Eighty years ago, in 1939, American Jews were still absorbing the terrible news of the previous November’s catastrophe on the other side of the ocean. Throngs of Nazis had rampaged through cities and towns in Germany and Vienna, Austria, burning synagogues, Jewish establishments, and private homes during a night of violence that became known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
While Jews in Europe didn’t know which way to turn, American Jews found entertainment by turning the radio dial. Heroes and superheroes were plentiful, as were family-oriented variety programs. Popular songs of the day included “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Thanks for the Memories,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” Kate Smith’s rendition of “G-d Bless America,” and Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.”
There was no shortage of quiz shows, either. “Information Please,” a 30-minute program, aired on Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. and featured all types of celebrities. One in particular, Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg (the subject of a fantastic documentary playing around the country now), wowed the nation with his repertoire of knowledge. After his appearance, the show received thousands of pieces of mail requesting more Moe. At the time, no one, not even Moe, had a hint of his undercover future fighting the Nazis and Japanese.
That same year, Lou Gehrig, a fellow player who earned Moe Berg’s admiration, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the disease that would come to bear his name. On July 4, 1939, Gehrig gave his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” farewell speech at an emotionally packed Yankee Stadium.
Less than two weeks later, the Jewish community of Philadelphia staged “Morrie Arnovich Day.” Among the 13,000 in attendance was Morrie Arnovich’s father, Charles, who traveled from Superior, Wisconsin, to see his son honored. Between games, Morrie was presented with a complete fishing outfit and gear.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and two days later, England and France declared war on Germany. Poland surrendered to Germany on September 28 when the Nazis entered Warsaw.
Days later, Moe Berg announced his retirement as a player. He would continue to work for the Boston Red Sox as a coach and would establish a close relationship with rookie Ted Williams.
After being honored in July, Morrie Arnovich still hit well but didn’t lead the league, and the Phillies’ outfielder ended the season with a fine .324 batting average.
The most popular Jewish ballplayer at the time was Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg. Greenberg, who had hit 58 home runs the previous season, slipped a bit but still posted all-star numbers in 1939, with 33 homers and a .312 batting average.
As Jewish ballplayers packed their bats, the Nazis in Poland practiced their favorite sport. Jewish males were forced to the town square, where German soldiers would separate them into two columns. The Jews would be forced to run the gauntlet while the Nazi soldiers would use their rifles as baseball bats. The object of the sadistic Nazi game was to hit as many Jews as possible.
1939 was only the beginning of the tyranny for the Jews in Poland.