‘The Jew in the light’ … archives reveals Milwaukee’s historic struggles with antisemitism

MILWAUKEE — In the 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” Jewish author Philip Roth weaves an alternate history of 1940s America — one in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 election by famed aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. The unexpected result eventually leads to Jews being persecuted across the country.

Such a history might be hard to imagine, but articles from the day make it abundantly clear just how any Jew, especially those who witnessed the growth of antisemitic factions in late 1930s America, could imagine such an outcome.

All one needs to do is take a look at archives from the era kept by Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Collected by the Jewish Community Relations Council, also of the Federation, the files contain a bevy of newspaper clippings, letters and flyers illustrating the many antisemitic movements that cropped up around Milwaukee at the time.

The archives, which also include newer clippings donated to the museum by volunteers, cover a wide history of antisemitic activities and incidents in the Milwaukee area, stretching from the 1930s to the late 1990s.

The Chronicle now brings you a small sample of the available record. Here are some of the more absorbing (and disturbing) tales of our region’s struggles with hate, and efforts to combat it.

‘Vigilantes’ organize

To look at newspaper articles from the late 1930s Milwaukee, its apparent just how vilified Jews had become for a very vocal group of city residents.

Some were Nazi-sympathizers, others more broadly jingoistic, but they all one thing in common: They saw Jews, and especially Jewish immigrants, as a threat.

Articles, fliers and other propaganda from the day detail the activities and message-making of “vigilante” and fascist Nazi groups, like the Silvershirts, Protective League of America, and the more common Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, or German American Bund — a German-American ancestry group that promoted a favorable view of Nazi Germany.

A May 19, 1938, article from the socialist daily The Milwaukee Leader tells one reporter’s undercover account of a meeting the Silvershirts held at the Forst Keller hall at 1037 W. Juneau Ave. — now home to the Captain Pabst Pilot House — where speakers talked of targeting Jews, Communists and labor leaders, and where local attorney Lyman G. Wheeler spoke of denouncing “Jewish influences” and “presented what he described as ‘evidence’ that Jews dominate Milwaukee.”

“Jews make up 5 percent of population, but own 95 percent of the wealth,” Wheeler is reported to have said.

Later, a 1938 article from the Milwaukee Journal, talks of the Milwaukee Common Council’s efforts to label a public nuisance any bar or hall that hosted meetings of groups that fomented racial or religious hatred.

The archives include a copy — typed on yellowing onion-skin paper — of the official minutes of the vote.

‘The Jew in the light’

These articles are sandwiched together with flyers and pamphlets from both antisemitic groups and organizations seeking to combat antisemitism.

A one-page propaganda piece produced by Ernst Goerner, a Milwaukee-based Nazi sympathizer, titled “The Jew in the Light,” lambasts the Milwaukee Journal for defending then-U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, whom Goerner “branded” a “Jewess” for advocating for German Jewish refugees.

“(The Milwaukee Journal) simply cannot afford to tell the truth about Jews, or show The Jew in the light (sic)… There is no necessity at all to prove whether Miss Perkins is Jewess or not. There are things that do not have to be proven because the facts or actions speak for themselves.”

A one-man publishing house, Goerner produced many other pieces of propaganda, including a card containing lyrics to the self-penned tune “Refu-Jews Go Back.” Set to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” it urges the listener to “slam the door in the faces of Abie and Ikey and Moe.”

Other flyers urge Americans to “Boycott the Movies,” calling Hollywood “the Sodom and Gomorrha (sic) where international Jewry controls vice, dope and gambling.” The flyer, along with many others, conflate Judaism with Communism.

But the collection also includes a flyer from the Milwaukee-based American League for Peace and Democracy, that encourages “Lovers of democracy and peace” and “all those who despise Fascism” and “are outraged by Hitler’s grab of Austria and the Butchering of Czechoslovakia” to join in a “Mass Demonstration for Democracy Peace” in October 1938.

There is also a typed radio transcript for a program put on by the German American League for Culture. A Chicago-based organization of more than 80,000 German-Americans, the league was staunchly “anti-Hitler.”

Routing out discrimination

The archives contain no items from the 1940s — save a fascist publication from Jan. 7 of that year — but there are a host of documents stretching from the mid- 1950s though the late 1970s detailing efforts by Milwaukee Jewish Council (now the Jewish Community Relations Council) to rout out discrimination against Jews by local businesses, social and athletic clubs, resorts and colleges.

Many of the documents are memos from the MJC’s Fact Find- ing Committee.

One memo from Dec. 10, 1954, details an experience a Mrs. Lewis Libowitz had at a shoe store on North Oakland Avenue, in which the owner overcharged her. Upon finding that she was correct, the owner reportedly said, “you are the kind of people whose business we don’t need.”

A memo from November 1954 contains an account from Larry Katz, who owned the Bear Food Market at 1617 N. 13th St. Katz reported that an elderly landlady who operated the apartment complex next door to him openly discussed her dislike for Jews, and encouraged people not to buy from them. Katz later obtained a “peace warrant” against the woman from the district attorney’s office.

Most of the other documents detail the MJC’s and local An- ti-Defamation League’s investigations into discrimination at social and athletic clubs of the day.

One weathered document from 1961 contains a survey of some 18 clubs in the state, showing how many Jewish members each club had, and if there was a quota in place limiting that number. Included with the survey is a memo, in which a member of the joint ADL and MJC discusses the pursuit of a lawsuit against Lake Lawn Lodge – the owner of 16 resorts in Wisconsin — for its “continuing record of discriminatory treatment of Jews.”

There are also clippings about the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s use of faith-and-race-based trusts that the institution said forced them to use certain financial endowments to benefit only gentile or white students.

Advocacy or antisemitism

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Milwaukee Jewish community’s major concern shifted away from discrimination to the growth of antisemitic speech on college campuses and elsewhere in the community.

In many cases, these concerns were sparked by universities hosting controversial Muslim speakers known for courting hate against Israel and often Jews in general.

In a 1989 statement, the Milwaukee Jewish Council expresses concern over the appearance of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for his visit. The letter calls out the UW-Multicultural Council for claiming it did not know that Farrakhan’s past speeches were antisemitic. Similar reactions followed a 1994 appearance of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, also a member of the Nation of Islam, whose “dual messages of black empowerment and antisemitism,” were well known.

Articles also describe the prevalence of antisemitic speech and harassment, some of it perpetrated by fellow students. A 1997 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talks about a university report listing 29 cases of antisemitism at UWM and other UW campuses in 1996. Examples included a series of incidents between Palestinian and Jewish students.

In an interview, well-known UWM Political Science and then-executive director of Milwaukee Jewish Council, Mordecai Lee called the report: “A sad reminder that pockets of prejudice, in this case against Jews, are alive and well in our midst.”