Dec. 5, 1947) and the New York State Insurance Department of moved on December 14, 1950 to liquidate the Order on grounds that its significant cash reserves — far beyond what commercial insurers were required to maintain — would, in the event of war with the Soviet Union, be turned over to the enemy.

The City Terrace Jewish Cultural Center, on Grand Opening Day 1947. It was eventually closed during the Red Scare.

The City Terrace Jewish Cultural Center, on Grand Opening Day 1947. It was eventually closed during the anti-communist Red Scare.

“After a four year heated struggle, during which the IWO was added to the state’s list of “subversive” organizations, the Jewish Community Council (which became the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles in 1959) expelled the JPFO from the Jewish community, freezing the JPFO’s assets and actively worked towards its dissolution. The Community Council also began a process of halting support for the Jewish Community Centers on the Eastside — at the Soto-Michigan JCC and the City Terrace Cultural Center where JPFO members met. Within a few years, not only was the JPFO destroyed, but so too were the Eastside’s two most important Jewish cultural institutions.”

For more info see: http://www.yiddishkayt.org/jpfo/

It might seem to some that the eastside Jewish community centers were inevitably doomed because of demographic changes, with Jewish people migrating away in great numbers, especially among the rapidly emerging youth demographic.

However, it is important to note that at the same time many other radical leftists and labor socialists were also moving here to be part of a movement; the eastside becoming one of the last-stand leftist enclaves. And it was that form of “threat” that drove the Jewish Community Relations Council (the forerunner to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles) to be both be complicit to McCarthyism and to also snuff out the eastside community centers.

Undoubtedly, this closing of these cultural sites which the remaining Yiddishists and Jewish social progressives of the area depended on further accelerated their exodus from the eastside.

All any historian can say at this point is that we would hope that if such political witch-hunting were to happen today that our community leaders would not make the same decisions. That we would instead have the integrity and courage to stand in resistance to such ultra-nationalism. I’d like to believe we have all learned our lesson, in light of this dark chapter of history.

We will explore this more when we further talk about the impact of the Senator Jack Tenny led witch-hunt against communists in Boyle Heights.

Now I should note that while the building of the City Terrace JCC was eventually demolished to make way for the freeway off-ramp, most of the other sites remain in one form or another; re-purposed as churches, houses, stores and youth centers.

In the near future I hope to talk more about the other Jewish and Yiddishist sites of City Terrace. There really is so much to explore. And yet there is so much that has been forgotten too. Do you or your family members have stories to share about the Yiddish community of City Terrace? I’d love to document them as well.

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