Two years ago I visited the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn, where I grew up. From about 1940 to 2000, it was an affordable nondescript working- class neighborhood. Now it has been gentrified, with properties starting at $700,000.
In my early years, the neighborhood was populated by a distinctive majority
of first- and second-generation German immigrants. Old German women scrubbed their porches and sidewalks in front of their homes while my friends and I played stickball in the street, challenging traffic and parked cars. German bakeries, like Brown’s, featured mouthwatering strudel and crumb cake. Rudy Oswald’s Delicatessen made delicious potato salads, macaroni salads, fine sausage and cold cuts that attracted customers from surrounding neighborhoods. German restaurants and beer halls were ubiquitous and prosperous. The local German barber featured “Ten Barbers. No waiting.” A haircut was 14 cents.
A popular blog about growing up in Ridgewood in the ’40s and ’50s is filled with nostalgia about the “good old days.”
But the Ridgewood of the 1930s, like other German neighborhoods in New York City, was a much darker place. Shortly after Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, “Friends of a New Germany” surfaced in New York. Embracing Nazi ideology, it sought to mobilize anti-Semitic sentiment. The organization circulated “Blue Eagle Stickers” to German merchants to display in their front windows, and they sprayed swastikas on the store windows of Jewish merchants. The synagogue on Ridgewood’s Cornelia Street was repeatedly defaced.
Peter Duffy’s book about a German American spy (“Double Agent”) describes how “two thousand people gathered on March 17  at the rustic Schwaben Hall on the Brooklyn side of Ridgewood.” The speakers charged that “Jewish economic masters” were seeking to impoverish all German Americans. By the end of the evening all hands were raised high in a salute to Hitler.
Three weeks later, and several blocks from Schwaben Hall, Duffy reports that “six thousand Germans crammed the Ridgewood Grove arena for a similar evening of obloquy and song, while a few thousand more gathered outside on Palmetto Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.”
Furthermore, in an effort to replicate what was going on in Hitler’s Germany, the American Nazis outside the rally engaged in “eighteen brawls” by one reporter’s count, primarily against the “Anti-Fascist League of Brooklyn and the Jewish War Veterans Association.”
Pro-Nazi momentum and membership was growing: On May 17, 1934, more than 20,000 gathered at Madison Square Garden. Swastikas and American flags adorned the rafters. “One banner near the speaker’s rostrum urged German Americans to ‘Awake!’” NYPD officers protected the outside of the arena while eight hundred “Ordnungsdienst” enforcers patrolled the interior.”
“Friends of a New Germany” gathered moral and financial support from prominent anti-Semites and “America First” proponents like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the radio priest Father Coughlin. The central protagonist in the movement was Fritz Kuhn, the “American Hitler” and anointed leader of the German American Bund, a powerful group that pledged its 50,000 members’ support for Republican Alf Landon’s 1936 presidential run against Roosevelt.
The crowning moment for the Bund and the “Friends of the New Germany” occurred at Madison Square Garden 80 years ago, on Feb. 20, 1939. The lower part of the Garden marquee announced a Tuesday hockey game between the Rangers and Detroit and a Wednesday basketball game between Fordham and Pittsburgh. The top of the marquee read “Pro American Rally.”
A short documentary titled “A Night at the Garden” — nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Documentary — captures without commentary the frenzied pageantry of the evening. Banners urged: “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America” and “Wake Up America. Smash Jewish Communism.” They set the stage and the tone for 22,000 enthusiastic members of the German American Bund and their key speaker, Fritz Kuhn.
In the middle of his speech, a local columnist, Dorothy Thompson, heckled Kuhn by shouting “Bunk!” and was quickly removed by a “pair of storm troopers.”
Interestingly, Thompson was the wife of famed novelist Sinclair Lewis, the author of “It Can’t Happen Here,” a dystopian fantasy published in 1936 imagining what it might look like if fascism came to America. Lewis’ central character fancies himself a champion of the forgotten man, one who is eager to mobilize America’s white working class. Pursuing his dream, this character uses large rallies to denounce the “lies” of the mainstream press and lash out against intellectuals, policy elites, as well as blacks and Jews. When he becomes president, he jails his political enemies and strips Congress of its constitutional authority.
Seven months after the rally in Madison Square Garden, Hitler invaded Poland, and the German American Bund dissipated as America went to war against Hitler’s Germany. Kuhn was deported in 1945, and his supporters went underground.
His ideas did not.