Summer Of ’41: Looking Back at Detroit and the Jewish World of 75 Years Ago
Some 75 years ago, in 1941, Detroit’s population was estimated at nearing 1.7 million. Black residents numbered close to 10 percent.
A year earlier, in 1940, the 42nd annual volume of the American Jewish Year Book issued by the Jewish Publication Society of America, claimed that America had 4,771,000 Jews, or 3.69 percent of the country’s population.
The Detroit Jewish Chronicle estimated there were approximately 85,000 Jews in Detroit in 1941.
As few Jewish residents remained in the Oakland Avenue area east of Woodward and north of Grand Boulevard in 1941, a Federation study concluded that about 80 percent of Detroit’s Jews lived in the 12th Street and Dexter neighborhoods. These two districts were almost one continuous area as six blocks separated 12th and Dexter, with Linwood three blocks east of Dexter. However, the Jews living closer to Dexter were in streets further north than those clustered closer to 12th Street.
Radio provided escapism from events in Europe, and most Jewish males, like most males in America, were following the adventures of the Lone Ranger.
After eight years via the local WXYZ studios, the thrice weekly Lone Ranger program was more popular than ever. National surveys indicated 63 percent of the listening audience was made up of adults.
The deep authoritative, vibrant voice of Earle W. Graser was perfectly suited for the Lone Ranger. After a long evening of giving voice to the masked hero in the three usual rehearsals prior to the program, which ran in three time zones, a drowsy Graser fell asleep at the wheel in the wee hours of the morning on April 8, not far from his home in Farmington.
His automobile veered into a parked trailer, silencing one of the most popular radio voices in America. He was only 32.
America mourned. National publications from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times carried obituaries and editorials on what the masked man meant to teaching truth and fair play. Time magazine called the Lone Ranger, “the most adored character ever to be created on the U.S.A. air.”
The Lone Ranger galloped into America’s homes the following evening from Detroit. Station announcer Brace Beemer assumed the role of the masked hero and would continue for the next 13 years from the WXYZ studios.
Two days after Graser’s death on April 10, 1941, Henry Ford finally signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers. Union persistence resulted in a 10-day strike before Ford capitulated. The UAW had kept public opinion on its side ever since the severe beatings its leaders took by goons connected to Ford’s security chief four years earlier.
SLAUGHTER IN EUROPE
Eight days later, on April 18, Yugoslavia surrendered to Nazi Germany. German bombing squadrons soon targeted Belgrade, causing 700 Jewish casualties.
A German bomb completely demolished a synagogue where several hundred men, women and children had taken refuge during a raid. The bombing mission also destroyed every other synagogue and the Jewish Community Center in Belgrade. Several hundred Jews who survived had been afforded protection during the air raids at the American consulate.
Six days later, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, president of the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the World Zionist Organization, addressed a meeting under the auspices of the Jewish Welfare Federation at Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
The well-attended meeting served as a forerunner of the Allied Jewish Campaign. The following day, the Jewish quarter of London was destroyed by German air attacks. Many women and children were buried under tons of debris from what had been homes, apartment buildings and shops.
More than 700 Jews were killed and over 2,000 wounded during a five-day pogrom in Romania. Many thousands of other Jews were slightly wounded but didn’t seek treatment as they feared reprisals. Hundreds of Jews sought and were granted shelter at the American consulate. Jews who tried to escape to Hungary were machine-gunned, as were others who tried to flee in small boats. Criminals were released from jail in Romania by Iron Guardists to help butcher the Jews. The director of the Zionist Organization in Bucharest and his 36 employees were beaten and hauled to a suburban field, where they were murdered.
HANK IN ARMY
On the other side of the ocean, many Jews were following the exploits of baseball superstar Hank Greenberg. Over the past four seasons, Greenberg averaged 43 home runs and 148 runs-batted-in. The morning after his 19th game in the 1941 season, in which he hit two home runs to help beat the Yankees, Greenberg was inducted into the U.S. Army.
On May 9, Greenberg dropped from $50,000 yearly to an army salary of $21 per month.
Less than a month later, Lou Gehrig, who retired from baseball as a player two years earlier and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, died from the fatal neuro-muscular disease that would bear his name. The former superstar of the New York Yankees was only 38.
Thursday, July 10, 1941, was a popular night for Detroiters to gather around the radio. The Bing Crosby Show hit the airwaves at 8 p.m., followed by Rudy Vallee an hour later, and Fred Waring and his band at 10. The variety programs provided listeners with a chance to hear the latest tunes of the summer of ’41: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and “You Made Me Love You.”
Reading the paper in a big, comfortable chair within good hearing range of the radio was how most Americans relaxed. The newspapers that day didn’t have much coverage of the happenings in Europe. There were still plenty of human interest stories on the All-Star baseball game that had been played in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium two days earlier. With Hank Greenberg in an army uniform and not on the field, the game didn’t have the interest it would have had to the local Jewish community.
Without thinking of events in Europe, Jewish Americans could go to bed humming the latest tunes. Sleep wouldn’t come easily if fellow Jews knew what was transpiring in Jedwabne (Yadovneh), Poland, that very same day. Some of the Jews in the small town were clubbed to death by shovels, hammers and boards. Others were butchered with knives and axes. The rest were forcibly herded into a barn and burned alive. When the carnage of violence ended, 1,600 Jews, numbering about 60 percent of the town’s population, had been murdered — not by Nazis but by their former neighbors.
When the German killing squads arrived in town to do their work, they were amazed that most of their mission had already been carried out — and with such savagery.
As the Germans occupied Lithuania in the summer of 1941, sadistic gangs staged a violent pogrom against the Jews. An estimated 800 Jews were butchered with axes, knives, guns and other weapons. Many were maimed, some decapitated and others burned alive. By the first week of August, almost 6,000 Jews were murdered on Lithuanian soil.
NEW ZIONIST TEMPLE
After more than 42 years of leading Temple Beth El, Rabbi Leo Franklin notified the board of his desire to retire from active ministry. Many Beth El members hoped that Rabbi Leon Fram, associate rabbi and director of education for the past 16 years, would replace Rabbi Franklin upon his retirement.
However, Rabbi Fram supported causes not popular with a some of the membership. Fram championed Zionism and liberal social causes and was in the forefront at a mass meeting calling for the unionization of auto workers. When it became clear that Dr. B. Benedict Glazer, senior associate of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, would be offered Franklin’s position, some Beth El members, including former president Morris Garvett, held meetings to organize a new Reform congregation with Fram as its spiritual leader.
In the Aug. 1, 1941, edition, the Detroit Jewish Chronicle reported on the birth of Temple Israel.
“At an enthusiastic rally of the founding members of the New Reform Jewish Congregation held Monday night, August 4, at Hotel Statler, the congregation decided to adopt the name ‘Temple Israel.’
“The name was proposed by a committee consisting of Mrs. Milford Stern, Roy Sarason, Alexander Freeman, Rabbi Leon Fram and Benjamin E. Jaffe, chairman.
“Morris Garvett, who presided over the meeting, announced that the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services of the new Temple Israel would be held in the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts at John R. and Farnsworth. The Succoth services will be held in the smaller lecture hall of the Institute of Arts.”
It was reported that a hundred new members joined the congregation at the meeting, swelling the total membership to 200. It was also decided at the meeting that until a building of their own could be built, religious school classes would be held in the Hampton public school on Warrington on the city’s northwest side.
THE KILLING CONTINUES
On Aug. 10, 1941, five weeks after German soldiers entered David-Horodok, now in Belarus, local citizens assisted the SS Nazi killing squads in machine-gunning 3,000 Jewish men and burying the victims in a mass grave.
Women and children were herded into a barbed wire ghetto to await their fate. As the German army advanced in Russia, SS killing squads followed behind with the mission of executing Jews. Tens of thousands were murdered. Within three days in September at Babi Yar, outside Kiev, more than 30,000 Jews were forced to completely undress before being shot to death.
As August neared its end, Jews who fled to Hungary hoping to escape the barbaric Nazis were rounded up along with other Hungarian Jews, and more than 20,000 were shot to death.
IN THE LINEUP
As Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, America’s biggest Jewish hero (according to several polls of the era), Hank Greenberg, was training as an antitank gunner at Camp Custer in Michigan.
Jewish baseball history was made on Sunday, Sept. 21, 1941, as four Jews were in the starting lineup of a team in a major league game. It never happened before and has never happened since.
Almost 10,000 fans paid their way into the Polo Grounds to see the fifth-place New York Giants play against the seventh-place Boston Braves that would close out the home version of the 1941 season for the National League Giants.
Bronx-born Harry Feldman was making his second big-league start after spending most of the season in the minor leagues. Thirty-year-old Harry Danning was catching and calling the pitches for the 21-year-old Feldman.
Morrie Arnovich, eight weeks shy of his 31st birthday was in left field for the Giants, and rookie Sid Gordon was in center. Gordon, 24, a native of Brooklyn, was making his big league debut. The game only took one hour and 39 minutes as Feldman scattered nine singles for a 4-0 win. Arnovich and Gordon contributed a hit to help cement Feldman’s first major league victory.
The following day’s New York Times carried the report of the game but made no mention of the number of Jews in the lineup. While most Jews at the time didn’t pick up on Jewish baseball history being made, they did pick up the paper to scan the front page.
THE YELLOW STAR
Under the heading, “The International Situation,” the Times reported, “In Berlin all Jews began wearing the identifying Star of David badge in compliance with a Gestapo order.”
In a related story, the sub-headline read:
“Decree Bars Entry to Parks, Zoos, Restaurants, Theatres and Many Other Places.”
The story, datelined Berlin, Sept. 20, read:
“Jews in Germany and the Bohemian Protectorate yesterday began wearing six-pointed yellow stars sewed on the left breast of their clothing in obedience to the Gestapo decree that aims at ‘the end of Jewish deception of the German people.’
“The badges are four inches across and stamped in black with the word ‘Jude.’ After 4 o’clock, considerable numbers of Jews were seen standing in lines before food shops. By official order, Jews may enter shops only between 4 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
“This represents the first time in history that Jews have been required to wear signs of identification in Germany. Previously, however, the Nazis introduced arm bands for Jews in Poland and more recently have required Jews in conquered areas of Russia to wear yellow stars over the left breast.”
Manuel Merzon, a well-known Detroit attorney respected for his honesty, business and religious acumen, donned the yellow star arm band similar to those worn by the Jews of Europe. Merzon wanted to show solidarity and keep the plight of the Jews on the other side of the ocean in the forefront.
BIRTH OF A YESHIVA
After prayers on behalf of the Jews in Europe, the cornerstone ceremonies of the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah took place on Sunday, Sept. 28, on the northwest corner of Dexter and Cortland.
David I. Berris, chairman of the building committee, presided over the event under a large tent with comfortable seating. Well before the 1:30 p.m. starting time, all seating inside the tent was filled to capacity and several hundred had to stand outside. It was estimated that 1,000 people attended.
In addition to providing accommodations for the school’s 115 students in six classes, the building would house a synagogue for Congregation Mogen Abraham. The synagogue had been without a home of its own since the sale of its building on Farnsworth two years earlier. The congregation turned over $20,000 of the $55,000 estimated cost of construction. The ladies of the Yeshiva raised $10,000, while Young Israel of Detroit donated $2,000. A bequest from the D.W. Simons estate accounted for another large contribution.
The local Jewish community was shocked to learn of the auto accident that took the lives of Ralph Davidson and his brother-in-law, Morse Saulson, in Troy Township. Well-known in the Zionist and Shaarey Zedek circles and affiliated with many charitable organizations, Saulson, 56, left two sons, and Davidson, 57, left a daughter and a son, William, who would become one of the biggest entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the state of Michigan.
RABBINIC ERA ENDS
When Rabbi Leo Franklin came to Detroit in 1899 and became the 11th spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, he found a Jewish community of about 5,000, and his congregation had 136 members. Franklin helped steer his Reform temple into one of the biggest in the country when he announced his retirement.
Henry George Hoch, the church editor of the Detroit News, covered Rabbi Franklin’s farewell address in the Nov. 8, 1941, edition of the paper.
“‘All I hoped to do has not been done. Only a small part of my early dreams have been fulfilled. But I have done, and I can say this honestly, whatever my feeble talents have permitted me to do.’
“This was Rabbi Franklin’s humble farewell to the congregation he has served and guided nearly 43 years, as for the last time he led his people in the prayers and responses of the Evening Service for the Sabbath at Temple Beth El Friday night.
“As he left the pulpit at the end of a reminiscent sermon, he told them:
“‘I step down from this spot, which is more sacred to me than any other that I know, bequeathing to you such memories as you may wish to cherish and maybe some inspiration.
“To my successor I bequeath, I am happy to believe, a strong, unified warm-hearted and enthusiastic congregation — a great opportunity for self-realization.’”
While Rabbi B. Benedict Glazer of New York took over the spiritual leadership of the congregation, Rabbi Franklin was elected rabbi emeritus and remained in the city.
DAY OF INFAMY
Hank Greenberg was rising in rank in military service. Now a sergeant and earning $60 a month, Greenberg returned to Detroit during the Armistice Day parade Downtown.
On Dec. 5, Sgt. Greenberg, less than four weeks away from his 31st birthday, was finally discharged from the army. Back in August, Congress had passed a law that men over 28 shouldn’t be drafted. Greenberg was disappointed that he wasn’t released in time to rejoin the Tigers for the last part of the season but was looking forward to reporting to spring training early to prepare for next season.
Greenberg would only enjoy a couple days of civilian life before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The attack would change the course of the lives of most young men in America.
In Detroit on Dec. 7, Myron Milgrom, 13, went to the Avalon Theater on Linwood near Davison to see Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Benno Levi, 18, went swimming at the JCC on Woodward. Sammy Cohen, 30, got married at Congregation Beth Tefilo Emanuel at Taylor and Woodrow Wilson.
The day after the bombing, Dec. 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan and Army guards were placed at the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Regulations were imposed on the auto plants as production was converted to war materials. The “Motor City” became known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
It was ironic that Detroit architect Albert Kahn, the son of a rabbi from Germany, designed many of the plants that shocked Hitler and his advisers with their production speed. Armored vehicles and aircraft engines and parts were soon rolling off the assembly lines.
Hank Greenberg, who was honorably discharged from military service two days before Pearl Harbor, went to Washington three days after Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the Army Air Force. Offered a chance to stay stateside and be an athletic instructor, Greenberg elected to be a gunner in the Air Corps in the China-Burma-India Theater and rose to the rank of captain and would spend the next three and a half years serving in the military.
The author of the iconic Echoes of Detroit’s Jewish Communities: A History, and a columnist for the Jewish Press, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years before working in the front office of the Tigers and earning a 1984 World Series ring. Well-known also as a speaker on several different subjects, he may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.