With the release of Gangsters vs. Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in WW2 Era America by Michael Benson (Kensington Books, Spring 2022) we now have a new and fascinating addition to the small but growing canon of literature dedicated to the proposition that Jews did fight back against Nazis. The book tells the tale of the organized and violent response of Jewish organized crime groups who did everything short of murder (a key feature of the response, that is, "maim not kill") to stop the rise of homegrown Nazi and fascist organizations across the United States in the years leading up to World War II. Benson takes us from the nucleus of the idea developed by Judge Nathan Perlman, a judge and former congressman, to recruit Jewish gangsters to physically disrupt and therefore discourage local fascists and their sympathizers from organizing, on through to the activities of the key gangster groups in various major cities across the United States. In New York there was Meyer Lansky and members of a group later known as Murder, Inc., such as Charlie "The Bug" Workman and Buggsy Goldstein. In Minneapolis, Kidd Caan and Dave Berman led the assault on the Nazis. While in Chicago, one of the key players was a child of the streets named Jake Ruby, who is better known as Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald.
As Benson mentions in our interview, the book is not simply a historical read, but includes elements taken from comic books, screenplays and some embellishments and/or imagined dialogue that gives the reader a richer sense of this amazing story. It comes chock full of amazing true life characters who jump off the page and beg you to learn more about them [Editor's note: You can do plenty of that here on J-Grit.com, see Criminals section]. In Benson's telling, the gangsters, despite their less than virtous life choices, are the heroes and the Nazi and Nazi sympathizers are the epitome of evil.
Benson recently met with the editors here at J-Grit for a conversation where we discussed the origins of the book, Quentin Tarantino and how the fear mongering of the 1930s mirrors today's media landscape.
J-Grit: What got you interested in working on this book and how long did it take to research and write?
Benson: Well, the idea came to me during the summer of 2020. I was playing golf with my agent, Doug Grad, and he had read an article by a professor, Robert Rockaway, who was a professor in Tel Aviv. The article was called Gangsters vs. Nazis, and it was in Tablet Magazine. It was basically the Judge Pearlman story. Doug got in touch with Professor Rockway, who, for reasons I'm not privy to said, "I already wrote a magazine on it, I don't wanna write a book." So Doug pitched it to me on the third fairway, because I'm one of Kensington books organized crime writers.
So, I was unfortunately raised Catholic in Rochester, New York, but, he overlooked that
J-Grit: Right, right. It's interesting. I think Robert Rockaway's son either directed or wrote the screenplay for a movie that came out with Harvey Keitel playing Meyer Lansky. [Editor's Note: Eytan Rockaway was the film's director, Lanksy (2021).]
Benson: I already knew the Murder, Inc. guys, because I had just written a book about Albert Anastasia. You know, when I found out that Lansky was putting fake hats on his hit squad, going into the Nazi rally, I recognized it as an old trick that Anastasia used where he would put hats by Chicago hat makers on his hit team. And then on the way out, they'd lose the hats and go back to Brooklyn and 48 hours later, the NYPD would say, we think they brought in a team from Chicago and they would follow the only clue they had, which were the hats. So at the Yorkville casino, they'd drop the American Legion hats on their way out. And sure enough the initial reports are that the American Legion had started the riot against the Nazis.
J-Grit: It's interesting because I think John Gotti's crew borrowed a play from that book with the Paul Castalleno hit where they dressed like Russians at the Sparks Steakhouse.
Benson: I'm familiar with the hit. I didn't realize that there was a deception involved.
J-Grit: Yeah. They all wore, sort of, that Russian winter hat so that when they wandered off, they all looked exactly the same, like these Russians. So that was their trick.
Benson: It's trade craft.
J-Grit: Absolutely. So you started in, you said June of 2020 . . .
Benson: I think so. And I think the proposal was written, by the autumn of 2020, and I finished it spring of 2021 and then it came out spring of 2022.
J-Grit: And how has the reception been so far?
Benson: Oh, just unbelievable. Unbelievable! I took a quantum leap in my place in the publishing world with this book. I was worried before it came out that people weren't gonna get it and you know, everybody gets it, everybody gets it. Everybody loves it. And if you don't love it, I know there's something up with you. I've run into interviewers--'eh why is it okay to kill the isolationists?'They've completely misread the book nobody gets killed. They are just isolationist. They're anti-Semites. There's genocide going on and all of which you're ignoring. Anyway, so yeah, everybody gets it and I'm really pleased that I'm doing really well. We sold the options for both documentary and scripted series. I don't know if there's gonna be movies produced or not, but at least we sold the options and I've got another gig already, which is a bigger and better book, this time about the early moguls of Hollywood... And another Jewish topic.
J-Grit: Obviously you've been promoting the book--have you come across with any Jewish organizations any sort of hesitancy to promote the book or just this sense of, I guess shame, or need to keep this under wraps? Certainly this used to be the case.
Benson: No. I think that, well, just because the reveal of the Holocaust at the end of World War II was so shocking to the civilized world that it suddenly became, I think okay, to be a tough Jew. I'm sure there were people in 1938, you know, Jewish men and women who were ashamed of the gangsters, they're ashamed that they had sons, you know, nine years old who were idolizing "the boys". After World War II I think that goes away because if you can fight then fight for us, you know, I think that was the thinking
J-Grit: I have two young boys 10 and 12 year old and regardless of what we don't let them watch, any movie or TV show that involves either beating up or killing Nazis is totally fair game for them. Meaning Inglourious Basterds (2009), which is obviously one of my favorites and I happily let them watch that one. I encourage them to watch that one.
Benson: Yeah, I mean, I did think of Tarantino when I was writing the book, as well as Captain America, which I wrote about at the beginning. Just that, the whole notion that what we know about what happened didn't come with snappy dialogue, but I provided that and thus I'm getting the message out to thousands of people who are, who wouldn't have otherwise read the book.
J-Grit: Right, right! That, that makes a lot of sense. That's a smart move, if you ask me.
Benson: Well, yeah, smart also, because I'm probably better at that than I would've been with a book with 400 footnotes and well, you know, I can do that. You know, that academic press, my Grateful Dead book was an academic press book. If the vegetables taste good, then you've done something good. You know what I mean?
J-Grit: There you go! Okay. So, back into the book, do you feel that the work of Judge Pearlman and various gangster groups across the country had a large impact on reducing the strength of the Nazi movement in the U.S.?
Benson: Well, it seemed to systematically over a period of time really lower morale among the German American Nazi groups. I mean, they went from having, you know, coming to the rally next week, uh, to having meetings that were secretive. You know they were forced underground and then they were still getting raided and beat up because there were spies within them, as it happened in Chicago with Herb Brin. There was a time when I thought that it all ended up being moot because Pearl Harbor changed everything anyway, but the gangster versus Nazi wars also came with an intelligence wing, which was handled by Brin and the Anti defamation league. And I think probably when there were rallies somebody was outside running down license plate numbers, like the FBI does outside mob funerals.
But they would compile lists of all of the Nazi sympathizers in that city. I got a hold of one from Minneapolis. I mean, if you're from Minneapolis, you can look at the list and find out your grandfather was a Nazi. And those lists, which were then used to stake out houses and arrest guys, when they came out, they were used after Pearl Harbor to weed out potential saboteurs from jobs on the peers or ship building or in the ammunition factories, and that sort of thing. And guys who would've, could've been saboteurs were, you know, kicked out because their name was on the list. Because they went to a meeting in 1938, that was raided by the boys.. . So in that sense, it was a major impact on the war to come.
J-Grit: Which city and its gangsters do you think were most effective in shutting down these Nazi groups?
Benson: Certainly the most active was Newark. Newark had an anti-Nazi group together even before judge Pearlman started calling his old friends from Prohibition. I mean, Longie Zwillman already had Minutemen, already had Nat in place. At one point they had a thousand men ready to attack any Nazi meeting in that area. Which is far larger than the, what two dozen they had in New York or a handful they had in L.A. Probably maybe 25, 26 guys coming out of Davey Miller's gym in Chicago. And the advantage was that there were Jewish boxers who would do whatever Jewish gangsters told them to do so they didn't in New York you had guys who used their guns for a living, and all of a sudden the gun was of no use because of the no kill rule.
Well, they didn't have that problem in Newark or in Chicago, where the boxing gyms were involved. And the guys came in knowing how to throw a combination and a poor drunken German guy who just probably had no violence on his mind at all. And you gotta think these guys are they're being, they're being loudmouths with the police, because they're all in a group, and they're saying bad things about Jews, cuz there are no Jews in the room. And then all of a sudden, outta nowhere, they're getting fed a knuckle sandwich by, you know . . . "Hey, stop talking about the Jews!" That way, POW! It's just, I think their first instinct is to run home to the wife. And she goes, don't go to those meetings anymore. There's gonna be trouble. Yeah! So the amount of violence, was probably just about right. I think if there'd been more injuries, it would've ended up getting slammed in the press. And there would still be Nazis out there who would just say, all Jews are soft, and they say whatever they want but the word got out that if you go to one of these meetings, you're taking a chance that somebody's gotta come in and hit you with a pool queue.
J-Grit: Right! What do you think the, the lessons are that we can learn from this chapter of our history?
Benson: You know, yeah. I mean, the problem is that we have the same things happening today, but it's a drastically different world. I don't think you could get away with, you know, "Don't shoot anybody, just beat 'em up" because far right wing groups are gonna be armed to the teeth. Yeah. Well, I'm not sure. I mean, obviously you have to let your persecutors know that you're not gonna just take it. I think we do that today in ways that aren't violent. I think that you can't get away with punching somebody in the nose anymore, but you gotta stand up for yourself. I think that every time the Aryan boys or whatever they're called have a demonstration. There should be a counter demonstration. They'll be afraid to get nose to nose with them. Cause if they attack you, they're going to jail.
In November [Editors Note: This was in 2022. This interview was done in Summer of 2022], I'm gonna be giving the keynote speech at a conference celebrating the 85th anniversary of the Protestant church in Southbury Connecticut that kicked the Nazis out. They wanted to put one of their youth camps in Southbury Connecticut. There were only a handful of Jewish people there, but the Protestants saw the hate and said, not in our town. And they changed the zoning laws and went out to the field where they were already putting in a foundation for a building, you know, the big swastika and gave them the boot and rightfully so, they're still very proud of themselves. Because, it would've been harder to get rid of them after they'd set up, they nipped it in the bud. I've been given the honor of giving the keynote address at that conference and one of the things I'm struggling with is what do we do if this kind of hate comes to town again? How do we handle it this time? Are we gonna be able to get away with changing a zoning law overnight? I mean, there's gonna be 47 lawsuits. It's a far more complex world these days.
And I think that the hate speech in America actually has sunk in deeper now than it had in 1938. I remember somebody said, this a long time ago, that Donald Trump is making it cool to be racist again. And he did, right? So, it's not only hate minded people, but they're strutting more. More proud of it. They're in groups. They're not afraid to be loud about it. And they need to be confronted every single time.
J-Grit: well, I think that's, that's that's a hell of a lesson. I like it!
Benson: Good. Yeah. You know these groups, now they can congregate and play in these echo chambers where they don't even come across anything remotely mainstream anymore. They can just live completely outside of that. Like a parallel universe,
J-Grit: Totally back then you had major newspapers. You couldn't avoid the, the mainstream, but now you can totally avoid it. So it's a really scary world.
Benson: Yeah. I don't know how we get everybody back on the same page information wise, you know now that the news is divided up into two camps, how do we fix that? I'm not sure what we do.
J-Grit: Well congrats. Thank you. And and best of luck to you.