Photo Credit: Irwin Cohen
With the retirement of Lou Gehrig in 1939, Hank Greenberg (right) became the American League’s All-Star first baseman.


Seventy-five years ago.


The memory of Kristallnacht was still fresh in the minds of Jews around the world. On November 9 and 10, 1938, Jews across Germany and Austria were arrested, beaten, and killed while hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed.

Terror-stricken Jews were soon hit by an “Atonement Payment” tax. The 25 percent penalty levied by Germany against Jewish-registered assets and property was, according to the Nazis, retribution for sins committed against the country.

Unemployment was rampant among Jews as many were forced out of jobs and others had their businesses destroyed. The harsh tax reduced many to poverty.

American Jews tried to keep abreast of the plight of their people on the other side of the ocean. But local Jewish newspapers carried news that was several days or even weeks old, and snippets of news on radio were limited.

Radio, though, was the prime form of entertainment at the time. Heroes and superheroes were plentiful, as were family-oriented variety shows. The latest songs – “Beer Barrel Polka,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Thanks for the Memories,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” Kate Smith’s “God Bless America,” and Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” – could be easily found by turning the dial.

Gertrude Berg received a million dollar, five-year contract to star as “Molly Goldberg” and write the episodes of the radio series. Over the course of 1939, Berg brought the plight of German Jewry to her American radio audience as the program portrayed relatives of the Goldbergs trying to escape the Nazis.

During 1939, anti-Semitic groups such as Fritz Kuhn’s German American Bund held rallies in New York and other major cities across the country.

In New York City, American Nazis often clashed with Jews armed with baseball bats. At one point the Bund demanded police protection. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a practicing Catholic who’d been born to a Jewish mother, granted the request – but provided a detail of Jewish and black policemen to see to the safety of the “brown-shirted fanatics,” as La Guardia referred to them.

At times, celebrities such as entertainer Milton Berle joined in the fray. In his autobiography Milton Berle, published in 1974, Berle recalled a Bund gathering of 300 to 400 people interrupted by his vastly outnumbered group.

“I had gotten hit across my right eyebrow with what felt like a hunk of lead pipe,” wrote Berle, who’d armed himself with a baseball bat. “Blood was…running into my eye. The guys I was with stopped at a drugstore downtown and the druggist stopped the bleeding and fixed me with a hunk of gauze and a fat strip of tape.”

The Nazis had already annexed Austria and in March 1939 took over Czechoslovakia. Nazi domination meant the Jews of those areas were subject to the same persecution as German Jews. Jews were forced out of jobs and had to register their assets, while many were dragged off to concentration camps and others lived in apprehension of future decrees.

On May 13, 1939, 937 passengers, mostly Jewish refugees who believed they had bought visas to disembark in Cuba, sailed from Hamburg, Germany. Their time on the ocean liner S.S. St. Louis would become known as the “Voyage of the Damned.”

The ship anchored for days as Cuba denied entry and desperate pleas to the U.S., Canada, and other countries to accept the passengers were rebuffed. The ship was forced to return to Europe.

* * * * *

As the Jews of Europe were looking for ways to survive, so was Lou Gehrig. The big Yankees first baseman who had a career batting average of .340 with 493 home runs (503 if you count World Series homers), had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It would become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

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Author, columnist, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed many legends of the game before accepting a front office position with the Detroit Tigers where he became the first orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring (1984).