How Our Multi-Ethnic Community Responded to the Jewish Refugee Crisis
- Intro: Protesting the Kristallnacht Pogrom
- The Pre-War Jewish Refugee Crisis in Europe (1933-1941)
- Local Civil Rights Activism Born out of the Jewish Refugee Crisis
On the night of Tuesday, November 22nd, 1938 the Jewish public was backed by their multi-ethnic community in Boyle Heights in protesting the Nazi savagery being inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Austria in the days following the eruptions of Kristallnacht.
The protest parade was backed by the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). and organized by a more diverse coalition known as the United Anti-Nazi Conference (UANC). Also supporting this event, was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Committee. (CRC).
The history surrounding this notorious night is best described by historical scholar Caroline Elizabeth Luce:
“The collaboration between the UANC and the JLC in their fight against fascism reached its peak in November 1938 when members of both organizations staged a massive protest in Boyle Heights to honor of the victims of Kristallnacht. Under the aegis of the UANC, some 10,000 to 15,000 people marched down Brooklyn Avenue, gathering on the steps of the Breed Street Shul for a massive rally, at which both Rabbi Osher Silberstein and Chaim Shapiro denounced the “savage terrorism,” “inhuman atrocities,” and “massacres of the Nazis.” The crowd primarily consisted of the neighborhood’s Jewish residents, who carried signs with Yiddish slogans and performed skits in Yiddish and English reenacting acts of Nazi persecution. But non- Jews, or “sympathizers” as the Los Angeles Times described them, joined the protest as well and both Rev. Floyd J. Seaman and Democratic Congressman Charles Kramer spoke about the threat Nazism posed to American peace and democracy at the rally. The attendees signed a pledge calling on President Roosevelt to sever all economic and political relations with Germany, and vowed not only to work to fight the “horrible savagery against the Jews in Nazi Germany” but also to work to create a “secure haven” for refugees in America.”
“Footnote by Luce: ‘The details on the protest come primarily from two sources: a front page article in the Los Angeles Times from Nov. 23rd, 1938, who characterized the attendants as “Jewish citizens and sympathizers” and these photographs of the event that appear in the Collection of Los Angeles Daily News Negatives, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections’”
Source: “Visions of a Jewish Future: the Jewish Bakers Union and Yiddish Culture in East Los Angeles, 1908-1942.” Caroline Elizabeth Luce, UCLA 2013.
The Los Angeles public in Boyle Heights was on that night responding to the wave of anti-Jewish violence in Germany which had begun less than two-weeks before on the night of November 9th, 1938. And which for two days ripped through the entire German Reich with brutal, coordinated attacks against its Jewish population.
The event became known as Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass, so named because every Jewish community in the German territories were left covered in shards of broken glass in the end. The shattered remains of the countries synagogues which were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. And the broken storefronts and display cases of Jewish businesses, which were also smashed and looted.
During this wave of violence some Jews were beaten to death by Nazi brown-shirts and police, while others were sadistically forced to watch. Even a few non-Jewish Germans – who were mistaken for Jews – were beaten to death. The violence of this pogrom directly resulted in the deaths of 91. Though hundreds more were believed to have also died as a result of panicked suicide amidst the violence.
Also during this operation the world would get a startling preview of the holocaust, as more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. The treatment of prisoners in these camps was brutal, resulting in the deaths of some 2,000 to 2,500 men. Though, most would eventually be released during the following three months, on the condition that they leave Germany.
The problem was, there was no place for these people to go. In nearly every place in the world the conditions were such were Jews were being expelled from their home countries, while other countries restricted immigration to the resulting unwanted refugees.
It needs to be stressed to this generations – which is so far removed from the realities and the context of the humanitarian crisis of the time – that this event was not the start of the refugee crisis. It was the mid-stream result of one!
And it also needs to recognized that while these pictures here may arouse a communal sense of pride – in that the diverse people of our local community responded to such violence and inhumanity by loudly demonstrating for the United States government to accept more refugees – we ought to soberly reflect upon the fact that the American public did not want these refugees.
Looking back at this event, I am struck by the realization that these protesters were here pleading the case of Jewish refugees a year prior the start of World War II (three years before the US would enter the war) and before start of the holocaust. In these photos we are looking upon a pivotal moment prior to these tragedies, when many more Jews could have still been saved from the coming calamity.
I cannot help but be grieved by this realization, that our community’s activism and protest which we see in these pictures went largely unheeded. That these cries to save our Jewish brothers from one of the most brutal regimes in history, fell on the deaf ears of an isolationist and racist American public of that era.
However, we will see that these early organizing efforts to unify the community for civil rights gains were not entirely fruitless!
As we further delve into this history we will explore the nature of the refugee crisis of their day, as well as the prejudices which caused and further enabled it all. Prejudices which were not only present in Germany, but also in our own county.
And we will lastly explore how alliances between Jews and our multi-ethnic neighbors were forged in order to fight such prejudices through joint activism. As these collaborations would actually live on past this crisis, directly inspiring continued cooperation between our minority communities in civil rights activism for decades to come.
The Pre-War Jewish Refugee Crisis (1933-1941)
When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, their well-announced aim was to make Germany judenrein – cleansed of Jews, who were being scapegoated for the societal and economic issues of the country. This they tried to achieve by making life so difficult for Jews that they would be forced to leave the country. Including baring them from most trades, professions and educational institutions; as well as limiting their rights of full-citizenship.
Then in 1935 with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi Germans government began stripping the citizenship and residency of Jewish people of foreign ancestry; including persons who themselves were actually born in Germany. This resulted in leaving many Jewish people not just jobless, but also stateless.
By the start of 1938, a quarter of the German Jewish population – some 150,000 people – had already left the country. Though this crisis went from bad to worse when Germany invaded and annexed Austria in March 1938, bringing another 185,000 Jews under Nazi rule. This left hundreds of thousands of Jews waiting in desperation for any country in the world to open their gates to them.
As described by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter… Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.
“Congress had set up immigration quotas in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially and ethnically undesirable…. Widespread racial prejudices among Americans – including antisemitic attitudes held by the US State Department officials – played a part in the failure to admit more refugees.”
As we see, even in the United States the feeling was that we did not have the resources to help these people. And even in this country, there was still the widely held sentiment at the time that Jews were racially undesirable as well.
With nowhere to go, the Jewish refugees of Germany and Austria were being pushed from one place to another. Which was an issue of great concern to the world powers.
Under great political pressure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference which took place in Paris in July of 1938, to address the refugee crisis.
Again citing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian. Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state, to Evian; instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt’s, represented the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees.
“Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how ‘astounding’ it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when ‘the opportunity offer[ed].’”
Despite the international community recognizing the reality of the crisis at hand and the tragedy unfolding, they collectively choose to do nothing. The only country willing to open their doors to these Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, would be the small island nation of La República Dominicana.
It is my strong belief that this disregardance given by the international community to the plight of these Jewish refugees emboldened these next and further sufferings to be inflicted upon Jews.
The next month in August 1938 the German government began the process of canceling and demanding renewal of all residency permits for Jews of foreign origins. This included German-born Jews of Polish descent. While at the same time, Poland began announcing that it would not accept any more migrant Jews of Polish origins past October 1938.
So on October 28, 1938 the Germans acted on Hitler’s order to round-up some 12,000 Polish Jews for “repatriation” and forcibly sent them over the Polish border, over 8,000 of which were immediately refused entry. Leaving thousands of refugees trapped without entrance to Germany or Poland, in the most dire of straights.
Among the refugees was the family of one Herschel Grynszpan, who himself was born in Germany but was illegally living in France at the time. Who upon receiving news of his family’s suffering at the German-Polish border he worked himself up into such a frenzy that he decided to buy a handgun and in protest assassinate a Nazi diplomat in Paris, ultimately mortally wounding a third-level embassy secretary.
It would be the news of the killing of a low ranking Nazi diplomatic staffer in Paris by a Jewish refugee on November 9th, 1938 which would be eagerly seized upon by the Nazis in order to erupt into and justify a much expected, large-scale attack against all Jews under the shadow of the German Reich.
Indeed, there is evidence which suggests that the Nazis began planning for such a coordinated attack already a year prior. [Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and The Jews, volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933–1939, London: Phoenix, 1997, p. 270]
The Nazis were not really able to use this assassination as an example of an international Jewish conspiracy in the end, as they had hoped for in a potential catalyst. As Grynszpan clearly acted alone and could not be tied to a larger plot, furthermore his act was loudly decried by the Jewish establishment.
Though this act did tragically present itself as the provocation needed in order to hold all Jews responsible for the crime of one desperate Jewish refugee, and to somehow vilify all Jews as dangerous illegal aliens as well.
It was just the incident needed to seemingly justify the brutality and terrors of Kristallnacht, and to turn the corner towards a more intense form of violence against Jews under the German Reich.
Considering all this, when we look back at the Anti-Nazi parade of 1938 we can now understand what these people were protesting against. Now we can appreciate the peril of the people they were demonstrating for. They were organizing to try to help unwanted Jewish refugees, whose lives desperately hung in the balance.
Local Civil Rights Activism born out of the Jewish Refugee Crisis
The persecutions and difficulties of the Jews in Europe had not gone unnoticed by the American Jewish public and their allies here in the United States. As they had actually begun to organize protest against the Nazi fascists soon after they came to power and began enacting discriminatory laws against Jews.
The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) was formed in 1934, in response to the rise of Nazi persecution in Europe. Bringing together several Jewish labor factions for their cause. Fighting for better treatment of laborers, and raising awareness regarding the dangers of European fascism.
And then in 1935 the United Anti-Nazi Conference (UANC) was formed, bringing together a much more ethnically diverse coalition for a broader cause. Luce wrote of them:
“The UANC defined their fight against fascism on much broader terms than the JLC. Their goal was not simply to raise awareness about the Nazi threat in Europe but to encourage the public to see that the same fascist attitudes that propelled Hitler to power in Germany also maintained the Jim Crow system and perpetuated racial and economic inequality in America.
“The UANC’s understanding of fascism was best articulated in the pamphlet, ‘It Can Happen Here,’ that the UANC commissioned local lawyer, writer and activist Carey McWilliams to write in 1935. In it, McWilliams described how fascist leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and their American supporters used ‘demagogic slogans and fancy proclamations’ to convince the public that prosperity could be achieved by ‘eliminating’ political, racial and social minorities. Rather than enact real changes, these leaders simply fulfilled the ‘will of monopoly capitalism,’ ginning up hate and fear ‘to conceal its ghastly failures.’
“Los Angeles was particularly susceptible to fascist influence because of its tradition of ‘fascist jurisprudence’ – the LAPD’s arrests of those seeking to distribute literature, protest or otherwise exercise their first amendment rights – and because Hollywood was a ‘fertile field’ for anti-Semitism because of Jewish executives’ ‘ruthless management’ of their studios.
“The only way to resist the insidious influence of fascism in the city and in America at large was to unite in common struggle against all ‘phobias,’ including anti-Semitism and racism and defend the civil rights of all Americans.”
To this end the UANC was organized and began addressing the underlying causes of fascism – manifest in racism, segregation, persecution of immigrants, and antisemitism – which was also present in our own society. And to counter the demagoguery which was seen not just in Nazi Germany, but also mirrored in our own country.
Though I believe one of the most important characteristics of the UANC was that they understood the need for addressing the very real issues which were being seized upon by anti-Semites and racists in our very own city of Los Angeles. Instead of dismissing and deflecting, they engaged both the rhetoric and also the uncomfortable truths head-on. They took much more than a nuanced approach, they fiercely took-up addressing the fears and phobias; even when this came with harsh criticism of the Jewish establishment in Hollywood.
Yet while Jews had a presence in the Hollywood film industry, we need to understand that they were still outsiders in much of the larger society. And even Hollywood itself was no haven from antisemitism. This is actually most horrifically displayed in the bigoted reactions which were already elicited to the protest against Nazism and fascism in America.
As described by Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University, in this article here:
“On October 1, 1938, ‘Box Office,’ a glossy trade weekly, reprinted a crude antisemitic leaflet circulating around theaters in the Midwest and, closer to home, along the streets of downtown Los Angeles. ‘Hollywood is the Sodom and Gomorrah where International Jewry controls Vice-Dope-Gambling,’ the leaflets read. ‘Where Young Gentile Girls are raped by Jewish producers, directors and casting directors who go unpunished.’ A caricature depicted a hook-nosed Jew despoiling a vessel of lily-white Aryan womanhood.”
This was how antisemites responded to the public rallying calls against fascism by the studio funded Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. (HANL) Similar antisemitic leaflets would also be inserted into 50,000 copies of the Los Angeles Times by antisemitic employees.
What we do need to remember is that in those days Jews in America were still considered a form of ethnic minority in many ways; othered in society, and even at times racialized. And therefore were still subjected to many of the harsh realities of discrimination and segregation.
In fact the prejudices against Jews seemed to be peaking at this time, as some Jewish families were actually starting to successfully assimilate into middle-America; which came with alarm and repulse for many white Americans. As they saw some Jews begin to make inroads to where they were traditionally not welcomed.
When we look at this era we see that the Jewish people were actually facing much discrimination on both ends of our society. Jews as a people were being vilified as Hollywood moguls, while also being despised as needy immigrants. They were being hated for being ruthless capitalists, while also being demonized as communists. They were scorned for wanting to be like white Americans, and detested for being too foreign.
And during this point in history antisemitism had a particular appeal to many people, amid the Great Depression. In some of the same ways as how Jews were being scapegoated for the depression in Germany, antisemitism also surfaced here. Though what is also important to understand about this moment in history is that the Jewish people were not just fighting ambient racism.
As in fact over in downtown Los Angeles on Broadway was located the western headquarters for the German American Bund, founded in 1933 as the “Friends of New Germany” – the American manifestation of the Nazi party and a pro-Nazi Germany advocacy group.
Los Angeles and Hollywood itself was particular susceptible to this type of fascists ideology, in an atmosphere in which nationalism was still fashionable and Nazism was even romanticized. And in an age when it was common for people of society to attend controversial political meetings, national socialism was also to be found in the mix.
As early as 1933 Los Angeles Jewish leaders responded to this threat by founding the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – initially created to monitor groups and report activities which were seen as a threat to Jews and to democracy in general. Monitoring groups such as the Bund, the Friends of New Germany, the Silver Shirts, as well as other antisemitic and racist groups like the Klu Klux Klan (KKK).
The CRC was quite successful in infiltrating these organizations and exposing their realm of influence within the city. Which resulted in a dramatic decrease in the membership of the Friends of New Germany.
Lesser know is the fact that they were also successful in uncovering and preventing a terrorist plot planned by the Bund from their downtown Deutsche Haus, to execute Jewish Hollywood studio heads and to murder Jews at random in the densely Jewish populated neighborhood of Boyle Heights. (Professor Steven Ross, of University of Southern California; this topic be featured in his upcoming book “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.“)
Their successes in their fight against organized racism and in preventing violence positioned them as the leading organization within the Jewish community for years to come.
As described by historian Shana Bernstein:
“The CRC became a main organization occupied with the defense, protection and civil rights of the Los Angeles Jewish community in the 1930s.
“During the 1930s, through the first decades of its existence the CRC spoke for the many constituent organizations in the greater Jewish community of Los Angeles, which all represented a relatively small but growing community.”
The CRC would eventually change their name, later becoming known as the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
As a small minority, the Los Angeles Jewish community at this time came to recognize that they had to partner with other minority groups in order for their voice to be heard. And their draw needed to be broad, as Los Angeles was such an ethnically diverse city that there was not any one nationality with which they could secure a powerful alliance.
Organizations such as the CRC were among the first to realized that their goals were best achieved through broader partnerships with their non-Jewish fellows. For in practice they found that their fight for civil rights as Jews was very much similar to the civil right struggle of various ethnic minorities and immigrants, including African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.
When Kristallnacht erupted in November of 1938, the Los Angeles Jewish community and their allies organizing the Anti-Nazi parade did not even attempt to hold the event in Hollywood or even downtown, but rather in Boyle Heights. And this was for a couple of reasons.
First, because the Jewish public knew that they did not have the backing and clout to really hold a successfully anti-Nazi protest in Hollywood itself – let alone one which would attract broad and diverse support they were seeking.
Which leads to the most importantly reason yet, to remind the public of the fact that what Jews were experiencing both in Europe and America was a struggle against racism. Holding the protest here in Boyle Heights reinforced the reality of this, tying this event to the struggle they were facing alongside their various immigrant neighbors and with people of color in this very community as well.
For this reason, it should not surprise us that in these pictures capturing the Anti-Nazi protest of November 1938, we also see the faces of black, brown and Asian people protesting alongside their Jewish eastside neighbors.
This partnership between Jews and with other minority groups beginning with their fight against fascism and their public education campaigns against racist ideologies in those pre-war years constituted one of the first major joint effort in civil rights activism between the communities. And the lessons learned at that time would provide a working model for inter-racial cooperation which would be followed for years to come.
After the US entered World War II – when it was no longer necessary to convince the American public of the Nazi threat – the focus of Jewish organized civil rights clearinghouses such as the CRC would be redirected to the then most poignant issues at hand. While still maintaining their founding principles to addressing the causes of antisemitism and race related violence, as the nature of ethnic tensions would shift.
And in the post-war years the CRC would continue to back and support civil rights work, with specific focus on the Los Angeles eastside. When after the war it seemed that Jews and the local ethnic minorities appeared to have less in common with each other, revealing many fears and racial tensions which then needed to be addressed. At a time when antisemitism and race-based scapegoating came with different challenges for the community.
In our continued exploration of this history, we will later see how in the post-war years the CRC addressed inter-community tensions and racial inequality, though supporting the empowerment of our local ethnic minorities. Ultimately providing essential backing and funding for groups such as the Community Service Organization (CSO); which would become our first major Mexican-American civil rights training ground in the area, out of which leaders such as Cesar Chavez would eventually emerge.
- The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies – In a long tradition of “persecuting the refugee,” the State Department and FDR claimed that Jewish immigrants could threaten national security. (Smithsonian)
- Resolving Conflict and Preventing Racial Violence, in the Classic Eastside – Post-WWII community organizing and civil rights work.
- Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience