Busting Heads in Pre-War America

 

There are few things as repugnant as the Mob. Except maybe Nazis. It kind of makes sense that Jewish mobsters once took an opportunity to improve their image by punching Nazis.

“Gangsters vs Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America,” by Michael Benson relates the story of one of the strangest campaigns of the 1930s and 40s. It shows how the Jewish community in the United States organized to fight the German-American Bund and other fascist groups in the United States in the years prior to American entry into World War II. They did it by enlisting the assistance of Jewish Gangsters.

As Benson points out, in mid-century America organized crime was big, especially in immigrant communities. They formed in every community with a large, poor immigrant population. The most famous was the Italian Mafia, but there were Irish, Polish, Hispanic, and Jewish mobs, too. They were a product of poverty and desperation.

The respectable members of each community despised these gangsters. Yet in the mid-1930s Jewish leaders, including rabbis, judges, and journalists found something they despised more: the Jew-hating Nazis. When the pro-Nazi Bund began gathering strength in the US, these leaders wanted to stop their rallies. They turned to Jewish gangsters; men like Meyer Lansky, Longie Zwillman, and Buggsy Goldstein, asking them to fight the Nazis. To rough them up and break up their rallies. The law promised to turn a blind eye, if it stopped at beatings. No killing.

Benson shows how these mobsters responded to that call, recruiting boxers, street toughs, and young Jewish men to join their cause.  He traces the confrontations that occurred throughout the country: New York City, Chicago, and Newark chief among them, but there were also battles throughout the Midwest and on the West Coast.

It is a colorful tale. It reads in many like a mid-20th century Jimmy Cagney movie or Mickey Spillane novel come to life. It occurs in the same settings and the author uses the Runyonesque language of the genre. The mobsters deal out knuckle sandwiches and whack foes on the noggin. At one point Benson urges readers to think of one team as “The Dirty Dozen with some Yiddish thrown in.”

Despite Benson’s claims, the mobsters are not “good guys” protecting the American way. They were thugs who found a socially acceptable outlet for violence. Despite that, “Gangsters vs Nazis” is a fascinating and entertaining story.

“Gangsters vs Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America,” by Michael Benson, Citadel Press, 2022, 304 pages, $27.00 (Hardcover), $22.95 (ebook)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Seawriter: the mobsters are not “good guys” protecting the American way.

    That’s why mob movies never appealed to Me; The Godfather, Goodfellas

    People seem to make Them out as heroes, when They ain’t nothing but thugs, criminals, reprobates. 

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Seawriter: the mobsters are not “good guys” protecting the American way.

    That’s why mob movies never appealed to Me; The Godfather, Goodfellas

    People seem to make Them out as heroes, when They ain’t nothing but thugs, criminals, reprobates.

    Bet you are not big on pirate movies, either. Except for one or two (Captain Blood comes to mind) neither am I. For pretty much the same reason.

    • #2
  3. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Bet you are not big on pirate movies, either. Except for one or two (Captain Blood comes to mind) neither am I. For pretty much the same reason.

    I never thought about it, but Yer Right. I can’t think of one.

    I’m not interested in celebrating corruption, except for maybe a comedy mocking it. 

    • #3
  4. Podkayne of Israel Member
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    There is an excellent book, But He Was Good To His Mother, by Robert Rockaway, about the rise and fall of the Jewish gangster in America. Lots of great anecdotes, and even better nicknames. There is also a good biography of Mayer Lansky, Little Man, whose author I have forgotten.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Podkayne of Israel (View Comment):

    There is an excellent book, But He Was Good To His Mother, by Robert Rockaway, about the rise and fall of the Jewish gangster in America. Lots of great anecdotes, and even better nicknames. There is also a good biography of Mayer Lansky, Little Man, whose author I have forgotten.

    Podkayne, did the book cover Charlie Birger?

    Charlie was a Jewish lad who lived downstate. He enlisted in the US Army, served in the cavalry, and upon his honorable discharge became a cowboy. After having done that out West for a spell, he returned to southern Illinois and worked as a miner. Prohibition provided certain business opportunities, and Charlie established a speakeasy in Williamson County known as The Shady Rest.

    The Klan was moving into southern Illinois using the rather lax (ahem) enforcement of Prohibition. They alleged (probably correctly) that the local law enforcement community had been bought off by the bootleggers. They organized citizens to go door-to-door searching private residences for alcohol to confiscate. The miners were largely composed of Eastern Europeans who were hardly fans of Prohibition. There was a shootout between a sheriff and some of the Klan that led to four deaths. Charlie and a gang of gentile bootleggers known as the Shelton Brothers put aside their differences and both went after the Klan with shotguns and submachine guns and broke their backs to the approbation of the immigrant miners and the crooked cops.

    Peace being temporarily restored, the gangs proceeded to go after one another. At one point, the Shelton Brothers made history by conducting the first aerial bombardment on a target in the United States. They flew a biplane over the Shady Rest and dropped dynamite. (They missed.) Both sides modified trucks with significant steel plate installed from which gunmen could fire.

    Al Capone never deployed armored units.

    The death of Mayor Joe Adams led to the arrest of the triggermen, who implicated Charlie in the deed. They received life sentences, but Charlie became the last man hanged by the State of Illinois for ordering the hit.

    Note that while it is true that Charlie had a pecuniary interest in going to war with the Klan, nowhere is it written that one may not mix pleasure with business.

    • #5
  6. Podkayne of Israel Member
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    Percival (View Comment):

    Podkayne of Israel (View Comment):

    There is an excellent book, But He Was Good To His Mother, by Robert Rockaway, about the rise and fall of the Jewish gangster in America. Lots of great anecdotes, and even better nicknames. There is also a good biography of Mayer Lansky, Little Man, whose author I have forgotten.

    Podkayne, did the book cover Charlie Birger?

    Charlie was a Jewish lad who lived downstate. He enlisted in the US Army, served in the cavalry, and upon his honorable discharge became a cowboy. After having done that out West for a spell, he returned to southern Illinois and worked as a miner. Prohibition provided certain business opportunities, and Charlie established a speakeasy in Williamson County known as The Shady Rest.

    The Klan was moving into southern Illinois using the rather lax (ahem) enforcement of Prohibition. They alleged (probably correctly) that the local law enforcement community had been bought off by the bootleggers. They organized citizens to go door-to-door searching private residences for alcohol to confiscate. The miners were largely composed of Eastern Europeans who were hardly fans of Prohibition. There was a shootout between a sheriff and some of the Klan that led to four deaths. Charlie and a gang of gentile bootleggers known as the Shelton Brothers put aside their differences and both went after the Klan with shotguns and submachine guns and broke their backs to the approbation of the immigrant miners and the crooked cops.

    Peace being temporarily restored, the gangs proceeded to go after one another. At one point, the Shelton Brothers made history by conducting the first aerial bombardment on a target in the United States. They flew a biplane over the Shady Rest and dropped dynamite. (They missed.) Both sides modified trucks with significant steel plate installed from which gunmen could fire.

    Al Capone never deployed armored units.

    The death of Mayor Joe Adams led to the arrest of the triggermen, who implicated Charlie in the deed. They received life sentences, but Charlie became the last man hanged by the State of Illinois for ordering the hit.

    Note that while it is true that Charlie had a pecuniary interest in going to war with the Klan, nowhere is it written that one may not mix pleasure with business.

    I guess not, because I would   have remembered this.

    • #6
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