Hayashi on Rosenzweig, 'Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles'

Laura B. Rosenzweig
Brian Masaru Hayashi

Laura B. Rosenzweig. Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles. Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History Series. New York: New York University Press, 2017. xiii + 285 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-5517-9

Reviewed by Brian Masaru Hayashi (Kent State University) Published on H-War (August, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54093

Silent but Revealing: Reexamining Jewish American Resistance to Fascism in the 1930s

Were American Jews passive in the face of the emerging threat of Nazism at home and abroad in the 1930s? Many, such as Rafael Medoff, in The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust (1987), answer in the affirmative. Medoff harshly criticizes the American Jewish Congress and the B’nai B’rith for their failure to work more closely and effectively with Congressman Samuel Dickstein to increase the number of German Jews able to enter the United States in the 1930s before Adolf Hitler’s regime set up its death camps. While more temperate in his criticism, David S. Wyman, in Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 (1968), blamed Stephen S. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress, for failing to support the boycott movement that might have toppled Hitler’s regime in 1933 when the Nazis badly needed markets in the United States to retain power in Germany. Since then, few have written to change the image of the American Jewish leadership as timid in their opposition to insurgent Nazism taking root among the American public in the 1930s even as they watched with trepidation at what was happening to Jews in Germany. Ellen M. Eisenberg, in The First to Cry Down Injustice? Western Jews and Japanese Removal during WWII (2008), examines American Jewish resistance to Nazism in Los Angeles and finds that they, too, were largely silent. However, she acknowledges the behind-the-scenes work of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Council (LAJCC) in support of the Martin Dies Committee investigation and exposure of pro-Nazi individuals and groups inside America but also condemns that same organization for providing evidentiary material on alleged Japanese American fascism to congressional investigative committees, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), and others, which resulted in their removal and incarceration in 1942.

Expanding on Eisenberg’s findings, Laura B. Rosenzweig disputes these claims of silence in Hollywood’s Spies. Instead of generalizing for all American Jews based on the actions and views of those in the Northeast, she turns the spotlight to Los Angeles where an entirely different show was on display. Far from passive, she finds that American-born Jewish leaders of Los Angeles exhibited tremendous courage in the face of a growing threat by groups like the Friends of New Germany (FNG), which later became the German American Bund. She shows that they took initiative soon after the Nazi Party took control over Germany and fought against the FNG and the Bund, as exemplified by the LAJCC, established in 1934. Their members met twice a week over an eleven-year period and remained steadfast in their resistance to the Bund and their anti-Semitic allies, such as Henry Allen’s Silver Shirts. Rosenzweig also finds that Mendel Silberberg, Leon Lewis, Joseph Roos, and others vetted, hired, supported, and debriefed undercover informants, such as Charles Slocombe, Neil Ness, John Schmidt, Carl Sunderland, and Bert Allen, who risked their lives to keep tabs on some of the four-hundred right-wing groups in contact with the Bund from 1938 to December 1941. She writes, “The story of the LAJCC, however, presents a different perspective on American Jewish political agency in the 1930s, one shaped by the political courage and determination of a different group of American Jewish leaders in response to a different political problem. Hollywood’s Spies recovers the heroism of the leaders of the LAJCC and their informants, whose selflessness has been hidden from historical records for eighty years, and returns them to their rightful place in our historical memory” (p. 16).

To clarify how Los Angeles Jews took an active stance against insurgent Nazism in the City of Angels, Rosenzweig arranges her findings in four parts. The first part covers 1933 and 1934 in which her first chapter is titled “Nazis in Los Angeles.” In it, she portrays the FNG as aggressively promoting the “Hitler revolution” with its three themes: the Jews had started World War I, Jewish bankers were responsible for the Depression, and Jewish communists were running the country. Their messages, Rosenzweig notes, were aimed at recruiting some of the many right-wing groups in general and veterans of World War I in particular, such as the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). But rather than win over the DAV, the FNG sparked the reverse reaction of DAV leaders, such as Lewis and others who recruited some veterans into serving as undercover agents for the LAJCC. In “Becoming Hollywood’s Spies” (chapter 2), Rosenzweig shows how these courageous informants covertly gathered evidence for Lewis and the LAJCC in preparation of their legal suit against the Nazis. But their operation to meet the spread of National Socialism head-on at the local level ended in failure once the judge in Deissler and Lenhardt v. Socha et. al. (1934) threw their case out due to technicalities. Lewis and the LAJCC then turned to Hollywood motion picture industry moguls for financial support to both widen and deepen their investigation. With Hollywood’s backing, the LAJCC struggled against further growth of the grassroots Nazi movement in the City of Angels, which led them, unlike their counterparts in the Northeast, to collaborate with the McCormack-Dickstein Committee (chapter 3).

In parts 2 and 3, Rosenzweig covers the years from 1935 to 1941 to show how the LAJCC’s local focus expanded nationwide to effectively combat Nazism. She begins her examination of their shift nationwide with a discussion of “The Proclamation” (chapter 4), a Nazi propaganda flyer that was inserted into tens of thousands of Los Angeles Times newspapers distributed throughout the city in 1935. The German government reshaped its propaganda campaign by Americanizing it while placing its more overt political dimension “underground” after encountering a nationwide embarrassment over the Deissler and Lenhardt v. Socha et. al. case. It disbanded the FNG and renamed the group the German American Bund and even prohibited German nationals from membership. But, as Rosenzweig points out from the informants’ eyewitness accounts, the Bund expanded, not contracted, after 1935 and aggressively sought out partnerships with indigenous right-wing groups, such as the Silver Shirts, who were receptive to the Bund’s anti-Semitic message, all done in conjunction with the German Consulate. As discussed in chapter 5, “Discovering the Berlin Connection,” the LAJCC, therefore, carefully investigated and documented the German government’s directives to the Bund; its ordering of the Bund’s propaganda campaign; its dispatching of Hans Diebel, the Gestapo agent tasked with keeping tabs on the Bund; and, to a much smaller extent, its efforts at covert intelligence gathering by Count Ernst Von Buelow. In chapter 6, “Discovering the Nazi Fifth Column,” Rosenzweig shows how the LAJCC uncovered further evidence that Bund members conducted weapons training and formulated plans to destroy vital infrastructure of the West Coast once “the Day” arrived, but that their Fifth Columnist schemes required the assistance of a number of right-wing groups, many of whom faded in and out of the picture rapidly during the latter half of the 1930s. All of these activities came to light in the undercover agents’ reports to the LAJCC, which Lewis and others received and then discreetly made available to federal and local government officials.

To counter Nazi propaganda, the LAJCC launched their own nationwide campaign “above ground.” Keeping track of all these enemies, Rosenzweig points out, pushed the LAJCC into greater cooperation with the FBI, the ONI, G-2 (Army Intelligence), and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The need for nationwide resources, as noted in chapter 7, “Local Mission, National Calling,” propelled the LAJCC to attempt to deport Herman Schwinn, the Bund’s director after they realized that unearthing his legal liabilities proved too time consuming and limited in impact. Hence, the LAJCC worked with the INS to have them rescind Schwinn’s citizenship to curtail his Nazi activities. To push their counterpropaganda campaign nationwide, the LAJCC worked with Hollywood film industry leaders to convey their message. They also successfully partnered with the American Legion so that on February 18, 1940, they premiered their own propaganda film, The Flag Speaks, with local Legionnaires, National Guardsmen in uniform, flag-waving marching bands, drum corps, and baton-twirling majorettes parading down Hollywood Boulevard to the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. They succeeded: the auditorium was filled and the mayor, district attorney, school superintendent, and various civic leaders were all there in attendance.

But the group the LAJCC worked most effectively with was the Martin Dies Committee, the subject of chapter 8. Despite their fractured relationship, together they were able to subpoena three Bund leaders in spring 1939, prompting Bund members to destroy all incriminating records and to feign memory lapses in court. With LAJCC help, the Dies Committee was able to elicit eyewitness testimony from an undercover informant about the Bund leaders’ discussion of plans to sabotage munitions, docks, warehouses, and other vital war-effort services on the West Coast once “the Day” arrived. The LAJCC further assisted the Dies Committee in making their case against subversive Nazi activities nationwide by establishing the News Research Service (chapter 9) in January 1939. Under Roos, weekly the service exposed Nazi and Fifth Columnist activities and sent their publication to a select group of opinion makers across the nation that included federal government officials, politicians, church leaders, and members of the Fourth Estate. Their tactic proved immensely successful as judged by how quickly top-tier national news outlets relied on their information—Citizens News, Daily News, Hollywood, Life, Look, Los Angeles Times, Nation, New Republic, and Saturday Evening Post. They reached new heights of influence when famous news reporters, such as Walter Winchell, for example, acknowledged dependence on the New Research Service in a letter to Lewis, stating, “You might like to know that I am using your tips a lot to help fight the lice [the Nazis]” (p. 183). All of these accomplishments, Rosenzweig convincingly demonstrates, came about because the LAJCC was far from passive in its struggle against Nazism at home and abroad.

Much of the LAJCC anti-Nazi activities, however, ended with the American entry into World War II. Hence, Rosenzweig considers in part 4, “Legacy,” how the LAJCC conducted its campaign against Nazism in during and after the war (chapter 10). Their undercover investigation was terminated but the committee continued to combat Nazism during the war years by providing access to their files to the ONI, G-2, the FBI, and the INS for the prosecution or internment of suspected enemy aliens. As a result of their collaboration with federal government officials, the LAJCC transformed itself into an important player in American Jewish political culture nationwide. Their leaders, particularly Lewis and Roos, transitioned from combatting Nazism once Germany was defeated to wider issues of civil rights, a logical progression in how the LAJCC moved with its advocacy on Jewish rights. Rosenzweig concludes in her afterword with a tribute to the undercover informants and to Lewis, who received in a fitting ironic twist an Iron Cross commendation certificate. The certificate was taken from the rubble of what was once Joseph Goebbels’s desk by an American soldier who fittingly sent it to Lewis for his outstanding work in leading the American Jews in their struggle against insurgent Nazism in America.

Hollywood’s Spies is an excellent historical study. Basing her work on solid research, Rosenzweig persuasively argues that Los Angeles Jews actively resisted the rising tide of National Socialism in America. She exhibits a balanced reading of a large volume of archival materials, particularly the Community Relations Council records of the LAJCC, a real goldmine of sources regarding the FNG and its successor, the German American Bund. With these records, Rosenzweig brings to light the eyewitness accounts of the undercover informants who observed firsthand the conversations, planning, and activities of some important German American leaders in the decade prior to America’s entry into the Second World War. The LAJCC leaders recorded these observations and debriefing sessions in secret by Lewis and Roos with their informants, such as Slocombe, all of whose private papers Rosenzweig used. Through her meticulous research, Rosenzweig provides unusually clear and reliable firsthand accounts of some of the Bund’s activities that took place away from the public view, behind closed doors of the Bund’s Deutsche Haus. She adds further corroborating evidence from the Los Angeles Bund records in the Office of Alien Property. Rosenzweig also shows how indebted the Martin Dies Committee and the mass media were to the LAJCC’s ongoing investigation into Nazism in the United States. As a result, she extends what Eisenberg first uncovered while adding to our historical understanding of American Jewish political culture in the 1930s. Her point is well taken—the LAJCC was not passive nor silent, and far from timid, contrary to the image many scholars paint of American Jews, based on their study of those residing on the East Coast or in the Midwest.

However, Hollywood Spies has some minor blemishes. While the study is quite thorough in its analysis of the LAJCC, it leaves largely unaddressed how other groups responded to the emergence of Nazism in Los Angeles. How did the rest of the Jewish community in Los Angeles handle the Bund? One would think the Jewish Left, particularly after the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, would have been galvanized into action, once the upsurge in Nazi propaganda became apparent. And how about the Jewish working class residing in Boyle Heights? Without knowing how strongly (or weakly) they reacted, Rosenzweig’s assessment of the LAJCC’s response as far from passive loses some of its force. Journalists too are left unexplored and their response or even lack of it would contrast sharply with the LAJCC, thereby providing stronger argument for characterizing these American Jews as quite active. Furthermore, one wishes she had explored further what John Spivak really thought about his connections with the LAJCC, especially since his papers are available at Syracuse University. Additionally, Leslie Fry (pen name for Paquita Louise de Shishmaref) and Schwinn should appear in State and Justice Department records whose trial records and immigration hearings would have added details to her argument had Rosenzweig widened her search for documents. And finally, Rosenzweig’s study would have benefited from placing her findings on Jewish American responses to Nazism in America within the wider context of their actions taken in response to initiatives coming from other Axis Alliance countries, notably, Italy and Japan. She could have tapped into Stephen Fox’s The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II (1990) or Lawrence DiStasi’s edited collection Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II (2001). With these studies providing context, she could then have explained how the LAJCC acted on the Italian government’s usage of its connection with Italian Americans for assistance in constructing a new Roman Empire. Did they employ similar methods to curb Italian Americans’ support for Benito Mussolini? Moreover, Rosenzweig could have used the work of Eiichiro Azuma, Yuji Ichioka, Ben Kobashigawa, Yasuo Sakata, John J. Stephan, and myself, all of whom use Japanese-language sources to provide a far better context than Eisenberg’s outdated explanation for why the LAJCC perceived Japanese American attachment to the Japanese Empire a threat to the West Coast where they resided.

Citation: Brian Masaru Hayashi. Review of Rosenzweig, Laura B., Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54093

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