Irwin Cohen gives a history lesson of what life in Detroit was like in 1942.
Eighty years ago, there was much to talk and read about. America was still reeling from the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Japan declared war on the United States and Britain after the attack on Hawaii and Honolulu. The following day, the United States declared war on Japan, and three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S, after which the U.S. declared war against them. Detroit’s newspapers on Dec. 15, sorted out the facts and destruction eight days earlier.
At Pearl Harbor, six warships were destroyed, 2,729 men killed and 656 wounded. One of the 2,729 killed was a 27-year-old Jewish Detroiter, Harold Eli Shiffman. A graduate of Central High School, Shiffman enlisted in the Navy in 1940 and was stationed on the battleship Arizona as a radioman.
My uncle, Sammy Cohen, was married at the Beth Tefilo Emanuel synagogue, then on the corner of Taylor Street and Woodrow Wilson in Detroit, on Dec. 7, 1941. He was a member of Young Israel of Detroit and so were most of the guests. The talk at the wedding was war, and the young men knew they soon would get an invitation from Uncle Sam to report for induction. My Uncle Sammy was ticketed to report for duty on the second night of Passover. My older cousin related that the family was together for a seder, and Uncle Sammy had to leave early.
Uncle Sammy saw military action in Italy and was wounded storming enemy lines. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Combat Badge and Purple Heart for his heroics and spent months recuperating at military hospitals. He died in 1990 at the age of 80, but was proudest that his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were all observant Jews. Today, the number is over a hundred, and each and every one is an observant Jew. “That’s the way to beat Hitler,” he used to say.
Uncle Sammy knew the way the torch of religious Judaism would pass on to the next generation was to send his children to Jewish day school, and his five children all graduated the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in the 1960s.
However, 80 years ago in 1942, there were no Jewish day schools in Detroit. The Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, then an afternoon and Sunday school, housed over a hundred students in six grades in a four-flat (two units on the first floor and two above on the second floor) on Elmhurst near Linwood while the new YBY building, in partnership with Congregation Mogen Abraham on Dexter and Cortland, was in the finishing stages of construction.
At the time, the United Hebrew Schools, also offering a Hebrew studies program, was headquartered in the Rose Sittig Cohen Building on Lawton and Tyler, and the system had a staff of 42 with almost 1,500 students spread around several school buildings.
Samuel and Leah Bookstein donated $25,000 toward the purchase of a building on Linwood and Elmhurst to be transformed into Yeshivath Chachmei Lublin. Rabbi Moshe Rotenberg, a graduate of the institution in Lublin who had come to America earlier in the year, served as dean of the school.
In 1942, Detroit had a population of over 1.7 million. The city had seven radio stations and three daily newspapers, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News and the Detroit Times. The Jewish community had its publications, too.
For 26 years, since 1916, the weekly Detroit Jewish Chronicle reported on the happenings in the Jewish community. Most people saw no need for another local Jewish weekly. However, several community members formed an advisory board and financial backing behind editor Phillip Slomovitz.
Slomovitz had emigrated from Russia in adolescence and mastered writing English. He began his journalism career as a night editor on the University of Michigan’s student publication and graduated to the Detroit News copy desk as a reporter and editor. His interest in championing Jewish causes and issues led to editorships with the Jewish Pictorial, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Detroit Jewish Chronicle.
Small in stature, Slomovitz towered over others as a ferocious fighter for and defender of justice and Jewish causes. Slomovitz contacted Danny Raskin, then a young reporter with the Detroit News, to join the new publication. Raskin didn’t think there was room for two local Jewish weeklies, But Slomovitz’s determination soon melted Raskin’s reluctance. Raskin’s first column in the first Jewish News on March 27, 1942, was titled Jewish Youth’s Listening Post.
It was a difficult time to launch a new Jewish weekly as hundreds of Jewish men had recently departed to do their part in the war effort.
Manuel Merzon, a respected, observant attorney, published the Detroit Jewish Review, a small bimonthly religious-oriented magazine. Merzon, famous for wearing a large yarmulke around town, also began wearing a yellow Jewish star arm band similar to those worn by the Jews in Europe. He wanted to keep the plight of the Jews on the other side of the ocean in the public eye. However, with two local Jewish weeklies on the scene and diificult economic conditions, Merzon ceased publication.
Twenty-five years later in 1967, I was working downtown in City Hall for the Wayne County Treasurer’s office. Merzon would often come by and check properties for his legal work. I mentioned that my father picked me up daily as he worked nearby, and we’d be happy to take him home. My father loved taking him as they were about the same age, and I got to hear stories and discussions about WWII, politics and the state of the local Jewish community.
My father was impressed with Merzon, who for years helped low-income people with legal advice at very little or no charge. Merzon imparted his love and devotion to the community and its establishments to his grandson, Gary Torgow, who later wrote a book about his mentor titled Raising the Bar.
The War Continues
President Roosevelt wanted Major League Baseball to continue even though players were either enlisting or waiting to be drafted. Teams filled out their rosters with several who were too young or too old to be major leaguers in normal times. At the ballpark, fans were urged to return foul balls hit into the stands so the balls could be shipped overseas to soldiers. Fans received a 25-cent war stamp for each baseball. In a show of patriotism, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played in every ballpark prior to every game.
With Hank Greenberg serving in the military for the second time, Murray Asher (Moe) Franklin made the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers for the first time for a full season. The veteran Jewish minor league infielder compiled a big-league average of .261 with two home runs before enlisting in the Navy. He would be gone for three years and never would play in the big leagues again.
Captain Ruben Iden survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the three- year Marine Corps veteran dive bomber pilot was killed at Guadalcanal on Sept. 20, 1942, while on a photo reconnaissance mission. The 24-year-old Iden was one of the first — if not the first — Jewish Detroiter killed in action after war was declared.
Horrific News from Europe
There was a lot of crying among Detroit Jewry as they heard and read about the heart-wrenching reports from Europe. Five thousand Jews from the Minsk ghetto were forced to stand beside a large pit as children were thrown in. Then adults were machine-gunned to death, falling on top of the children who ultimately died of suffocation. Reports from Greece confirmed that thousands of children had died of starvation since the Nazi occupation began; 1,500 Jews in Radom had starved to death and 13,300 Jews were murdered in Lwow.
More than 16,000 Jews of Poniewiesch, in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, were massacred over a three-day period. The Nazis were converting thousands of talesim (prayer shawls) into winter underwear for German soldiers.
In a New York Times page 10 article on Nov. 25, 1942, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said, “The State Department finally made available the document which confirmed the stories and rumors of Jewish extermination in all Hitler-ruled Europe.” Wise stated that sources confirmed about half of the estimated 4 million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had been slain in an extermination campaign.
While the State Department confirmed reports of mass extermination, it didn’t make public Breckenridge Long’s policy of blocking Jews from getting visas.
Over two years earlier, on June 26, 1940, the antisemitic Long, the Roosevelt-appointed assistant secretary of state, sealed the fate of thousands and thousands of Jews with this memo: “We can delay and effectively stop, for a temporary period of indefinite length, the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
Within a year following Long’s memo, immigration was cut in half, and all immigration requests were bogged down in a State Department-controlled Washington office, subject to a system of reviews and reviews of reviews. Long masked his antisemitism by claiming he feared Hitler would send spies to America through the visa program that he was in charge of.
When the war ended and records were eventually examined, it was estimated that 200,000 European Jews lost their lives because of Breckenridge Long.
Irwin J. Cohen is the author of 10 books, including the iconic “Echoes of Detroit’s Jewish Communities: A History.” He headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed many legends of the game including Hank Greenberg. He may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.