Off the Shelf: Criminals or heroes?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Criminals or heroes? That’s the question I pondered while reading “Gangsters vs Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America” by Michael Benson (Citadel Press). The work proved challenging, but not because of the writing or subject matter. In fact, it tells a fascinating story of how some Jews in the U.S. fought back against American Nazis before World War II. You might be wondering, then, what debate I was having with myself. While it’s not hard to cheer for someone disrupting Nazi gatherings and beating up Nazis (something that sounded more like a comic book than reality at times), it is difficult to see these gangsters as heroes because, as Benson notes, the Jewish gangsters were “the perfect warriors for the cause. They killed and hurt people for a living and didn’t particularly care about the law.” 

Benson offers a short history of Jewish immigration in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th to show the sociological conditions that led to the development of the Jewish mob. Focusing on the 1920s, he notes that these teenage rebels – the boys who wanted to avoid the drudgery of their parents’ lives – took to the streets and formed gangs. One reason for their rebellion was that many other paths to success were off limits because they were Jewish. Prohibition offered an easy way to make money since selling liquor was profitable. After Prohibition was repealed, many of these men moved on to other rackets, including “policy banking (also know as the ‘numbers,’ an illegal lottery), extortion [and] murder.” 

The person who organized the gangsters’ attacks against American Nazis might come as a surprise: Special Sessions Judge Nathan Perlman. Perlman arranged a meeting with Meyer Lansky, an organized crime boss, and brought Rabbi Stephen Wise to the meeting. His purpose was to arrange for Lansky’s men to disrupt Nazi meetings, rallies and marches. According to Benson, Lansky was told that any disruption up to murder was OK with Perlman and Wise. Although they offered Lansky money for his help, he refused to be paid. What he did accept was the promise of legal assistance if any of his men were arrested. Benson writes that “Meyer thought the no-kill rule took a little bit of fun out of it, but leaving a bigmouth Kraut wailing in pain was satisfying.” 

The first attacks against the Nazi groups took place in New York City, but soon spread to other areas where Nazis gathered. Benson writes about different Jewish gangsters who disrupted meetings and rallies in Chicago, Newark, Middle America and the West Coast. Brutal beatings were not unknown. The gangsters generally came out on top of these encounters and few were arrested. The Nazi groups began to meet less publicly and demanded more police protection since, at that time, it was not illegal for them to gather.

Benson notes that not every Jew was pleased by the gangsters’ behavior. Some were afraid that Jewish criminals committing acts of violence would create more antisemitism. Their fear was not completely unrealistic. Antisemitism was already rife in the U.S. For example, a chapter on Father Charles Edward Coughlin shows how he frequently preached antisemitism on his radio program, saying he was against religious persecution, but since Jews represented a Communist threat, that explained the measures taken against them in Europe. According to Benson, “Coughlin had a velvety soft voice and tenderly wrapped his hate speech in a warm security blanket of tone and comfort.” His program was mainstream: at its peak, it had 30 million listeners. 

The confrontations continued on and off until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Allies. The Nazi groups then came under greater scrutiny. While some of their activities were harmless, there were groups who actively spied for Germany or plotted to overthrow the U.S. government on behalf of Nazi Germany. 

“Gangsters vs Nazis” is filled with interesting details about the gangsters’ lives and the way Nazi ideas had taken root in the United States. Benson notes that, even though his book is a nonfiction work, he has supplemented the dialogue and adjusted some of the chronology to smooth the narrative flow. That may make readers wonder if he jazzed up some of the dialogue for the sake of making the action more exciting. However, that won’t concern the general reader who wants to learn about how American Jews fought against Nazis in their backyard. For those interested in more detail, Benson does include a list of his sources. Anyone unfamiliar with this period of Jewish history will find “Gangsters vs Nazis” fun and action packed.