By: Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Sitting among more than 20,000 of his cheering, smiling fellow Americans, Isadore Greenbaum felt profoundly alone. Inside Madison Square Garden, a huge 30-foot picture of George Washington adorned the stage, flanked by American flags and swastikas. Washington was America’s “first Fascist’ according to the Feb. 20, 1939 rally organizers, the German American Bund, a nationwide cultural organization that promoted German-American culture and fealty to Hitler’s regime.
Surrounded by cheering Nazi sympathizers, Isadore sat through three hours of speeches and rapturous applause, getting angrier and angrier as speakers described a frightening Nazi vision of America, espousing white Christian dominance.
“American patriots,” intoned Bund leader Fritz Kuhn, a naturalized American citizen who’d previously worked for a Ford factory in Detroit, “you have all heard of me through the Jewish controlled press as a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail.” The rally kicked off with the National Anthem, sung by Americans wearing swastikas and giving Nazi salutes.
Speakers denounced “job-taking Jewish refugees.” A Bund official explained that “(t)he Spirit which opened the West and built our country is the spirit of the militant white man,” and claimed Nazism was a quintessentially American outlook. Kuhn reassured the rally goers, “It has then always been very much American to protect the Aryan character of this nation” and urged Americans to reclaim America and “demand that our government be returned to the people who founded it!”
The rally-goers waved American flags and posters with slogans that included “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America”. Many wore Nazi armbands. Security guards wearing uniforms very similar to the Brownshirts in Germany patrolled the aisles.
Outside Madison Square Garden, thousands of protestors gathered, denouncing the Nazi sympathizers inside. The crowd at the “Pro American Rally” also included housewives and ordinary citizens who were disgusted by Nazi supporters in their midst. At one point a band playing in a nearby Broadway theater serenaded the protestors with a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. One unnamed protestor set up a loudspeaker in a nearby building which broadcast anti-Nazi sentiments, as well as the advice to people attending the rally: “Be American, Stay Home.” Other protesters clashed with police; thirteen protestors were arrested during the evening.
New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had been lobbied to prevent the rally from taking place, but he defended the Bund’s right to free speech. “If we are for free speech, we have to be for free speech for everybody, and that includes Nazis,” he explained. Seeking to avert violence, he instructed the New York City police to have a heavy presence in the area. 1,700 police officers were deployed around Madison Square Garden – “enough to stop a revolution” the police commissioner told reporters at the time.
It was virtually impossible to pass the police ranks and enter the rally without a ticket. Yet Isadore Greenbaum, a Jewish 26-year-old plumber’s assistant who lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his wife Gertrude and their young son, managed to do it. He sneaked inside the rally and sat in the back, listening with growing alarm at the hate-filled speakers. He was shocked at how eagerly the crowd received anti-Jewish messages and embraced a vision of America built on xenophobia and hatred.
As the rally wound down, Fritz Kuhn took the stage once again, and Isadore got out of his seat and slowly walked to the front of the stadium. He pushed through the Nazi-uniformed guards and jumped up on the stage. Quickly pulling out the cables from Kuhn’s microphone so the crowd could no longer hear the Bund leader, Isadore shouted the message he wanted to convey to over 20,000 of his fellow Americans instead: “Down with Hitler!”
Bund guards immediately jumped on Isadore, punching and kicking him. He sustained a black eye and a broken nose. As the guards beat him, while the rally-goers screamed their approval, roaring with the delight at this public beating of a Jew. Eventually New York City police officers managed to intervene and pull Isadore to safety – once they were outside the police promptly arrested Isadore for disturbing the peace.
Isadore was brought before a judge and explained what happened: “I went down to the Garden without any intention of interrupting, but being that they talked so much against my religion and there was so much persecution I lost my head and I felt it was my duty to talk.”
The judge seemed to blame Isadore for the violence that had been directed against him. “Don’t you realize the innocent people might have been killed,” because of Isadore’s outburst he asked. “Do you realize that plenty of Jewish people might be killed with their persecution up there?” Isadore retorted.
Seemingly unmoved, the judge gave Isadore a choice: either spend ten days in jail or pay a $25 fine. Gertrude managed to scrape together the money for the fine, a large amount in 1939. None of the security guards or other people attending the rally faced any charges for beating Isadore or openly praising Nazi Germany or preaching hate.
A few months later, Fritz Kuhn was found guilty of embezzlement and tax evasion and was sent to Sing Sing Prison in New York. In 1941, when the United States entered World War II, Isadore Greenbaum enlisted in the US Navy, becoming a Chief Petty Officer. He was interviewed by the US Armed Forces’ newspaper Stars and Stripes about his experiences in Madison Square Garden. It was one of the very first instances of an American fighting uniformed Nazis, just months before war broke out. “Gee, what would you have done if you were in my place listening to that (expletive) hollering against the government and publicly kissing Hitler’s behind – while thousands cheered?” Isadore told the reporter before explaining, “Well, I did it.”
After his military service, Isadore and Gertrude moved to Los Angeles where Isadore became a colorful local figure, working as a fisherman and an artist on Newport Pier. He died in 1997, one of the first Americans to directly confront Nazi terror and to risk his life to oppose the dark vision that American Nazi sympathizers were promoting for his country.
Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics. She lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her book Angels at the table: a Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat takes readers through the rituals of Shabbat and more, explaining the full beautiful spectrum of Jewish traditions with warmth and humor. It has been praised as “life-changing”, a modern classic, and used in classes and discussion groups around the world.