Rewind eight decades to 1933.
That year marked the rise of the greatest villain of our time and the biggest Jewish sports hero of all time.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Soon afterward, he employed terror tactics against political opponents to gain complete power. Hitler opened Dachau, outside of Munich, a concentration camp built for political prisoners. Other camps soon followed. Over the course of time it would become the last stop for Jews about to be brutalized and murdered.
Paul Josef Goebbels, head of the Nazi party in Berlin, called for a bloodless pogrom to expel Jews from government employment and the country’s economic life. Soon the pogroms became anything but bloodless. Jews were assaulted and robbed at will and homes and businesses were invaded by Nazi hooligans.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, 22-year-old Hank Greenberg was thinking about spring training with the Detroit Tigers and hoping he would be able to stay in the major leagues for the entire season. The big first baseman had just one previous big league at-bat.
Greenberg made the big leagues. But as the U.S. baseball season was getting underway, Jews in Germany were prohibited from holding civil service positions. Two weeks later, Jewish ritual slaughter was banned.
Four days after Greenberg hit his first major league home run on May 6, books authored by Jews were burned throughout Germany.
The Tigers were on a road trip and playing in Washington a few weeks later in May. Greenberg took in the sights. He saw the White House, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt had moved in as president a few months earlier. The Washington Post’s report on the game between the Tigers and Washington Senators referred to Greenberg as Hank Goldberg.
Reporters around the league quickly got his name right, though, as Greenberg kept his batting average over .300 and showed flashes of power. As Greenberg’s rise to fame and fortune began, the Lone Ranger started his ride from the top floor of a Detroit radio station. The masked rider and his companion Tonto brought outlaws to justice three times a week for the next 21 years from Detroit.
As the legend of the Lone Ranger took off, Prohibition, under which the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol and alcoholic beverages had been banned since 1920, came to an end.
Gangsters who’d profited from Prohibition by supplying alcohol found other avenues of racketeering. The most famous gang of the era was Detroit’s Purple Gang, entirely comprised of Jews. Their empire included arson for hire, drugs, extortion, and gambling.
The Purples did perform acts of good deeds in the Jewish community and protected fellow Jews from members of other gangs. They enjoyed talking baseball with younger members of the Jewish community and often went to Tigers games where they were quite vocal in their support of Hank Greenberg.
As the baseball season neared its end in the third week of September, Jews in Germany were barred from holding positions in the fields of journalism, art, music and theater. Meanwhile, under the rubric of “Aryanization,” Jews were forced in stages to surrender their businesses to Germans.
Twelve years after Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics, the Nazis eliminated his positions, took his property and revoked his citizenship. Einstein moved to the United States in 1933 and became a professor at Princeton. In an address at the Sorbonne in Paris that year he said, “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”
In 1933 Jews mourned the passing of the famed Chofetz Chaim. Considered the spiritual head of world Jewry, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan died in the small village of Radin, Poland, where he had spent most of his 95 years. “Chofetz Chaim,” the title of Rabbi Kagan’s first book, dealt with the laws of lashon hara (derogatory gossip). Stories of his piety and humility spread throughout the world during his life.
On July 14, 1933, the Nazi Party was declared the only legal party in Germany, and Jewish immigrants from Poland were stripped of their citizenship. Ten weeks later, as Hank Greenberg’s first full season in the major leagues came to an end, the Nazis passed a law prohibiting Jews from owning land.
As American Jewish newspapers related information about the plight of Jews in Germany, Jewish baseball fans found escapism in Greenberg, who posted a .301 batting average and with 12 home runs in only 117 of the team’s 154 games showed he had the makings of a star.
For Jews under Hitler’s domain, though, the nightmare was just beginning.
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