BOSTON — You won’t find it mentioned along the city’s “Freedom Trail” route, but Boston was once home to a thriving network of Nazi supporters. Not only did the Cradle of Liberty’s anti-Semitic activists receive funds and direction from Berlin, they also helped incite “small pogroms” against Jews well into the war.
During the same years as the Holocaust, “marauding anti-Semitic bands severely restricted the physical movement of many Jews in [Boston and New York], rendering it difficult for them to carry on normal religious, business, or social activities,” wrote Stephen H. Norwood, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma.
In Boston and elsewhere, anti-Jewish incitement was fueled by Father Charles Coughlin, the “founder of hate radio.” Although he was based in Michigan, Coughlin’s largest following was in Boston, where members of his Christian Front heeded the priest’s calls to organize boycotts and mass mailings against Jews.
“When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing,” said Coughlin during a tirade in the Bronx. The hate-monger also published “Social Justice,” a newspaper that reprinted “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in 1938, just as the persecution of German Jews reached a fever pitch.
Coughlin’s largely Irish American adherents earned Boston the moniker, “the poisonous city.” For example, the Christian Front worked with vendors to include anti-Semitic pamphlets with products, and restaurant owners were urged to include text denouncing Jews among specials on the menu. This was not “polite” anti-Semitism behind closed doors, but an ongoing campaign of incitement.
Led by insurance salesman Francis P. Moran, Boston’s chapter of the Christian Front gathered for meetings in Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall. There, Moran once shouted, “Who are the blood suckers plotting to send our boys to die in England?” As if at a Nazi rally in Germany, the crowd roared back, “the Jews!”
During the 1930s in Yaphank, New York, members of the Nazi party march through the Long Island town, where they also organized a pro-Hitler summer camp (public domain)
Not surprisingly, the Front’s rhetoric against Jews spilled onto the streets. In neighborhoods throughout Boston, roving gangs of teens attacked Jews and vandalized their property. According to contemporary accounts, “Irish-Catholic gangs” organized “Jew hunts,” entering Jewish neighborhoods to attack young Jews. Sometimes, up to half a dozen thugs would pile out of a car and pounce on a Jewish student, catching him by surprise.
So pervasive was gang violence against Jews in Dorchester, the magazine Newsweek devoted an article to it in 1943. Similarly, the Atlantic Monthly tried to embarrass Boston’s Catholic leaders for failing to condemn the attacks on Jews, many of which began by the perpetrators asking, “Are you a Jew?”
Boston’s Nazi conspiracy
With its active Christian Front and several pro-Nazi universities, the “poisonous city” of Boston was prime recruitment ground for the Nazis during the 1930s.
Until a few years ago, the extent of ties between Boston anti-Semites and the Nazi government was unclear. It took a Roman Catholic priest based at Boston College — Charles Gallagher of the Jesuit order — to connect the dots between the Front and SS officials.
Historians already knew that Germany’s consul-general in Boston was an SS officer and friend of Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust. As the Reich’s top diplomat in New England, Herbert Scholz hung a large swastika flag outside his office on Beacon Hill. More significantly, Scholz worked with the Christian Front’s Moran to direct anti-Semitic campaigns, and — through SS contacts — fund the Boston chapter.
The Copley Square Hotel in Boston, where the pro-Nazi Christian Front had its offices until 1940, August 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
A key link between Scholz and Moran was the transcript of Scholz’s trial at Nuremberg, where the fallen Nazi diplomat spoke about working in Boston with Moran. Additionally, funds from the SS helped Moran obtain offices in the elegant Copley Square Hotel, where the Front posed as a Constitution defense group until 1940.
Also that year, the FBI disbanded New York City’s Christian Front as a terror cell. Alarmed that the Front continued to operate in Boston, British leaders authorized MI6 spies to create a grassroots counter-movement in the heart of New England: the Irish-American Defense Committee. Composed of Catholics opposed to Nazism, the committee’s “shadow war” against the Front helped drive “the Nazis of Copley Square” underground in 1942.
‘Marauding anti-Semitic bands’
Even after Boston police shut down the Christian Front in 1942, violence against Jews intensified during each year of the war. A generation of anti-Jewish incitement had been ingrained in every level of society, from Harvard University’s pro-Nazi president to adolescent boys racking up their count of “Jew hunt” victims.
In October of 1943, one such gang severely beat two Jewish boys, Jacob Hondas and Harvey Blaustein. Upon arriving on the scene, law enforcement arrested the Jewish adolescents and brought them to Station 11, where Boston police officers beat them with rubber hoses. Even after these affronts, a judge ruled against the victims and fined them.
Father Charles Coughlin, known as ‘the founder of hate radio,’ was a leading proponent of American anti-Semitism during the 1930s (public domain)
“These attacks on Jewish children are the complete responsibility of Governor Saltonstall, Mayor Tobin, the church and the clergy — all of whom have for three years buck-passed and ignored the tragedy,” declared Frances Sweeney, publisher of “Boston City Reporter” and a formidable opponent of the Christian Front.
Calling Boston the most anti-Semitic city in the country, Sweeney reminded the public of past persecution endured by fellow Catholics. Known as “a one-woman crusade” against the Front, Sweeney also operated a “rumor clinic” out of the Boston Herald to combat Axis propaganda.
Thanks to Sweeney and other upstanders, anti-Semitism in Boston subsided after the war. The Jewish community started to organize, and a new church leader — Cardinal Richard Cushing — reached out in reconciliation. Although violence against Jews beset some of the same neighborhoods in the decades to come, those tensions were unrelated to the forgotten Nazis of Copley Square.