By Andrew Malekoff
I was born and raised in the 1950s in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the South Ward of New Jersey’s largest city, Newark. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Newark also became a center of Nazi activity and a base of operation for the German American Bund, once known as the Friends of New Germany. The Bundists dressed like brown shirts and at their peak there were 25,000 of them.
When did I first learn about this? From my uncle, the unofficial family historian. But he didn’t provide all this detail. He only suggested it in a story he told me about my father, his oldest brother. It wasn’t until later that I filled in the blanks.
I was curious, but I didn’t do much to further validate the story he told me. That is, not until I read the Philip Roth novel “The Plot Against America,” which debuted as an HBO miniseries in March.
It turns out that Philip Roth grew up in the same neighborhood that I did, only 18 years earlier. Needless to say, the setting of his book was most evocative as the place where I spent most of my childhood years.
In the novel, Roth imagines how a Jewish family living in that neighborhood might have dealt with a national threat similar to what European Jews confronted in the 1930s. Which leads me back to my uncle’s story about my dad.
My father had been a well-known high school athlete (football and basketball) in the mid-1930s, often featured in the local newspapers: the Newark Star Ledger and Newark Evening News. My grandmother, a Russian immigrant, saved a treasure trove of the news clippings about his athletic exploits.
What I hadn’t known until my uncle told me the story was that my father was loosely associated with a group that an infamous local gangster organized to disrupt anti-Semitic meetings held by the Bund. As my uncle explained it to me, “They would throw stink bombs into the meeting hall in Irvington and then when the Nazis ran outside out, they would knock the hell out of them.”
Finally, I decided to look into this, not expecting to find much. To my surprise I found a few detailed articles on the subject. One of them appeared in the Forward just this past March 15. The author, P.J. Grisar, wrote: “The Minutemen patrolled Nazi meetings. Famously, they gassed out the Schwabbenhalle, a German auditorium, near Irvington [which bordered Newark] with stench bombs and fought with the fleeing Friends of New Germany on the street outside.”
My father was a Minuteman? Who were the Minutemen?
As Grisar reported: “The Minutemen were a group of Jewish boxers and gangsters [who] broke up meetings and rallies of the Friends of New Germany and its successor group, the Bund, ready to strike Nazis with bats, crowbars and stink bombs if the rhetoric turned anti-Semitic. When things got violent and arrests were made, [they] were typically charged only with disorderly conduct or creating a disturbance.
I learned that they took the name from the Revolutionary War Minutemen, whose name signified their readiness to fight the British at a minute’s notice. “Newark’s Jewish Minutemen wanted to emulate them in their fight against the Nazis,” observed Robert Rockaway in a 2018 report on the group.
When my uncle first told me the story, it was almost in passing and it seemed to blend in with all the others he told to me. But this one started with “I don’t think you have any idea how tough your father was…”
By today’s standards, I suppose my father might have been labeled a terrorist. And, depending on who was in power, he would have been either applauded or dragged off the street by unidentified troops wearing camouflage and thrown into an unmarked car.
A few years after his time with the Minutemen, my father enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 22 (see photo of War Department I.D. card), where he raised his Nazi-resistance to another level. His two younger brothers joined him soon thereafter. He served for five years from 1941-1945.
Nazis in America? Yes, it can happen here. Some might say it already has.
Andrew Malekoff lives in Long Beach, New York. He is a licensed clinical social worker and author of the textbook Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice, now in its 3rd edition.