by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America, by Steven J. Ross. Bloomsbury Books, 2017, 432 pages.
ADOLF HITLER’S determination to wipe out the planet’s Jews was aimed at America as well, according to Steven J. Ross, professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of Hitler in Los Angeles — which tells a little-known, shocking story.
Ross first learned about Nazis and fascists in Los Angeles at a special exhibition at California State University Northridge’s Oviatt Library. He also learned there about an anti-Nazi spy ring, founded in August 1933 and lasting until the end of World War II, made up of men and women, Christians and Jews, who risked their lives by infiltrating American Nazi and fascist organizations. The ring was led by Leon L. Lewis, whose narrative about events as they unfolded in real time is Ross’s major source of information.
A reclusive midwestern Jewish attorney, Lewis was a most unlikely candidate for spymaster. Yet after Leo Frank’s conviction and lynching in 1913, which helped prompt the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, Lewis became the organization’s first national executive secretary. Four years later, he became a secret intelligence agent in World War I, rising from private to major.
In the interwar period, when many Americans viewed the Nazis as thugs or fools and their antisemitism as a passing phase, Lewis took them seriously. In 1931, he moved to Los Angeles to serve as the ADL’s representative in Hollywood, where he monitored films for signs of antisemitism.
Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Republic, summed up the fears of many Americans during the Great Depression: “Our cities are scenes of privation and misery on a scale which sickens the imagination; our agricultural life is bankrupt; our industry, in shifting to the South, has reverted almost to the horrible conditions of the Factory Acts of England of a hundred years ago.” Such conditions helped draw Angelenos to demagogues like Gerald B. Winrod, an evangelist known as the Jayhawk Nazi, who later turned up in the service of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda; Father Charles Coughlin; and William Dudley Pelley, who headed a fascist and antisemitic group known as the Silver Shirts, their uniforms imitative of the SA Brownshirts in Germany. Such figures blamed the Great Depression on the Jews, referred to FDR’s presidency as the “Jew Deal,” and urged the removal of all Jews from public office.
Numerous Nazi cells were forming in a number of American cities, but no targets were more important to the Nazis than Los Angeles, home to some 150,000 German Americans as well as the world’s greatest propaganda machine. In April of 1933, the B’nai B’rith Messenger warned that representatives “direct from Germany were bringing National Socialism to Los Angeles in a quiet and secret fashion.”
Among the actual Nazi front groups was Friends of the New Germany (FNG), which had a secret stormtroopers wing headed by Dietrich Gefken, a former recruiter for the Brownshirts, who had Jewish blood on his hands. Gefken, according to Ross’s book, made plans to commandeer the Los Angeles Armory and actually lead a military takeover of America’s West Coast. His plans included mass killings of Los Angeles Jews and public hangings of prominent Jewish citizens. Friends of the New Germany actually hoped to incite American workers to hasten a communist insurrection — whereupon their organization and allies among U.S. military veterans would come to the rescue and seize the U.S. government.
The scheme sounds outlandish, yet “Los Angeles,” Ross writes, was actually “the perfect place to establish a beachhead for the Nazi assault on the United States. Not only did Southern California have a long history of antisemitism and rightwing extremism, but the Los Angeles port was less closely monitored than New York . . . which made it easier to use as a central depot for sending spies, propaganda, money, and secret orders from Germany . . .”
AMERICA’S JEWISH leaders nevertheless did not respond forcefully to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in 1933. Neither did FDR. It wasn’t until May of the following year that he even gathered top advisers to talk about whether domestic Nazis threatened national security and should be placed under surveillance.
In March of 1933, three leading national Jewish groups, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, and the American Jewish Congress convened to decide how openly militant they should be in response to growing Nazi violence. New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Proskauer and Judge Irving Lehman of the American Jewish Committee urged restraint, feeling that public protests in America would only further jeopardize German Jews. Rabbi Stephen Wise warned otherwise: What was happening in Germany could “happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked,” he said, and invited everyone to a protest rally in Madison Square Guardian. Sixty thousand people came. A worldwide boycott of German goods was endorsed.
In July 1933, Leon Lewis had the peculiar distinction of being designated “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles” by local Nazis — and to prove them right, he launched a private undercover operation under the auspices of the newly created Jewish Community Committee. Lewis organized several Hollywood studio heads to fund his operation, then recruited prominent leaders from Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, and establishing his spy ring.
One of his most effective agents, John Schmidt, a former German military cadet in World War I and a veteran captain in the U.S. Army, with his wife Alice gathered proof that the real agenda of the Friends of New Germany was to foment a military coup in America. Ultimately, the intelligence they gathered led to the arrest of two Marines who were selling guns and ammunition to Gefken’s stormtroopers, and dissolution of that armed wing of Friends of the New Germany.
Lewis’s spies also succeeded in foiling death threats against Hollywood moguls and movie stars, and sabotage operations at defense industry installations.
After the recent white supremacist show of force in Charlottesville, Virginia, Lewis’s story has become a necessary reminder of the importance of constant vigilance against extremists bent on violence.