Radio reporter Ang Santos sat in a corner of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey’s office in Whippany on May 16 with headphones on his ears, listening intently to interviews about events that happened some 50 years before he was born.
Santos is preparing a set of reports on a grim era of New Jersey history when Jews and Nazis clashed on the streets of Newark before the United States went to war with Germany and its allies in 1941.
His oral history accounts will air on Newark’s FM radio station WBGO (88.3 FM) between now and the end of 2016 as part of a program called “Newark 350,” a year-long celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary celebration.
The program will present multiple versions of each story. Some will run for two-and-a-half minutes on the station’s regularly scheduled newscasts. Four-minute versions will appear on the WBGO Journal, which airs on Fridays at 7:30 p.m. No specific air dates have been scheduled.
The basis of Santos’s work are some 50 hours of taped interviews that Warren Grover, a Short Hills resident and former JHS president, conducted in preparation for his 2003 book, Nazis in Newark. Audio cassette recordings of the interviews are housed in the JHS archives.
“The thing that intrigues me the most is that there actually were Nazis in Newark,” Santos told NJ Jewish News. “When I saw the book’s title, I had to check it out immediately. It was something I could not have imagined taking place.”
In the book, Grover chronicles the efforts, primarily among Jews in the 1930s and early ’40s, to combat the presence of Nazi sympathizers in Newark, Irvington, and Camp Nordland in Andover Township, the national headquarters of the pro-Nazi German American Bund.
The ringleader of the local anti-Nazi movement was Nat Arno, a professional prizefighter who was born Sidney Nathaniel Abramowitz in Newark in 1910.
As an “enforcer” for Newark’s notorious Jewish gangster Abner “Longie” Zwillman, Arno became the prime mover in a militia group called the Minutemen that was bankrolled by the mobster. When Nazi sympathizers would march or rally, the Minutemen would respond, often violently, with fists, stink bombs, bats, and lead pipes, according to Grover.
“What particularly grabs me about the story is the Minutemen,” Santos said. “Some of these guys were professional or amateur Jewish boxers in the community who got together. They and the Nazis would beat each other up occasionally.”
Arno died in 1973, long before Grover began work on his book, but, as Ang noted, “Warren told me a lot of the people he interviewed in the 1990s are now deceased, so it is kind of crazy listening to their voices now.”
He may be “a Jersey boy from Jersey City,” but since he began working at WBGO a year and a half ago, Santos said, he has “become really interested in Newark. It is the biggest city in the state and a lot of people think of it in connection with crime and corrupt politics, but there is a lot more going on right now, and I am hoping I can do this work justice.”
Seated a few feet away, JHS executive director Linda Forgosh described her own interest in Santos’s work on the Nazis and Newark and how it dovetails with the off-hours project that has been her “labor of love” since 2008.
It is a biography entitled Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist, which will be published in September by Brandeis University Press.
One part of Bamberger’s life intersected with Newark’s anti-Nazi movement. A decade before he died in March 1944, the magnate became a source of controversy during a campaign to boycott the sale of German-made goods in Newark’s stores.
Although Bamberger had sold his store to Macy’s in 1929, the name remained the same. Changing Bamberger’s “would have been like changing the name of Ford or Coca Cola,” Forgosh said.
But it caused him trouble anyway. Some members of the local anti-Nazi movement held Bamberger partly responsible for his former store’s sale of products made under the Third Reich. It was an uncomfortable accusation for the wealthiest and most influential member of the city’s Jewish community, especially when four members of the Minutemen picketed his store with signs saying “L. Bamberger buys and sells goods made in Nazi Germany.”
“There were fights in front of Bamberger’s between the Minutemen and opponents of keeping German goods out,” said Forgosh.
It put the store owner and Newark’s Jewish community in a difficult situation, one that community leader Michael Stavisky, founder and first president of the American Association for Jewish Education, sought to resolve.
He cautioned others that “any public accusations against the Bamberger store would inevitably involve Bamberger himself, and no one wanted to offend Bamberger.”
“Nobody printed a word that connected him to those sales,” said Forgosh. Bamberger then joined the Committee of 100 for the Defense of Human Rights, a group of influential Newarkers opposed to the Nazis.
“There is no evidence he ever discussed his attitude regarding the German goods issue,” she wrote in her book.
The word about Bamberger was, Forgosh said, “You do not bite the hand that feeds you.’”