Minute Men document discovered after 80 years

Minute Men document discovered after 80 years

Local historian learns more about how Jewish thugs saved Newark from the Nazis

The document that Steve and Bruce Arno found.
The document that Steve and Bruce Arno found.

My 2003 book, “Nazis in Newark,” is a work of zachor — of memory — commemorating the deeds of those who did not sit idly by during the Hitlerite threat to world Jewry. It presents the response of one major city to the scourge of Nazism.

In researching the book, I traveled to California to interview the family of Nat Arno, the commander of Newark’s anti-Nazi group, the Minute Men. Nat’s older son, Steve, provided much useful information about his father. Although Steve and I have remained in contact for more than 20 years, imagine my surprise in November when I opened an envelope containing a 1939 document he recently discovered. It provides new information on Minute Men activities; he sent it to me because he wants me to share it.

Steve Arno and his brother, Bruce, discovered the document when they went through a 1939 family scrapbook and came across something called “Post No 1 Minute Men of U.S. Newark, New Jersey.”

The document, titled “Subjects Of Investigation,” consists of two lists.

The first is of 10 suspected Nazis who lived in the New York metropolitan area in 1939, complete with addresses, places of employment, and Nazi activities. Several names include such notations as “now under FBI surveillance,” “is being watched,” or “to be investigated.” The second list is of 11 “persons active in the Christian Front,” a rabidly anti-Semitic organization founded in New York City in July 1938 in response to an article in Father Charles Coughlin’s newspaper, Social Justice. The group’s stated purpose was to combat Communism and return Christian concepts to America.

Young Catholic anti-Communists and anti-Semites were brought into the Christian Front at street-corner meetings. The group spread to Newark in 1939 and included members of the Newark police department. Early that year, the Christian Front had approximately 1,000 members in the city, according to a press release from Newark police inspector John A. Brady; Brady was an ally of Mayor Meyer Ellenstein and an enemy of the Front. The police admitted that many of their officers were Front members and asserted that they had a constitutional right to join the organization. In response, Mayor Ellenstein fired John B. Keenan, the acting director of police. He replaced him with his ally, Brady, who promptly demoted 51 officers, five sergeants among them. This presaged the end of Front activities in Newark; the city’s Jewish Weekly applauded the move.

The names of Minute Men officers and its executive council also are included in the document that the Arnos found. Before this document was discovered, I assumed that the Minute Men was a group created and run solely by Jews, but this newly discovered document may tell a different story. Three of the four officers listed are familiar names: Arno, Feilshus, and Sklary. The fourth, however, is Robert Howell, a name new to me. I recognize the names of the first three executive council members — Wasserman, Meyerson, and Brody — but the remaining three — Miserentino, Hanratty, and Kelly — are unfamiliar and quite possibly belong to non-Jews.

Were Italians and Irish, among other ethnic groups, active in the Minute Men? If they were, what does this tell us about Newark’s response to Nazism? Or is the inclusion of these names an attempt to make the group appear nondenominational?

The initial defeat of the Nazis in the Munich beer hall putsch in 1923 created a stream of Nazi-sympathizing emigrants from Germany to American cities with large German populations, among them Newark and Irvington. The new arrivals remained quiescent at first. Some joined German-American civic groups. With the rise of Hitler, they became a fifth column, and tried to wrest control of those groups. On orders from Germany, they formed the first Nazi organization in America, Friends of the New Germany. By March 1933, the Friends were active in Newark and Irvington. Simultaneously, newspapers and newsreels depicted Nazi violence against Germany’s Jews.

Nat Arno during the time he was the commander of the Minute Men, between 1934 and 1940.

By the end of the year, notices of Friends of the New Germany meetings appeared on telephone poles along Springfield Avenue, a main east-west thoroughfare running from Newark to Irvington. Men dressed in Nazi uniforms were seen in the area. The first meeting of the Friends of the New Germany in the Newark area was announced for April 1933; that information was advertised on fliers nailed to trees. It was to be held at Schwabenhalle on Springfield Avenue in Newark, close to the Irvington border, a three-story edifice built for meetings of German-American groups. The street was lined with retail stores; most were owned by Jews but some belonged to German-Americans. Tenement houses lined the streets crossing Springfield Avenue; again, most of them were home to Jews, but some German-Americans lived there as well.

The meeting was relatively uneventful. A modest crowd heard the speaker, who had just returned from a trip to Germany and spoke glowingly of the Hitler movement. Plans for monthly meetings were disclosed. Soon after, posters appeared announcing a meeting in May at Montgomery Hall in Irvington to support Hitler. Unlike the April meeting, this once was announced enough in advance to give the anti-Nazis time to prepare a response. On the evening of May 28, 400 people gathered at the hall to hear Nazi speakers. Forty-five uniformed Nazi sailors from a German ship docked in New York harbor joined them. At 8:30, a fleet of taxis arrived carrying more than 40 members and supporters of Newark’s Young Communist League. Some unfurled banners denouncing Hitler.

Rocks were thrown at the hall, and shouts of “Down with Hitler” rang out. When members of Friends of the New Germany rushed outside to see what was happening, they were attacked. The police had not expected trouble, so there was only one officer at the site. After the skirmish broke out, 35 Irvington policemen rushed to the site with tear gas and riot guns. Police broke up the melee and arrested two Communists who were charged with disorderly conduct.

This was the last time Communists led the way. After May 28, the Minute Men were the main protagonists against Nazism in the city.

Nat Arno was a professional boxer with more than 120 bouts, most of them victories. Abner “Longie” Zwillman was Newark’s undisputed crime boss, a leading bootlegger during Prohibition who was active in labor racketeering and gambling enterprises. Arno had worked for Longie during Prohibition, protecting Zwillman’s shipments of illegal alcohol. The end of Prohibition in 1933 coincided with the ascent of Nazism. Longie was incensed by anti-Semitic events in Germany. Unable to stop what was happening there, he was not content to sit back. Instead, he recruited Arno, the former boxer, to lead a group against Nazi activity in the Newark area.

Many of the ex-boxers and tough guys Arno recruited came from Zwillman’s Third Ward gang. They called themselves Minute Men, after the Revolutionary War Minutemen who responded to British attacks on a moment’s notice.

The Friends announced a celebration at Schwabenhalle on September 31 to celebrate the 85th birthday of Paul von Hindenburg, chief of the German armies in World War One. Jewish residents of the neighborhood were nervous. Signs in German announcing the party, complete with swastikas, were tacked on trees in German areas along Springfield Avenue. Rumors about late night meetings of men in Nazi uniforms proliferated. Before the party, Longie Zwillman called a meeting at which a plan was devised to halt the upcoming Nazi celebration by attacking the attendees. Arno was to lead the group. Before the celebration, gang members wrapped iron pipes in newspapers and hid them in a dark alley adjacent to Schwabenhalle.

The night of the party, a lookout watched as 300 Friends of the New Germany, many in Nazi uniforms, entered the hall. Arno’s men did not arrive until the program was underway. They retrieved their weapons from the alley, carefully concealing them from the small contingent of police guarding the door. Nat Arno approached the rear of the building and tossed stink bombs into the auditorium. Pandemonium erupted and one Zwillman gang member, Hymie Kugel, acted as a decoy, screaming for help. When the police ran to his aid, the gang members ran upstairs and began beating people wearing Nazi uniforms. Kugel had been loud enough that some time elapsed before the police got back to the auditorium. By then, Arno’s gang had disappeared. Three Nazis were injured during the attack. No arrests were made.

The events in Newark attracted congressional scrutiny. Morris Dickstein, a member of Congress from New York City and chair of the House Immigration Committee, said he would begin an investigation of Nazi activities in America. Hans Spanknoebel, the Friends’ national leader, strongly objected to the investigation and announced an October 16 protest meeting at Schwabenhalle. The Newark police department said it would deploy a full contingent to prevent a repeat of the Hindenburg riot. The Friends said they would have their own guard unit there and the publicity surrounding the October meeting was more extensive than for any other Nazi gathering in the metropolitan area.

Nat Arno recovers after a boxing match, sometime around 1932.

The stage was set for Newark to be the first major American battleground in the struggle against domestic Nazism.

A 10-cent admission charge did not dissuade the attendees, and soon all 800 seats were filled with standing room only. The 50 Minutemen posted in front of the hall did not interfere with the crowd as it filed in. Swastika lapel pins were sold for 10 cents each; books in English and German were available at prices up to $3. The American and German flags on the speaker’s platform were dwarfed by a swastika banner between them.

The meeting began on time. Spanknoebel was introduced and brown-shirted Nazis gave him the stiff-armed Nazi salute. Speaking in German, Spanknoebel claimed that Jews had been both Socialist and Communist leaders in Germany and now they were enemies of the state. He compared Hitler to FDR, since both were having difficulties in having their programs enacted. The Friends, he claimed, were active in trying to stem anti-Nazi propaganda, they were pro-American, and no one in the hall had anything to fear from Dickstein’s investigation. After other remarks, he began to leave for another event.

By now, more than 2,000 people surrounded Schwabenhalle. Worse yet, Springfield Avenue was choked with sightseers driving up and down the street. More than 200 unruly anti-Nazis were on the scene. Police were ordered to use nightsticks and received reinforcements from seven precincts. They drove their motorcycles on the sidewalks to disperse the protestors as the sound of police sirens filled the air. The speaker, Fritz Griebl, began to rail against Jews for bringing disorder to Germany.

At that moment, Nat Arno struck. Using a tried-and-true tactic, he and a few accomplices tossed rocks and bombs through the rear windows into the hall. Cries of “Help! Police!” resounded from the building. The speaker and the Nazi guards pleaded for calm.

The police arrived quickly. Finding the Friends no longer in the mood to listen to speeches. they advised them to leave the building.

The fight spread to 12 blocks around Schwabenhalle, and it raged until after midnight. Most of the injured were Friends and their sympathizers. Many declined medical attention to avoid publicity. Only three, the most seriously injured, were taken to hospitals. Seven people were arrested — four Minutemen and two Nazis.

The riot was reported in all the New York newspapers the next day, some on the front page. The New York Journal featured a boldface headline above its masthead proclaiming, “1,000 fight in Newark Nazi Riot; 20 hurt.” The Evening Journal had a front-page illustration with the caption “The Nazi issue came right smack over to these United States and resulted in a good many bruised heads and knuckles as a result of a battle in Newark last night.”

Over the next week, the riot was publicized in the news media throughout the country.

This sensational event was not to be repeated. But Nat Arno and the Minutemen continued their assaults against Nazis in the Newark area and across New Jersey. They successfully prevented the Nazis from harassing Jews and spreading Nazi propaganda. The fact of their existence often was enough to prevent Nazi activities.

The new document is a reminder of what we owe the Minutemen. Nat Arno’s son Steve wants us to recall their motto, “No-Ism-But Americanism”. It is as relevant today as it was in 1940.

Warren Grover of Short Hills, a historian, is a founder of the Newark History Society and on the boards of the New Jersey Historical Society and the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, where is a past president. He is the author of “Nazis and Newark” and of articles for both the New Jersey Jewish News and the Italian Tribune.

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