In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama's Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust

In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama's Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust

by Dan J. Puckett


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, March 28

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358686
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Series: Modern South Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 342
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dan J. Puckett is an associate professor of history at Troy University.

Read an Excerpt

In the Shadow of Hitler

Alabama's Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust

By Dan J. Puckett

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5868-6


Alabama's Jews and Nazism, 1933–38

The confluence of two events, the Scottsboro case in 1931 and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933, produced antisemitic reactions and fears as strong and vibrant as had existed under the Klan in the 1920s. For Alabama's Central European and Eastern European Jews, these two events clearly increased the awareness of their vulnerability to antisemitic violence. Where the former only raised the threat of violence against Jews, the latter vividly illustrated it. As antisemitism in the United States steadily increased during the 1930s, Leon Schwarz, the president of the Reform Sha'arai Shomayim congregation in Mobile, observed, "the Anti -Semitic situation, wherever it exists in America at this time, may be accounted for as the 'back-wash' from Germany and other unhappy countries in Europe." Indeed, the Nazi pogroms against the Jews in the 1930s, and later the exposed atrocities during the war, demonstrated the dire threat that Nazism posed to all Jews. As a result, Jews in Alabama worked together for the relief and rescue of persecuted German Jews, as did Jews throughout the United States. Yet these coordinated efforts on behalf of Jews in Germany helped to bridge the divide between Alabama's Eastern European and Central European Jews and brought together the disparate Jewish communities in the state.


The arrest of nine African Americans, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys, for the rape of two white women in March 1931, began a decades-long legal odyssey that linked Jews, Communists, and African Americans together to challenge Alabama's white-dominated judicial system. For white Alabamians, it confirmed the perception of northern Jews as agitators and radicals due to the participation of defense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz and Joseph Brodsky, the lead counsel for the Communist-sponsored International Labor Defense (ILD). As journalist Joseph Lelyveld observed, "White Alabama didn't see a Democrat and a Communist. It didn't see two lawyers. It saw two New York Jews." This perception promulgated harsh antisemitic rhetoric throughout the state. For example, an editorial in the Andalusia Star questioned Leibowitz's patriotism and asked, "we would like to know what a man with Samuel's last name would be expected to know about American ideals and traditions — we feel sure that he knows a lot about 'the bolshevism of Moscow.'" Prosecutors at the Haywood Patterson trial, one of the nine defendants, also used this perception to great effect when Wade Wright, the Morgan County solicitor, urged the jury to "show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The jury quickly found Haywood Patterson guilty of rape and sentenced him to death, despite the lack of credibility of the defendants' "victims." As Oscar Adams, the editor of the African American Birmingham Reporter, wryly observed, "it seems it would take a whole heap of 'Jew Money' to overbid this sacred personal thing of violation ... to buy 'Alabama Justice.'"

Wright's inflammatory speech had no effect on the jury — indeed, the verdict was a forgone conclusion — but it certainly had an impact on how white Alabamians perceived Jews. Many people in Decatur, the site of Patterson's trial, and those in the surrounding Morgan County, voiced their preference for Judge Lynch to "settle this damn Scottsboro case once and for all." The targets of these threats included Leibowitz and the ILD lawyers, whom whites regarded as trying to obstruct justice and, more ominously, to overturn the racial status quo. As one Decatur citizen warned, "if them lawyers, especially that Jew lawyer, Leibowitz, comes here, it will be a one way trip." Numerous others expressed contempt for "those damn Jew Bastards who are defending the 'Niggers,'" and suggested that Decatur "ought to [lynch] the Jews to teach them a lesson." Robert Burns Eleazer, who attended the Patterson trial for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, noted that "even though Southern Jews had 'more freedom and suffer less prejudice than in the north' ... the shylock image was never far beneath the surface. The chant of 'Jew money' at Decatur had 'damaged the standing of southern Jews' even more than the fulminations of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920's." Charles Feidelson, the Jewish editorial writer for the Birmingham Age-Herald, also noted that those in Decatur "took for granted that a Jew was a Communist or at least in secret sympathy with the reds." Because of this, Feidelson said, "Jews in Alabama leaned over backwards to show they were not sympathetic with the ILD."

Alabama's Jews did not support the Scottsboro Boys' defense or demand changes to the state's inherently discriminatory and racist judicial system, but the antisemitism Scottsboro sparked understandably alarmed Alabama's Jews and made them more self-conscious of their Jewishness, as Feidelson testified. Although this antisemitic vitriol targeted "outsiders" and radicals — northern Jews — many critics often failed to distinguish between northern and southern Jews in editorials, speeches, or private conversations, much to the consternation of Jews throughout the state. Despite such antisemitism emanating publicly from the press and politicians, and even more intense rhetoric being uttered privately, Scottsboro did not unleash a wave of antisemitic violence or increase antisemitic discrimination in the state to any perceptible degree. Of course, the same could not be said about the persecution of African Americans.

Although the Klan's power had waned by the time of the Scottsboro trials, the memory of Klan violence had not. In his study of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, Glenn Feldman notes that "at the end of the 1920s, Alabama had only about 5,500 Klan members left. Though the numbers of active, dues -paying, uniform-wearing Klansmen probably fell during the 1930s, Alabama kept a climate favorable to Ku Kluxism. Ku Kluxism and a basic propensity for vigilantism were part of Alabama's social fabric." Such a propensity for vigilante violence showed itself clearly with the desire by white citizens in Decatur and Morgan County to have the Scottsboro Boys and their lawyers lynched. Although such vigilante violence never came to fruition in and around Decatur at the time, it clearly manifested itself elsewhere in the state.

In June 1933, with Alabama still inflamed by the ongoing Scottsboro trials, the arrest of three African American men for the murder of a white woman in Tuscaloosa led to tragedy. ILD lawyers attempted to intervene in the case, but Judge Henry B. Foster barred them from court and they had to sneak out of town "in disguise, under the reluctant protection of the national guard" after rumors that Communist Jews had taken a hand in the case. The three African American defendants had no such protection as Tuscaloosa deputies turned them over to a lynch mob who succeeded in murdering two of the three defendants. Weeks later, another mob lynched an invalid, middle-aged African American man for the rape of a mentally deficient white woman. Whites in Alabama quickly blamed the ILD for causing the violence. J. Gilbert Balfour, the editor of the Black Belt Marion Times-Standard, declared that while "there can be no defense for mob rule," the ILD's attempts "to block the course of justice" probably incited the lynch mob that was "impatient with slow justice and outside interference." Because of this provocation, "Alabama need not apologize for this incident" caused by "those Kike lawyers, who are excellent examples of the scum of humanity." The Birmingham Messenger also argued that "the Negroes of the South have the ILD to thank for the anarchic behavior of the mob that perpetrated the terrible crime against civilization and law and order." Had the ILD not interfered in Alabama justice, the Messenger declared, the three Negroes "would be safe in the Tuscaloosa jail ... [and] they would have received in due course a full, fair and just trial." Even the liberal University of Alabama professor Clarence Cason blamed the lynchings on "the resentment directly created by the three Communist lawyers who deliberately irritated a disturbed situation by their offensive presence."

The blame the press and Tuscaloosa officials placed on the involvement of the ILD lawyers conveniently ignores the fact that "a mob of several hundred" unsuccessfully attempted to lynch the suspects on the evening of June 21, just five days after the arrest of the first suspect. A few days later, a grand jury, at Judge Foster's urging, indicted three white men for "unlawful assembly and attempt to commit a felony" for their participation in the foiled lynch mob. The ILD did not become involved in the case until July 18, almost one month later. In the days just prior to the lynching, the tension in Tuscaloosa had become palpable. The reactionary Tuscaloosa News encouraged outrage toward the "outsiders" in the ILD, although no ILD lawyers remained in the city or involved in the case. Local Jews, who worried that such sentiment against the Jews in the ILD would reflect badly on them, had the News publish a letter sent from William P. Bloom to Rabbi Stephen Wise in New York that requested he use his influence so "that no representatives of the International Labor Defense be allowed to come to Tuscaloosa when the case comes up for trial again. ... We wish to use every possible means to the end that this harmonious contact (between the Jews and Gentiles in Tuscaloosa) shall not be disrupted by outsiders coming in to spread hatred and malice among the classes." John R. Steelman, a professor of sociology at Alabama College in Montevallo, investigated the Tuscaloosa murders for the Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching. He determined that "the lynchings were generally satisfactory to Tuscaloosa's white people," and the "outsiders" of the ILD made "a convenient scapegoat" for the racial violence that occurred. Nevertheless, ILD involvement further reinforced the prevalent notion of Jewish radicalism. Despite the hysteria that surrounded the Tuscaloosa lynchings — Clarence Cason observed that the atmosphere in Tuscaloosa presented "an impression of horror" — the tension produced by the Scottsboro trials overshadowed all else and extended throughout the state.

In Montgomery, Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of the Reform Temple Beth-Or believed racism lay at the heart of the Scottsboro case and publicly supported the defendants. His outspoken and brash action alarmed members of his congregation who feared his perceived radicalism would reflect badly on members of Beth-Or. When Goldstein had been hired, the temple's search committee warned him "to leave the Negro question alone," a warning he clearly ignored. Because of his public support for the Scottsboro Boys — he was the only white minister to visit them at Kilby Prison, he participated in an interracial Scottsboro Aid rally at a black church in Birmingham, and he openly proclaimed their innocence to his congregation — and his support of the black Tallapoosa Sharecropper's Union, Beth-Or's board of trustees forced Goldstein from his pulpit in April 1933, even though some members privately agreed with his views. Just prior to the Birmingham rally, the board had urged him "to desist from going to Birmingham under all circumstances" and to cease speaking out on behalf of the Scottsboro Nine. Even after his appearance in Birmingham, a few Beth-Or members still supported him. The teachers of Kahl Montgomery's Religious School petitioned the board of trustees to retain the beleaguered rabbi and characterized criticism of Goldstein as "unfair" and "unmerited." They endorsed him as "a leader ... who stands for the ideal of universal justice, one of the essentials of religion, and wish to commend him for his sincere and courageous attitude in upholding this ideal." Goldstein's outspokenness about Scottsboro, however, created an "open threat to the welfare of the congregation," which William Gunter, the mayor of Montgomery, confirmed when he accused him "of being a southern agent for the ILD." Gunter also warned Beth-Or members of a Klan-led boycott of all Jewish businesses in Montgomery if Goldstein continued his support for the Scottsboro Boys. To fend off charges of radicalism due to Goldstein's activities, the trustees of Beth-Or issued a press release condemning outside agitation and affirming their wholehearted support for segregation. Others, such as former trustee Leo Straussburger, stressed that Goldstein did not represent the "better element of Montgomery's Jews," while businessman Charles Moritz admitted, "he doesn't fit in our Southern civilization."

Goldstein clearly did not fit in with southern society. He had come to Montgomery in 1928, a graduate of Rabbi Stephen Wise's Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. His liberal beliefs and attitude frequently clashed with southern convention, as did his uncompromising personality with the quiet and reserved Montgomery Jewish community, leading to lower attendance at his synagogue. When asked if he resented that he did not have a large congregation, Goldstein replied that "he'd just as soon talk to empty benches than empty heads." He had been a member of a Marxist study group in Montgomery that included Beatrice and Louis Kaufman, members of his Beth-Or congregation, and Olive Stone, a professor of sociology at nearby Huntingdon College. In his study of Alabama Communists, historian Robin D. G. Kelley described the study group as "teachers, social workers, and wives of upper-middle-class Jews interested in world peace and domestic social reforms." Although Goldstein and the other members of the group had not joined the Communist Party, they "provided crucial financial and moral support for Communist activities in Birmingham, Montgomery, and the cotton belt," a situation that, had it been publicly known, could have had even more dire consequences.

This tension-filled atmosphere the Scottsboro trials produced prompted Birmingham's Rabbi Morris Newfield to remain silent about Scottsboro and abandon his friend Goldstein to quell any further antisemitic outbursts and protect his own congregation. Newfield, however, had spearheaded numerous campaigns for greater social justice in his forty-five years as rabbi of Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El and had played a major role in combating the insidious influence of the Klan in the 1920s. Newfield biographer Mark Cowett calls the rabbi's record "mixed" when it came to championing civil rights. While the evidence points to Newfield "bowing to well-placed political pressure" not to support the Scottsboro Boys, Cowett points out that "he supported black rights not when it was convenient for him to do so as a white man, but when it did not conflict with what he perceived his role as leader of Birmingham Jews to necessitate."

Like Goldstein, Joseph Gelders, too, did not fit in with southern society. Gelders, a southern Jew and member of Newfield's congregation at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, had taught physics for six years at the University of Alabama before moving to New York to assume a leadership role in the Communist-oriented National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP). In September 1936, not long after Gelders's return to Birmingham to direct the local NCDPP, four men kidnapped and viciously flogged him, injuring him severely. Gelders's flogging reinforced the perceived Bolshevik-Jewish connection. Alabama's press vigorously denounced the beating but, as with the Scottsboro case, cared more about the bad publicity it generated for the state than about seeking justice. Indeed, as "a mountain of evidence" showed that Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCI) detectives had assaulted Gelders, and Birmingham business and political leaders colluded to suppress the investigation, Grover Hall of the Montgomery Advertiser, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his crusade against the Klan in 1928, remained silent, and the Birmingham News and Birmingham Age-Herald "defended the steel giant from complicity and reminded readers that TCI had recently pumped $31 million into the Birmingham district." Two grand juries, moreover, refused to indict the assailants after George Lewis Bailes, the Jefferson County solicitor and a former Klansman, called Gelders "a Jew, a Communist, and a supporter of the Scottsboro Boys." Bailes's description of Gelders as an agitator ended any attempt to prosecute the assailants, and the Birmingham press "quietly endorsed" the decision. While the assailants flogged Gelders for his agitation rather than because of his Jewishness, the publicity surrounding the case, and certainly Bailes's reference to Scottsboro, linked the two.


Excerpted from In the Shadow of Hitler by Dan J. Puckett. Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction 1

1 Alabama's Jews and Nazism, 1933-38 19

2 The Refugee Crisis, 1938-41 40

3 Zionism in Alabama, 1933-45 74

4 The Alabama Press, Nazi Antisemitism, and the Holocaust 105

5 The War 131

6 Antisemitism and Racism during the War 185

7 Postwar Alabama 206

Postscript 225

Notes 233

Bibliography 293

Index 313

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews