CHAPTER NINE

White Plains

The next Bund rally, this one called a German Day Fete, was moved outside the five boroughs of New York and into Westchester County, in the town of White Plains, in an arena on the Bronx River Parkway known then and now as the Westchester County Center.

Of all the venues for Bund events during the Depression, this is one of the few that still stands and still serves its community much as it did in 1938, although it did get spruced up in 1988 thanks to a $16 million renovation.

The architectural firm of Walker & Gillette designed the art deco structure. It cost $785,000 to build and opened for business in 1924. (It is the current home of the Westchester Knicks of the pro basketball G League. It’s hosted more than five hundred boxing cards and concerts by Judy Garland, James Brown, and Janis Joplin. And, in 1938, one happy, happy Nazi party.)

According to posters, the Nazi event was held under the sponsorship of both the German American Bund and the United German Societies of Westchester County and Connecticut.

Because of the Yorkville riot, the NYPD was on high alert for the Sunday evening event “upstate.” More than one hundred uniformed patrol officers and detectives were in the Grand Central Station area, keeping a close eye on the anticipated one thousand Nazis thought to be getting to the rally via a chartered train.

There were the normal number of homeless (referred to in 1938 as “loiterers”) in the station, and they were cleared out to prevent anyone in a bummy disguise from attacking the Nazis. Officers even worked outside Grand Central to make sure pedestrians on Lexington and Vanderbilt Avenues kept moving.

Three sides of the huge railroad station were cordoned off, as was the stretch of Forty-second Street from Second Avenue to Madison Avenue. There was an impressive police presence on both the upper and lower levels of the station, while other officers guarded the IRT subway station under Grand Central and the elevated station at Third Avenue and Forty-second Street.

The Yorkville brawl had squelched the Bund’s New York momentum. As Lansky had predicted when speaking to Teller, attendance in Westchester had shrunk and shriveled. A thousand Nazis were expected to ride the chartered train but only about a quarter of that boarded.

The train left at six. The event began at eight. The ride was about thirty minutes. At first, the train traveled northward underground, but then it rose into the daylight at Ninety-sixth Street and Park Avenue, where more police were stationed to discourage rifle-armed rock throwers.

We don’t know if there was a planned attack on the Nazis as they went to the White Plains rally, but if there had been, the heavy police presence discouraged it.

“There was no demonstration or disorder,” a police representative said the next day about the Grand Central Station op.

It was a different story up in Westchester. There was definitely an attack planned there, featuring a roster of hoods pretty much the same as those who had busted up the Yorkville Casino birthday party.

But, unlike Yorkville, where the police arrived after all was said and done, the police presence at the Westchester arena was so tight that the gangsters’ initial plan to bust heads was scratched.

The Nazis who trained to the event marched the half-mile from the White Plains train station while guarded by twenty uniformed White Plains police officers. The gangsters didn’t want to let the Nazis think they’d gotten away with something, though, so Lansky quickly formulated a Plan B.

He spotted a pair of fresh-faced teenagers in baggy and patched dungarees.

“You boys Jewish?”

“Yeah, what about it?” Turned out they were from Bronxville Manor and attended Bronxville High School.

“No, that’s good, that’s good. Us Jews, we got to stick together. You know who’s in that building?”

“Yeah, Jew-haters.”

“That’s right. You guys want to make a dollar?”

“A dollar each?”

“Sure, sure.”

“Let’s see it.”

Lansky pulled a wad from his jacket and watched their eyes pop.

“One for you, one for you. Here’s what you got to do.”

Lansky pulled something out of his other jacket pocket, looked like two vials from a chemistry lab, with corks in them.

The White Plains fete had been billed in advertisements as a fun observance of a milestone in the history of the “German-American element in this region.” Inside the arena, however, things didn’t feel all that fun. There was apprehension in the air. Veterans of the Yorkville riot were in the audience, men in slings, men with the visible green remnants of shiners.

As was foreshadowed by the largely empty charter train, there were many no-shows. The arena had a seating capacity of five thousand but was less than half full. If a Nazi spoke loud enough, he could hear an echo.

Some in the arena thought there was going to be trouble when nine members of the American Legion, real ones in their telltale hats, entered. But there was no excitement as it was announced that the men were there at the invitation of H. H. Greve, president of the United German Americans of Westchester. They were greeted at the door by storm troopers who escorted them to a box near the stage.

Lansky’s teenagers took seats in the back. No one paid any attention to them. Right on time, the band started to play. The United States and German national anthems were performed while everyone stood.

Teenaged girls cartwheeled down the aisle, and a chorus filed onto the stage and sang a couple of German songs. Then the first speaker took to the podium. That was when Lansky’s young soldiers went to work.

The teenagers stood and shouted, “Hitler’s got one ball!” And each pulled out their vial and threw it toward the podium. They were “stink bombs.” The boys didn’t even wait for the vials to break; they turned on a dime and hightailed it toward the exit.

The police snagged them, however, and charged them with disorderly conduct. They didn’t rat out Lansky, however, if they even knew who he was.

“Why did you do it?” a cop asked as the boys were placed briefly in a White Plains jail cell.

“It was our sworn duty as true-blooded Americans,” one of them replied.

A reporter came to the jail to interview the youthful Nazi-haters. Again, they were asked why they broke up the meeting.

“How would you like it if those guys came over here and took control?” one of them said.

Back at the arena, there was an evacuation, an airing out, and then festivities resumed. There were more empty chairs than ever.

A photo that ran in newspapers around the nation the next day showed American citizens in the audience giving the Nazi salute at the “passing of the colors,” a swastika flag carried by a color guard down the aisle during the rally.

Organizers (ignoring the stink bombs) bragged to reporters that the rally, which “called for a return to the ideals of George Washington,” went on “without significant disruption.”

Those mainstream newspapers largely ignored the obnoxious politics discussed at the meeting and wrote that among the German American groups attending were “singing and gymnastic” clubs.

As the meeting resumed, a picket line formed outside. A group of young men and women representing the Westchester division of the American League for Peace and Democracy marched in single file outside the arena, carrying signs that read:

KEEP HITLER OUT OF AMERICA

NO ROOM FOR NAZI MURDERERS

EXPOSE THE NAZI SPY RING

The protesters did not adversely affect the meeting inside, but they did cause a traffic jam as homeward-bound drivers tarried and rubbernecked to see what all of the fuss was about.

Simultaneous to the White Plains event was a Manhattan gathering of the Kings County and New York County Jewish War Veterans. One of the highlights of the meeting was the election as commanders of two members who had participated in the “Battle of Yorkville” just days earlier.

Among the speakers was Jean Mathias, whose heckling (“Are any of these speeches going to be in English?”) seemingly triggered the Yorkville melee. He pledged that he was going to continue to attend both fascist and communist meetings as part of his ongoing investigation into “treasonable activities.”

Other speakers included Kings County Commander Abraham Cohen, now the man in charge at the East Flatbush Community Center on Linden Boulevard, who said, “We must awaken the American public to the realization that there is no room in this country for Nazism. The bunds are made of blackjack-wielding fomenters of racial hatred. I call for measures that will wipe out subversive groups in New York City.”

City Councilman Abner C. Surpless and Representative Donald L. O’Toole of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, also spoke. O’Toole told the gathering to continue to “fight for American democracy” and urged the United States to halt relations with Germany “and any other nation that persecutes minority groups. And we must acknowledge the existence of an armed, uniformed, terroristic, antidemocratic, un-American fascist force in our city.”

Representatives of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty and the American Gold Star Mothers also addressed the gathering. At one point, there was a complaint about unauthorized use of American Legion hats at the Yorkville riot. Nobody knew who those guys in the hats were, but there was agreement that they should get a pass because they were such good fighters.

Then a man from the Communist Party got up there and said that they didn’t want to be lumped in with those Yorkville creeps, and he pledged that the communists would fight “for the protection of our basic American values.” The message was met with only polite applause as many attendees were all too aware of the Nazi claim that communism was a Jewish conspiracy to control all the money.

Perlman had promised to stop the negativity about Lansky in the Jewish newspapers and to defend his anti-fascist activities, which, though violent, were for a great cause. And the judge tried, but that didn’t mean that Lansky was happy.

One never knew what a gangster was going to be sensitive about. These men, many of them, lived double lives, with wives and children who had no idea what they did for a living.

The Jewish papers quoted Rabbi Wise, who was there when Perlman met with Lansky, who said that the “Yorkville Bund Busters” were a bunch of “Jewish gangsters.” Lansky was furious. How dare he use that word? Why didn’t Perlman protect him the way he said he would? Lansky felt double-crossed.

Lansky later claimed that this was the first time anyone ever called him a gangster. Could it possibly have been true? Surely, Lansky had been called a gangster many times—but maybe always behind his back. Maybe he just meant the first time in public.

What Lansky said was, “They wanted the Nazis taken care of but were afraid to do the job themselves. I did it for them. And when it was over, they called me a gangster. No one ever called me a gangster until Rabbi Wise called me a gangster.”

It may have been Lansky’s snit fit that resulted in the Bund getting off one last 1938 New York rally unmolested. The meeting was held just on the other side of the East River from Manhattan—at the Turner Hall in Astoria, Queens—and drew seven hundred Nazis, including Fred the Retailer, who was still on crutches with a plaster cast up to his waist. There were an estimated three hundred protesters outside the hall, peacefully protesting, and about a hundred cops guarding the doors. Inside, feeling safe and cozy, an attorney named Herbert Roth concluded his anti-Semitic speech by saying, “Fellow Bundsmen, it is time to smash the shield of Abraham once and for all.” Fritz Kuhn, sitting at a dais, thrust his chin in the air in approval. When the quote was relayed to former magistrate Joseph Goldstein, he threatened to file charges against Roth for inciting a riot. The Nazis considered the meeting a great success. For once, they all got to go straight home without stopping at the emergency room for first aid.

The greatest symbolic win over Hitler in the New York City of 1938 didn’t happen at a Bund meeting. It happened at the big ballpark in the Bronx: the heavyweight championship fight between African American Joe Louis and the undefeated German Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938. It was a rematch. Schmeling had KO’d Louis in the first bout. That made Hitler strut with his chest puffed out as tears fell in Harlem.

The buildup to the rematch was huge. Never before or since had there been a fight quite so symbolic. American versus German, black versus white, Democracy versus Nazism.

There were many Jewish boxing fans in New York who did not tend to root for the black prizefighters, but in this case they made an exception. Almost all Americans did. Yankee Stadium was packed, and the rest of the country, seventy million of them, anyway, listened to announcer Clem McCarthy call the fight blowby-blow on the radio in his “whiskey tenor.”

(To be fair in the retelling, Max Schmeling was not a Nazi and was by all accounts a good guy. But he was German and Hitler’s pride and joy. As far as the world was concerned, only his alabaster skin mattered.)

The fight itself was quick but brutal. Louis went to work early and hard, throwing devastating left hooks, four to the head and one to the body that landed with a sickening thud that could be heard in the stadium’s third deck. Schmeling cried out in pain. The German sagged with one arm over the top rope. The ref paused the fight until Schmeling could stand up straight.

After that, the end came swiftly. An overhand right to Schmeling’s kisser sent the German to the canvas for the first time, but he was up at the count of three. Louis threw a three-punch combo, with all of them landing on the button.

McCarthy had America riveted with his impossibly fast tommy-gun delivery: “A right to the head, a left to the jaw, a right to the head, and Schmeling is down!”

This time, he was up at the count of two. A third knockdown followed immediately, and at the 2:04 point of Round One, Schmeling’s corner tossed the towel. Louis had thrown forty-one punches, landing thirty-one of them. Schmeling threw two punches and landed one, a decent right to the face that Louis walked through without blinking. Schmeling spent the next ten days in the hospital.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was the sort of politician you don’t see anymore: a liberal Republican who’d risen to power on the coattails of FDR’s New Deal. He was a short, round man, with a deceptively friendly manner.

One day, while sipping orange juice at his breakfast table, LaGuardia opened a letter from a very whiny Nazi who said that Jewish goons were infringing on the rights of the Bund to peacefully assemble. LaGuardia knew the guy had a point. From a legal perspective, the Jewish fighters were fully in the wrong. It was only the intrinsic immorality of Nazism that muddied the issue. LaGuardia couldn’t stand the Bund. All of that hate made his skin crawl.

The mayor told the Nazis okay, we’ll keep the Jews off your back, but with a few caveats. The Nazis were forbidden to wear uniforms, display swastikas, sing songs, and march to drums. Keep the tubas home, too, he might as well have said. And they had to stick to their own turf, that is, Yorkville.

The Nazis agreed, and that was supposed to be the end of the gangster campaign of pain. LaGuardia assigned Jewish cops to Yorkville events, so if trouble erupted, the Nazis would be made to feel as uncomfortable as possible. The mayor took it a step further and made sure Jewish cops were assigned to security duty whenever a German Nazi dignitary visited New York.

It signaled the end of Lansky’s battle but just the beginning of the war. The Bund took its act on the road, and Perlman made other phone calls to other gangsters, so that wherever the Bund tried to hold a noxious meeting, the boys would be there to dish out the hurt.

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