So A Nazi Walks Into An Iron Bar: the Meyer Lansky Story

I’m starting a series here where I talk about history, because geeks love history. I’m going to focus on stories I think anarchists will like. Here’s one:

“The Nazi scumbags were meeting one night on the second floor. Nat Arno and I went upstairs and threw stink bombs into the room where the creeps were. As they came out of the room, running from the horrible odor of the stink bombs and running down the steps to go into the street to escape, our boys were waiting with bats and iron bars. It was like running a gauntlet. Our boys were lined up on both sides and we started hitting, aiming for their heads or any other part of their bodies, with our bats and irons. The Nazis were screaming blue murder. This was one of the most happy moments of my life.”

That was Max “Puddy” Hinkes, of Newark, New Jersey, and today we’re going to be talking about Jewish gangsters who fucked up Nazis.

Gangsters, especially those from the first half of the twentieth century, occupy a really interesting place in the mythology of the United States. People tend to idolize them as Robin Hood types, even when they weren’t (Pretty Boy Floyd, I’ll write about you later), and tend to revere the stories of double-crossing, brutality and corruption in a way that is frankly a little weird. On the one hand, these gangsters present a typical capitalist ideal of rags to riches. On the other, their stories have the added benefit of allowing their hero, such as he is, to retain a working-class sensibility, since gangsters were rarely allowed into the elite social circles into which other equally violent but more lawful self-made robber barons could gain access. But gangsters especially seem to become figures of historical pride to people now generally construed as white, with various once-marginalized European ancestral origins. I once worked at a museum dedicated to gangsters. Irish, Italian, and Jewish Americans would all seek out stories of the Irish, Italian, and Jewish gangsters of the 1920s, all vehemently insisting that the people from whom they form their sense of cultural identity were the most shady, the most brutal, and the most criminal of all. There’s a lot going on there about the way whiteness leads people to seek their cultural identities in odd places; the way whiteness excuses and lends respectability to behavior that would otherwise be seen as abhorrent; and the way history can become myth.

There’s a lot going on there about the way whiteness leads people to seek their cultural identities in odd places; the way whiteness excuses and lends respectability to behavior that would otherwise be seen as abhorrent; and the way history can become myth.

Of course, as a Jew, I am here to tell you why the Jewish gangsters were, in fact, the most badass motherfuckers in organized crime during the first half of the twentieth century. And I feel like I have the facts on my side here, because holy shit did they whale on some Nazis.

Let me tell you about a guy named Meyer Lansky. You might have heard of him. He’s definitely not the most famous gangster of the Prohibition era, probably because unlike Al Capone, he wasn’t a sadistic horrorshow and didn’t engage in a concerted campaign of self-promotion.  Meyer Lansky was a sensible guy. He was trying to make a very, very, obscenely good living, and he was trying to stay out of jail. He was not trying to be famous. That hasn’t stopped fictionalized versions of him from showing up all over the place, but these versions rarely focus on my absolute favorite thing about him, the aforementioned Nazi-beating.

Meyer Lansky made it big during Prohibition, along with his best friend, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano. Their friendship was a big deal at the time; Jewish organized crime and Italian organized crime did not usually get along. But Meyer and Lucky got along so well that their friend and fellow gangster Bugsy Siegel described them as more like lovers than friends, before hastily clarifying that he didn’t mean that in a gay way, and I have seen at least one historian go out of his way to state for the record that his is definitely not saying Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano ever had sex. Which, I mean, come on, has there ever been a more obvious way of saying “these two guys definitely had sex”? Do I have any real evidence for this? No. Do I ship it? Hell yes.

Meyer and Lucky would later go on to be extremely big deals, with Lucky founding one of the Five Families, and Meyer founding a group called Murder, Inc (Depending on who you ask, Meyer Lansky is an American hero either in spite of or possibly because of this innovative hybrid of homicide and corporations). He would also end up corruptly controlling most of Cuba, and later Las Vegas. He was a capitalist, a colonialist, and also a Zionist, also, as advertised, he made a business of killing people.  He was a guy who got rich off being an exploitative dick, just like pretty much every other rich guy.

But then there are Meyer Lansky’s extra-curricular activities, and for that, we’re going to need to step back for a second away from the world of lovable Irish, Italian, and Jewish crime organizations, to talk about the less-familiar world of the more-or-less lawful but fucking gross ethnic association called the German American Bund.  

The German American Bund was formed in 1936 to promote the causes of Nazi Germany in the United States. It was open to Americans of German descent, provided they could prove they had no black or Jewish ancestry. These guys were openly Nazis, like, not even the kind who think they can hide behind fake irony and shitty frog memes. Their flag was a swastika shooting out of an iron cross. So: fuck these guys entirely. They claimed they wanted to “liberate America from the Jews.” The general membership were fond of accusing FDR of being secretly Jewish, and referring to the New Deal as the “Jew Deal” because fascists are terrible at jokes. Their leader was fond of embezzling from the organization. (They dissolved shortly after Pearl Harbor, when being openly a Nazi temporarily went out of style in the US, and everyone tried to pretend there hadn’t been a 25,000 member organization of Americans dedicated to helping Hitler win.)

The German-American Bund had a lot of meetings in areas with high immigrant (read: Jewish) populations. One of those places was New York City. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia affirmed that Nazis were allowed to meet, and were entitled to police protection, but he made sure the cops guarding their meetings were mostly black or Jewish. So that was… passive aggressive. But then there was another local political figure: Judge Nathan D. Perlman.

Judge Perlman, who was — no shit — Jewish, did not care for Nazis. This led him to reach out to one of the most powerful Jewish guys around: Meyer Lansky. Judge Perlman, as you might expect, hadn’t done Meyer any favors in the past. He had for example helped to end Prohibition, the repeal of which, while generally extremely popular, wasn’t great for the Meyer Lanskys of the world, who had been making bank off illegal booze. But when Perlman met with Meyer after the rise of the German American Bund, they ended up getting along pretty well. Perlman was like “I want you to disrupt meetings of Nazis” and Meyer was like “excellent, on it,” and Perlman was like “hang on I’m not finished” and Meyer was like “sorry” and Perlman was like “I will pay you and give you legal assistance, should anyone get arrested.  The only condition is, don’t kill anyone.” With what I can only imagine to be the world’s greatest eye roll, Meyer said “Ugh fine, I won’t kill anyone. Also, I don’t want your money.”

And then he went to work.  

Now, I need you to be picturing this correctly. Meyer Lansky, for all the power he had amassed, was 5’ 4”. He had a reputation as being a pretty decent guy. I once talked to an elderly New Yorker who assured me that Meyer Lansky would push him around in a pram while his mother was running numbers, and there’s a book about him and other Jewish mobsters that is literally called But He Was Good to His Mother

Nevertheless, when this unassuming little Jewish dude and his homies went to work on these Nazis, they did so with efficiency, brutality, and an almost surgical precision (so as to stay within the “no dead Nazis” rule set forth by Judge Perlman). He and his fellow Jewish gangsters would show up at Bund rallies and just fuck everyone up, leaving behind broken arms, legs, ribs, skulls, faces and teeth, but no corpses. In one case, they sent in infiltrators ahead of time, who positioned themselves around the hall, and on a signal, rushed towards the stage to attack the speaker, while from outside, more gangsters pushed past the guards on the doors, while yet more gangsters climbed up the fire escapes and burst in through the windows. Chaos, and fucked up Nazis, inevitably ensued. Since they were trying to not kill anyone, they wouldn’t use guns, but they used pretty much every other weapon you associate with mobsters of the 1920s and 30s.

These attacks went on for over a year. Journalist Walter Winchell would praise the attacks from the air, and pass on information to Meyer about where and when the Nazis would be meeting. Life got pretty dangerous for Nazis in New York City.

Can you just imagine Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel training young antifa in the early 30s? I love it. I’m picturing a lot of newsboy caps and comments like “no no not like that, my bubbe (ofblessedmemory) punches better than that, you grip the brass knuckles like this.”

In the meantime, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel also TRAINED other people to fight Nazis, which, come on, can you just imagine Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel training young antifa in the early 30s? I love it. I’m picturing a lot of newsboy caps and comments like “no no not like that, my bubbe (ofblessedmemory) punches better than that, you grip the brass knuckles like this.”

This also seems like a good time to mention that Lucky Luciano, Meyer’s definitely-not-boyfriend-I-don’t-know-why-you-would-think-that, offered to send some of his guys to help with this, but Meyer told him, “thanks, but no, this needs to be a Jewish fight.”

Here’s Meyer’s description of one of these events:

“We got there that evening and found several hundred people dressed in brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speaker started ranting. There were only about fifteen of us, but we went into action.
We attacked them in the hall and threw some of them out the windows. There were fistfights all over the place. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up, and some of them were out of action for months. Yes, it was violence. We wanted to teach them a lesson. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

That right there is a folk hero. A flawed, terrible, and yet in many ways incredibly likeable guy, who used his power to fight fascism in the streets. And throw it out the window.

Meyer Lansky wasn’t the only Jew who took blunt instruments to Nazis during these times, and there are stories about Jewish gangsters all over America taking on the Bund specifically and anti-Semitism generally. The Jewish mob of Newark, New Jersey, as well as those in cities across the Midwest did similar good work. But Meyer Lansky’s story strikes me as special; the refusal to take cash for doing the job he wanted to do anyway, the refusal of non-Jewish assistance in the fight, and the scale of the attacks he launched, are all the stuff of legend.

He also used the mob’s corrupt control of the waterfront to help the Allies stave off Nazi attacks, but that’s a story for another time.