In 1938, New York City had a Nazi problem.
At the time, there were about 12 million German immigrants in the US, and most were happily assimilating. But about 1 in 500 were members of the German-American Bund, a national organization that avidly supported Adolf Hitler and pledged allegiance to Germany.
Its literature called the Jewish people a “menace” and a threat to democracy. In New York, the Bund held massive rallies, goose-stepping down the streets of the Upper East Side in brown-shirted uniforms with swastikas on their arms.
The demonstrations terrified New York’s Jewish community, many of whom had relatives in Europe and had been watching the headlines from Germany with growing alarm. A former US congressman and judge named Nathan David Perlman saw the path the Bund was on, and he wanted it stopped. He knew their actions weren’t illegal, but the judge had a revelation one evening while enjoying a cocktail in a Manhattan saloon.
“What those Nazis need is a good ass-whipping,” realized the judge, as Michael Benson describes in his new book, “Gangsters v Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America” (Kensington), out now.
Perlman knew exactly who should deliver said “ass-whipping,” too. He called Meyer Lansky, New York’s preeminent Jewish gangster.
“You got some boys who might want to punch a Nazi?” I have asked.
“I do, Judge,” the mobster answered. “Respectfully, you understand we can do better than punch? I know just the crew—in Brownsville. The boys in the press call them Murder, Inc.”
Lansky had grown up tough on the Lower East Side with gangsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Charles “Lucky” Luciano, helping to form New York’s “Five Families” organized crime outfit and becoming rich and powerful through bookmaking, bootlegging and opening casinos. Lansky was smart but tough, too, willing to get physical when necessary.
Perlman declined Lansky’s offer to kill the Nazis. Instead, he wanted Lansky to teach the Bund a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget.
“I want you to do anything but kill them,” Perlman said.
The purpose of the German-American Bund was to promote Hitler’s agenda in the US, and throughout the 1930s various American Nazi organizations were discovered amassing arsenals of arms and ammunition, planning to sabotage roadways and power plants — even buying plans for a Nazi air force inside the United States. While the Bund was started by German-Americans in the United States, Adolf Hitler knew of its existence (there’s a picture of him shaking hands with Bund boss Fritz Kuhn) and approved of it. Hitler knew from his own experience in World War I that he didn’t want to fight the Americans again, so he hoped to brainwash the country into supporting him.
Many of New York’s Germans lived in Yorkville (East 86th Street was nicknamed “Sauerkraut Boulevard”), where the Bund frequently held rallies and parades. To honor Hitler’s 49th birthday on April 20, those fascists planned a celebratory march from Carl Schulz Park to the Yorkville Casino.
Waiting for them at the casino were Meyer Lansky and his Jewish gangster friends, including members of Murder, Inc.: “Mendy” Weiss, who worked as a kidnapper and “choker”; “Buggsy” Goldstein, rumored to crack jokes while killing; Harry “Pep” Strauss, reputedly one of the most prolific contract killers; and Jacob Drucker, known as an “ice pick man” for his favorite means of murdering him.
After the parade, the Bund planned on listening to a speech from Kuhn in a ballroom decorated with swastikas and likenesses of the Fuhrer.
Lansky’s crew broke into three groups: Outside, five racketeers with baseball bats and pool cues waited to pound fleeing Nazis; on the second floor, five more planned on attacking from on high; and in the back of the casino ballroom sat Lansky and friends, Jewish men who listened to ugly speeches briefly before randomly unleashing haymakers. The gangsters attacked from three sides and 15 bouts of fisticuffs ensued, and although the gangsters were far outnumbered by the more than 3,000 Nazis, it wasn’t a fair fight — most Bund members cowered in fear, while the gangsters dealt in violence every day .
“Men who knew how to march were fighting men who knew how to hurt,” Benson writes.
When it was over, Benson writes, “scattered about were injured Nazis. So much blood.” Some lay unconscious after their heads were pummeled, others with compound fractures of the limbs. The gangsters’ only challenge was not killing anyone, which they barely accomplished: After beating one mouthy Bund member into semi-consciousness, “Buggsy” and Drucker tossed the man out a second-story window. He survived, but his leg was shattered. Afterward, Lansky and company dropped their weapons and the American Legion hats they wore for cover and slipped into the night, never fingered for the assault — exactly as Lansky hoped, the next day The New York Times blamed the melee on the Legion.
Judge Perlman had offered Lansky compensation for the work, but Lansky refused. “I need no pay, Judge,” Lansky told him. “I am a Jew, and I feel for the Jews in Europe who are suffering.”
Lansky didn’t want help, either. When his boyhood friend of him “Lucky” Luciano offered his Italian thugs to assist in the “ass-whippings,” he demurred.
“It’s a job for Jews,” I explained.
The “Battle for Yorkville” had the desired effect. When the next Bund meeting was scheduled for White Plains, only about 250 of an expected 1,000 Nazis showed up, many still bearing injuries from the Yorkville failures. A strong police presence kept Lansky’s crew from getting into the arena, but he bribed two local Jewish teenagers — for $1 each — to smuggle corked, glass bottles into the event.
With the first speech underway, one boy yelled “Hitler’s got one ball!” and both threw their vials towards the stage. Stink bombs erupted and the crowd fled. By the time the arena was aired out and the proceedings restarted, even more seats were empty. Lansky’s war of intimidation was working.
While the US government understood the First Amendment protected the Bund’s right to march and rally, it still disapproved of the group. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial position was to “make the American Nazis uncomfortable whenever possible,” Benson writes.
Judge Perlman went beyond New York to help with the effort. In Chicago — a city where boardinghouse signs plainly announced “No Jews or dogs allowed” — he reached out to Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik. Guzik was Chicago’s senior Jewish boss, right-hand man to Al Capone.
Guzik happily said “I do” when Perlman asked if he knew people who could punch a Nazi. The next time Chicago’s German-American Bund met, they were waylaid by various hardened Jewish boxers, including Jacob Rubenstein, who would later be known as Jack Ruby, infamous killer of Lee Harvey Oswald.
“It’s safe to say that by 1939 every Nazi in the Windy City knew how tough Jews could be,” Benson writes.
It was a similar story in Los Angeles, Detroit and Cleveland, with every battle between Nazis and Jews ending the same. “The gangsters had an appetite for violence that overwhelmed their Aryan foes. Germans fled and cried and covered their faces with their hands.”
And at the end of every vicious attack, the Bund was threatened with even more violence. After one Buffalo brawl, a Jewish hood was heard grumbling to a fallen, bloodied Nazi, “Next time we ain’t gonna be so nice.”
Back in New York, Lansky’s work had chased the Nazis across the Hudson River to Newark, where the group fared no better. Newark’s Third Ward was led by “Longie” Zwillman, who’d spent his New Jersey childhood defending Jewish kids from Polish bullies.
The Bund scheduled meetings for Newark, even posting flyers calling for the city’s streets to run with Jewish blood. Judge Perlman contacted “Longie” about the Nazis’ plans and he deputized one of his enforcers from him, Nat “the Fighting Hebrew” Arno, to put together a crew. Arno recruited other Jewish pugilists and mob enforcers, and soon “The Anti-Nazi Minutemen of America” was born.
“A lot of them just plain loved to fight, and busting up those Nazi creeps sounded like fun,” Arno said.
In subsequent Newark battles, Hymie “The Weasel” Kugel was seen incapacitating Nazis with frying-pan blows to the head. Golden Gloves boxing champ Harry “The Dropper” Levine knocked them out. It was a hobby that thrilled Jewish toughs like Puddy Hinkes, whose only complaint was the single restriction on their work. “It’s just too bad we couldn’t kill them all,” he grumbled.
By 1939 it wasn’t just Jewish gangsters fighting the Bund. News from Europe of the horrors Jews were facing there — being forced into ghettos or sent to camps — turned the tide against American Nazism. Every time the German-American Bund or other similar organizations met, patriotic Americans by the hundreds gathered to protest.
When Fritz Kuhn scheduled a massive event for the Bund at Madison Square Garden in February 1939 — supposedly a pro-American event, but really just another chance to espouse angry anti-Semitism — more than 1,700 NYPD cops had to protect the venue from an angry crowd of thousands gathered outside, including Lansky’s crew. Many of the uniformed Nazis hoping to attend were beaten before they could even enter the arena, and the final death knell for those fascists was tolling. By 1940, the Nazis in America were “on the run,” Benson writes, fearful of “stink bombs and crowbars. By Pearl Harbor, the Bund was through.”
As to why Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen, Jewish gangsters from different coasts, offered their violent services pro-bono to Judge Perlman’s crusade, they gave exactly the same reason: “It was my patriotic duty.”