A few years ago I was working on the second story of a rowhouse in the Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood, east of York Road, when a coworker shouted over the din of a reciprocating saw to come see what she had found written behind the wall. This house had been vacant for many years—decades, maybe—and it was only a shell the day we were running around inside it, hopping over holes in the floor and keeping our eyes on the groaning roof above. The last bits of lath and framed wall had just been removed from one section of what had once been a bedroom, exposing a large patch of plaster stuck to the bricks. There on the plaster was a Nazi swastika drawn in black pigment, dated the year 1940 and signed with a name I can't remember except that it was German-sounding, like mine. We covered it up with a coat of mortar, a coat of latex paint, a new wall with Sheetrock, a coat of primer, and then two coats of interior matte white paint.
We know very well the type of person who would draw a swastika today; someone in your area code may be doing the equivalent and much worse on the Internet right now. Who would do it in Baltimore on the eve of World War II, though? Someone, a German-American like me, who spent the past 7 years watching events overseas with the feeling that things might be going their way for a change, who felt like they belonged, finally, to a winning team.
This month is a good time to revisit the 1930s in Baltimore, years of incredible volatility, uncertainty, passion, and optimism in politics. Imagine every vacant rowhome you've ever seen here but with a light on and a family inside: That was the size of the city in the 1930s. Among large numbers of people, faith in liberal democracy and market capitalism to solve the problems of the day was evaporating by the hour. Thousands of Baltimoreans identified themselves with constituencies of race, class, and nationality that extended far beyond the boundaries of their neighborhoods; their connection to the country of their parents' birth, say, or their feelings of kinship with people they had never met in Russia or Ethiopia, deeply colored the American lives they led here. Nearly all the immigrants in Baltimore were from Europe—the various tribes of white America—and while they benefited from the city's Jim Crow regime that oppressed 145,000 of their black neighbors, they also challenged the boundaries of what it meant to be an American in complex ways. This became truest of all in the 1930s for German-Americans, forced by events in Europe to choose carefully where each of their two identities ended. But the choice was given to them.
The accounts that follow—assembled from archival materials—are just a handful of days from that decade in Baltimore, barely within living memory, and the names mentioned are only a few of the ones that were written down. We live in the same city as these people, walk their same streets, and sleep in their same houses. At this moment we might find it useful to strip back the paint and plaster left on top of them and look at what they did in their time.
In a sense, German-Americans were the original model minority. (Baltimore Sun)
March 23, 1933
With most civil liberties already suspended in Germany, today its parliament approves the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) to legalize Adolf Hitler's dictatorship over the country and confirm the fears of conscientious people the world over who hoped it would all just go away.
The same day in Baltimore, the local branch of the American Jewish Congress calls for a meeting with representatives of various Jewish groups in the city “to determine a joint course of action,” while a coalition of Protestants and Catholics gathers to “make plans for a citywide protest meeting of Christians” against German anti-Semitism.
And the Socialist Party, under the leadership of Elisabeth Gilman—of the Hopkins Gilmans, who three years earlier became the first woman to run for governor in Maryland (4,178 votes)—resolves to launch a “movement of protest” against the regime that “has abolished democracy, suppressed all radical and liberal thought, and reverted to mediaeval savagery in its persecution of the Jews.”
Rabbi Edward L. Israel of Bolton Street Temple (Baltimore Sun)
At the end of the month, 5,000 people join a rally at the still segregated Lyric Opera House: Jews and Christians and Germans and even a few U.S. Senators voice their outrage against Nazism. Led by rabbis of extraordinary energy and commitment to social justice, like Morris Lazaron of Madison Avenue Temple and Edward L. Israel of Bolton Street Temple, the city is abuzz for the rest of the year with efforts to raise money and awareness in support of German Jews. The gentile-led German Society of Maryland, one of the oldest immigrant-aid groups in the country, sends a cablegram to Hitler himself urging the Führer “to exercise toward the German Jews a spirit of justice, humanity and mercy”—a gesture that “will long be remembered by the Jewish community here,” says the head of the American Jewish Congress, “and will serve to strengthen the sentiments of mutual respect and good will between our respective groups.”
By the 1930s, the Germans had made the city their own. (Baltimore Sun)
No swastika flags are flown at this year's massive German Day festival in September, and for the first time in its 31-year history no diplomats from the Fatherland show up—worried, probably, that they'll be met with protests.
It's a dark year for the world, no doubt, but in Baltimore an unusual spirit of collaboration and resolve seems to take hold across political, religious, and ethnic lines in response to the ascension of Hitler. There's profound worry, but also confidence that cooler heads are going to prevail.
At an April meeting in Reservoir Hill, Leon Rubenstein, a Jewish lawyer in the city, argues that America must “raise the bars of immigration for those whose oppression in other lands has become unbearable.” At the same time, he says, the threat posed to the Jews by Hitler, while dire, will eventually be brought under control “by the inherent stability and deep consciousness of the German nation.”
“The center of German-American life as a whole in Baltimore”: Fritz Evers of Zion Church (Baltimore Sun)
Jan. 10, 1934
According to some accounts, the executioner is dressed in white gloves and a top hat this evening in Leipzig as the Nazis sent 24-year-old Rinus van der Lubbe to the guillotine for (maybe) setting the German parliament building on fire 11 months earlier.
This has nothing to do with Baltimore except that the Reverend Fritz Evers of Zion Church would have heard about it while he was visiting Germany that month. (In 2017, Zion Church is still located next to the Real News Network and City Hall, still puts on a fantastic Sour Beef dinner every year, and still offers a Sunday service in German every week.) When Pastor Evers returns to Baltimore in February, he speaks to reporters eager to hear from the figurehead of the most prominent Lutheran congregation in the city and institutional cornerstone of the German community at large.
“Hitler has given Germany a sense of security it had not known and there is gratitude everywhere,” Evers tells them. Besides the van der Lubbe execution, his visit to Germany coincided with the enforcement of new sterilization laws and the mass defection of Lutheran pastors across the country from the authority of Ludwig Müller, the state-appointed Reichsbischof. Müller's nazification of Christianity was causing a minor schism that would end up sending many German clergymen to concentration camps (including Martin Niemöller, author of the famous poem that begins: “First they came for the communists/And I did not speak out...”)
In Pastor Evers' estimation, the Führer is also “a fanatic and obsessed.”
Born in Berlin, Fritz Evers trained at the seminary at Kropp in Schlesweig, famous in the Lutheran world for producing pastors to send to North America. In the years before World War I, he had ministered to German immigrants at Ellis Island in the last hours of their umlauts. The pastorate of Baltimore had belonged to his late predecessor for nearly 40 years when he arrived here in 1928, but his flock took quickly to the refinement and natural authority he emanated as a representative of the Mother Church. “The pastor is a gentle, kindly man with a sweep of long gray hair that distinguishes him in the midst of any company,” wrote the German emigre historian Dieter Cunz. “Alone in his Sakristei, in a velvet housecoat, a long cigar in his fingers, he is definitely a part of Zion Church.” His visit to Germany in 1934 was his first vacation in 20 years. “From the day of his arrival in Baltimore,” according to Cunz, “he became not only the pastor of Zion Church but also the center of German-American life as a whole in Baltimore.”
In the mid-'30s, German-American lives were being lived in Baltimore by the tens of thousands: 13,000 fresh off the boat, like Evers, another 53,000 second-generation and loads more third-generation who had grown up in some version of Kleindeutschland on the Patapsco, like one Henry Louis Mencken (more than a lapsed Lutheran, to be sure), who wrote and believed: “My grandfather made a mistake when he moved to America, and I have always lived in the wrong country.”
The Germans had been building Zion in Baltimore for generations. They were established in all types of industry across the city, from shipping and watch-making to baking Berger Cookies and brewing beer. They enjoyed a varied and only semi-assimilated cultural life centered around places like the Lehmann Hall on Howard Street, which hosted singing societies like the Junger Männerchor and the Deutscher Theater-Verein. The annual German Day at Gwynn Oak Park drew crowds of more than 15,000 as a matter of course. Newspapers like the Deutsche Correspondent and the Bayerisches Wochenblatt lived on the kitchen tables of rowhomes across the city, and there were entire German soccer teams and gymnastics squads and even a German orphanage (for children “without regard to creed, of German ancestry”).
An unhinged, rabid patriotism ruled the day: Baltimore during World War I (Baltimore Sun)
The Germans had made the city their own, and with the notable exception of the mob that trashed the offices of a German abolitionist newspaper as part of the first bloodshed of the Civil War, the city's WASP oligarchs and nativist crackers tended to give them the benefit of the doubt. That changed with America's entry into the First World War in 1917, of course, along with sauerkraut (renamed liberty cabbage), hamburgers (liberty sandwiches) and German Street downtown (renamed Redwood Street after the first officer from Baltimore killed in the war). An unhinged, rabid patriotism ruled the day. But German-Americans' humiliation was short-lived, like a time-out compared to what Japanese-Americans would endure later on. And anyway, by the mid-' 30s they had earned their keep twice over in the minds of many by producing Babe Ruth from Ridgely's Delight.
It had become routine on German Day in Baltimore for local politicians to address the crowd like they were working for tips, flattering the Germans' work ethic, prudence, and civic-mindedness to excess. “Of all the people in Maryland, none is more law-abiding than the German,” State's Attorney Herbert O'Conor told them 1933. “No group ever gave more generously of its talent and energy.” President Hoover sent a telegram that year declaring that their contributions “to the educational, cultural, spiritual and civic life of the United States are so large in number and so valuable in effect as to have earned the gratitude of the nation.” Politicians appealed directly to the Baltimore Germans' own sense of their Germanness, holding a mirror up to them that cast their reflection in redder, whiter, and bluer tones than any other group. They did this in large part because the Germans made up a sizable voting bloc. Any politician seeking a lift in support during the years of Prohibition, for example, needed only to locate a hall full of beer-parched Baltimore Germans and say the magic word: repeal.
In a sense, German-Americans were the original model minority. Whether they arrived in 1720 or 1920, Germans achieved safety and prosperity in America with relative ease compared to other groups, because theirs was always a shorter distance to cross racially and religiously. Decade after decade the Germans kept coming to Maryland—this author's family among them—and they kept finding a country that had room for them with very few questions asked. Even as late as the mid-1930s, a provision remained on the books mandating the translation and publication of all state laws and Baltimore City ordinances in at least one German-language newspaper—an unbelievable measure of bilingual accommodation. To the Anglo-Saxon establishment, largely blind to the plight of black and brown people, the Germans' middle class success and loyalty could be taken as the supreme validation of the American experiment, especially after World War I. That “liberty sandwich” business? Just part of keeping a clean house.
“Even the discrimination by the Nazi[s] against the Jews, while deplored by all the German people, is considered by them to have been an economic necessity,” Fritz Evers explains to reporters when he gets back from Germany in February 1934. “I could not find anyone who believed that there had been actual cruelties practiced.”
“In effect,” he continues, “the discrimination has been somewhat the same as the German-American knew fifteen or sixteen years ago in the United States.”
The Ku Klux Klan march along Roland Avenue, 1925. (Baltimore Sun)
Jan. 17, 1934
Three hundred people gather at the recreation center in Hampden's Roosevelt Park to hear the chairman of the American League Against War and Fascism speak on the prospects for a regime like Hitler's to take over in the United States.
“Although there is no immediate danger, a sudden change for the worse could be brought about by inflation or any other deepening of the economic crisis,” he says. “The effects of inflation on the lower middle classes and wage workers is that it makes them potential fascist material.”
If the crowd doesn't know it, they are only blocks away from the main spawning ground of the Hampden Ku Klux Klan, around where Rocket to Venus and Café Cito are today. Membership in the Klan is a shadow of what it had been in the 1920s (when in Hampden alone, by one estimate, there may have been upward of 800 vassals of the Invisible Empire), but the last lynching ever carried out in the state of Maryland had happened only three months earlier on the Eastern Shore. The man's name was George Armwood, and how many of those 300 at Roosevelt Park know his name?
The Harlem Renaissance poet Esther Popel Shaw writes a poem about Armwood, staggering the details of his killing with lines from the Pledge of Allegiance:
“With Liberty—and Justice”—
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
April 27, 1934
Forty of the 1,400 girls at Western High School sign a letter to their principal in protest of a talk given at the school two weeks earlier by the Rev. Fritz Evers on the subject of Germany.
“In the face of the established fact that Hitler finds increasingly more brutal measures necessary to suppress the opposition which is rising against him in Germany,” the girls write, “the Rev. Evers made the statement that the Germans were happy and satisfied. . . . In spite of the mountains of authoritative data proving that the Hitler government is one of the most backward and barbaric in history, the Rev. Evers spoke approvingly of some of its work, and tacitly approved the rest by failing to attack it.”
The principal is dumbfounded by the petition, admitting he couldn't find “anything that could be called offensive” in the pastor's speech.
Asked for comment, Evers says that he meant no offense and that the girls must be “supersensitive.”
June 25, 1934
Three hundred members of the Finnish Federation of Baltimore meet at their clubhouse in Highlandtown to write letters of protest: one to Hitler and one to Dr. Hans Luther, the German ambassador to the United States. Their demand? Immediate release of all political prisoners in Germany.
Elisabeth Gilman stumping for governor on the Socialist ticket, 1930. (Baltimore Sun)
Oct. 7, 1934
Time to celebrate! It's the 300th anniversary of the founding of Maryland and that means a grand pageant in Baltimore the likes of which we've never seen: a cast of thousands in costumes, dancing, singing, a whole program of praise for the Free State and its history of toleration.
After receiving a thoughtful and angry letter from Elisabeth Gilman, the organizer of the pageant asks the delegation from Germany to please not bring the Nazi flag with them during their part of the parade. The Germans refuse, so offended they instead withdraw themselves from the pageant altogether and beget a small shitshorm of public relations.
Asked for comment, the Reverend Fritz Evers of Zion Church decries the unfairness of singling out the Germans over their flag as a grave slight to German Marylanders. Taking out the swastika, he says, would be like “severing the stripes from the stars in the flag of the United States.”
“A year ago, not a German in Baltimore was for Hitler,” he continues, “but on account of the Jewish propaganda against him, nearly all of them now are for Hitler. But I hold no brief for Hitler, don't misunderstand me there.”
Jan. 22, 1935
The German Society of Maryland hosts an address on the subject of Germany by the Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Dr. William F. Notz. The mayor is present and so is Fritz Evers, who gives a brief address in German.
“In spite of the wrongs accompanying Hitler's movement,” says Dr. Notz, “he will stand out as a great man to whom future generations of Germans will pay tribute.”
On the question of Hitler's treatment of the Jews, Dr. Notz, who is an economist by trade, relates an anecdote from his own meeting with the Führer two years earlier in Germany. “If your country,” Hitler told him, “was flooded with Japanese, fomenting strikes and plotting against the government, what would the citizens of your country do?”
According to its website, Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service still awards a William F. Notz Medal every year to the student “whose academic attainment in the field of International Economics has been judged outstanding.”
May 18, 1935
Back at the Lehmann Hall on Howard Street, some 250 members of the Baltimore chapter of the Friends of New Germany hold a flag-dedicating ceremony with five American flags, five of the old imperial German flags, and five big red swastika flags. Men onstage are “dressed in uniforms approximating those of the Nazi Storm Troopers—boots, dark riding breeches and shirts with the swastika brassard [armband] upon the sleeve.”
After a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the leader of the group shouts “Heil Roosevelt!” And so everyone Heil's Roosevelt.
Then, a lot louder, comes “Heil Hitler.” Two hundred and fifty voices at once.
One attendee, writing to the editor of The Sun, takes exception to the event's coverage in the paper as a Nazi rally. Has anyone else noticed, he writes, that “it seems to be common practice to call every German-American who dares to have left a spark of feeling and love for his old Fatherland a Nazi, it, of course, making good copy.”
Aug. 3, 1935
The anti-German sentiment that gave us liberty sandwiches two decades ago begins to creep back into public discourse in Baltimore. The silence of German gentiles on the issue of Hitler and the Nazis directs suspicion and anxiety back their way. This month, the letters to the editor in The Sun really blows up:
“Throughout the length and breadth of this glorious country, German patriotic organizations, most of them under the guise of shooting, gymnastic and choral societies, are taking their orders from Berlin,” writes one W.H. Pendergast. “In the opinion of many Americans such societies are one hundred per cent more of a menace to our peace and safety than all the Communists. What is our government going to do about it?”
And from someone named N. Stahler: “If they [German-Americans] continue to form such societies as the Friends of New Germany, they must be regarded as blind, fanatical patriots who care neither for their own welfare nor for the welfare of workingmen of any nation and are pawns in the hands of the class to which the furtherance of such ideas is of great importance.”
And George E. Lofthouse of Cockeysville: “All persons, regardless of race, creed or nationality . . . are watching and waiting for some word and an overt act from the Germans in this country by which they will openly disclaim any sympathy with the civilization-destroying propaganda adopted by Herr Hitler and his henchmen.”
German-Americans themselves are giving evidence for conspiratorial thinking with stories of indoctrination. “My experience after I came to this country from Germany was that I was immediately made a member of a national German society,” writes Henry Luther Strohmeyer. He later resigned from “all societies that taught obedience to Berlin and which demanded that Germans be ever ready to take up arms, even against this country,” suggesting that societies like that really did exist in Baltimore in the past, and so why not now?
How many have already been radicalized? How do we tell them apart from the good ones?
Oct. 12, 1935
The very same day that jazz music is outlawed in Nazi Germany for being too black (and Jewish), the white station managers of WCAO in Baltimore refuse to air an NAACP-sponsored radio drama written by the local journalist Ralph Matthews.
The program tells the story of Ossian Sweet, a black physician in Detroit who 10 years earlier had been charged with murder after a gun fired from inside his house killed a white man standing outside, where a violent mob had gathered to protest his family's move into a white neighborhood. In a case celebrated in civil rights circles, Sweet was acquitted in 1926. The station managers of WCAO are afraid that the local Klan, their sympathizers, and even respectable white folks are going to flood their station with complaints, or worse, if it gets played.
A few days later, a fundraiser and live performance of the play is held at Bethel AME Church; in one night, the NAACP raises the equivalent of $17,000 in today's money.
Jan. 18, 1936
Before it was a FedEx Office, the Hansa House—that German-ass-looking building at the corner of N. Charles and Redwood streets—was headquarters of the North German Lloyd Shipping Company that ran freight and passengers to Germany beginning in the 19th century. During the First World War, the head of that company also helped run an espionage ring out of the Hansa House responsible for an act of pro-German sabotage that killed several people and damaged the Statue of Liberty (but that's another story).
By January of 1936, the Hansa House is being used as the consulate of the German government. And if you walk by it on the 18th, like you would in 2017 if you were going to make copies, your eyes will rise to take in a big swastika flag waving in the breeze over the sidewalk.
April 22, 1936
Baltimore's largest anti-Nazi demonstration happens today on Thames Street just west of Broadway. Two thousand people are gathered to protest the arrival of the Emden, a German cruiser docked at the foot of Fells Point that is visiting Baltimore on a baldfaced propaganda mission to sow good feeling toward the Nazi regime. “Bring your sticks with you,” three hundred Baltimore Police were told the day before, most of them now at the protest but others keeping an eye on German spots around town for troublemakers.
“Bring your sticks with you”: Baltimore police at the Emden protest (Baltimore Sun)
The previous summer in New York City, a diplomatic crisis began after a few good men carrying the spirit of Bree Newsome climbed the mast of a similar ship, the Bremen, and threw its red swastika flag into the Hudson before anyone could stop them.
The Emden protest, Thames Street (Baltimore Sun)
During their stay in Baltimore, the crew of the Emden are treated with extraordinary hospitality from city leaders and from the German-American community here. Besides an official welcome from the mayor, thousands of Baltimoreans come to Fells Point over several days to see the blue-eyed boys of the Kriegsmarine and tour the ship. “Girls crowded among the sailors getting autographs and giggling over language difficulties,” the Sun reports, “while older visitors, most of them speaking German, chatted with the crew and took many of them in tow for entertainments ashore.”
The Emden docked in Fells Point. (Baltimore Sun)
In the evenings, the sailors are the toast of German Baltimore, the guests of honor at receptions and balls at the Vorwaerts Hall on West Lexington Street, the Germania Club, and the Lehmann Hall. During the day little groups split off to tour the city: They take in an Orioles game, field a soccer team to scrimmage against some locals, attend German-American gymnastics shows and singing recitals and luncheons and the cornerstone-laying of the German Aged People's Home in Irvington. In Annapolis, the ship's captain shakes hands with the governor and sailors walk the grounds of the Naval Academy, surrounded by Mids who a few years later might do their best to drown them. On Sunday some of them go to Zion Church for Fritz Evers' service in German.
Opposition to the Emden had been mobilized from the jump: The mayor was inundated with pleas to refuse an official welcome, but he insisted that anything less would be impolite. Rabbi Edward L. Israel probably got to closer point when he postulated that the mayor's decision boiled down to “a question of figuring out by which action one would gain or lose more votes.”
Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the year of the Emden's visit (Baltimore Sun)
Forty thousand leaflets were prepared in advance of the rally on April 22, and that was before Twitter or a FedEx Office downtown. The organizers come from a wide coalition of anti-fascist and civil rights groups, churches, and labor unions; 28-year-old Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP is one of them, so is the head of the Urban League, Edward S. Lewis, and the MICA-trained painter Mervin Jules. And so is Angela Bambace, organizer of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Baltimore, a lifelong champion of working people and civil rights.
Brazilian-born, New York-raised union organizer Angela Bambace, shown at her desk in Baltimore, 1968. (Baltimore Sun)
Police arrest only one person during the protest: a German-American from Clifton Avenue named Joseph Muller, brought in for disorderly conduct as the police advance on the crowd to keep the anti-Nazis far away from the ship.
Signs that day read:
We're with the German People—Against Hitler
Don't Let It Happen Here
Congratulations on Destroying Democracy
Congratulations on Murdering Labor Leaders
Congratulations on Persecuting Minorities
Congratulations on Burning the Books
When the ship leaves 10 days later for Montreal and then Spain, the captain issues a statement of thanks to the city:
“We leave Baltimore with the sincere wish that our German-American friends and all the people of Baltimore may look forward to a happy future.”
The Hindenburg as seen from Redwood Street, named German Street before World War I (Baltimore Sun)
Aug. 8, 1936
It's a Saturday afternoon and Baltimoreans are shopping, laying bricks, picking crabs, sitting on their stoops, and looking for change in the street. At Oriole Park on Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street, the Baltimore Police Department's baseball team is warming up for a game against a squad of visiting cops from DC. Officer Koenig in left field, Hammen on first base, Graff on second, Schroll in right field, Swingler in center field, and Runge, Nuth, and Huff sharing the mound. And then—up in the air!—one of the strangest 15 minutes to ever pass in Baltimore begins as an 803-foot long, hydrogen-filled silver balloon called the Hindenburg appears low and slow over downtown, the gigantic Nazi swastikas on its tail higher than any Calvert-Baltimore family heraldry or star-spangled banner.
“Coming into view about 2:30 P.M.,” the Sun reports, “the Nazi Zeppelin swung twice around the city, straightened out after the second circle and pointed her nose toward Philadelphia.” After 15 minutes it was gone. In photographs from that day, the Hindenburg looks unreal, pasted-in, a UFO above Key Highway and then Charles Street, about to crash into the Bromo Seltzer Tower like a bullet incoming from the shiny Aryan future.
That same Saturday, Jesse Owens' right arm is cramping from signing too many autographs at the Olympics in Berlin. In Spain, “advisors” sent from the Wehrmacht are busy teaching their fascist counterparts in General Franco's army how to blitzkrieg.
Completed in March of 1936, the Hindenburg is a commercial liner and one of the Third Reich's greatest public relations tools. It made headlines in Baltimore wherever it went that spring and summer; Carl G. Hilgenberg, owner of the Carr-Lowrey Glass Company in Cherry Hill and resident of Guilford, had taken it across the Atlantic with his family over the Fourth of July weekend. Included among its 50 or so passengers on Aug. 8 are Douglas Fairbanks, famous for playing Robin Hood in the movies, and the German boxer Max Schmeling, who had knocked out Joe Louis that June in a match cast as a proxy race war, a match that Langston Hughes remembered made grown men weep on Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Baltimore Police had spent the night of Schmeling's win responding to reports of street fights and general “disorder” across the city. In German neighborhoods, they rang bells and car horns and fired pistols into the morning, while “the Negro sections were comparatively quiet.”
Also that Saturday the 8th, the World Jewish Congress convenes in Geneva, Switzerland, “to consider the problems of Jewry.”
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of New York, who had spoken in Baltimore many times, tells the assembly:
“If Hitlerism had been faced by the world when it was little more than an anti-Semitic election expedient, it is doubtful whether the entire civilized world would be called upon as today to face the ever-growing peril of the increasing barbaric power of Nazi Germany.”
He adds: “We need offer no explanation to the world of our reasons for meeting here. The world does not ask or have the right to ask.”
Sept. 22, 1936
At their home inside 2102 Maryland Ave., a few doors down from iBar, the parents of Dr. Randall Sollenberger open a letter from their son postmarked Spain. Randall is a graduate not just of the Boys' Latin School of Maryland but also of West Point and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Scotland, with a year at Johns Hopkins and another at the University of Vienna for good measure. Enclosed, Mr. and Mrs. Sollenberger find a photograph from a Barcelona newspaper that shows Randall with his Red Cross unit preparing to head to the front. “The workers of Spain are almost unarmed,” he writes them, “but we will win.”
The doctor whose parents lived on Maryland Avenue was one of several Baltimoreans who volunteered to help the Spanish Republic in its war against General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies, who went on to victory in 1939. “Out of sight, out of mind” was the official U.S. policy on the war, but Dr. Sollenberger went anyway. He may never have met Nicholas Doggendorf, who lived on Decatur Street in Locust Point; Wesley Howard, a Kentuckian from Beauford Avenue near Pimlico; Leopold Rivera, a Puerto Rican who lived on Spring Street north of Lombard; Bernard Ades, a Jewish lawyer whose defense of an accused murderer on the Eastern Shore secured important legal precedents for black defendants in America; or Charles Oliver Ross, who worked at Bethlehem Steel and was one of about 90 African-Americans who took up arms in Spain under the banner of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Baltimoreans who read the Afro-American would have learned about the war from its correspondent Langston Hughes. Later, Hughes writes a poem in the voice of a black volunteer whose unit captures a wounded North African soldier conscripted against his will to fight for the fascist side:
As he lay there dying
In a village we had taken,
I looked across to Africa
And see'd foundations shakin'.
Cause if a free Spain wins this war,
The colonies, too, are free —
Then something wonderful'll happen
To them Moors as dark as me.
Dedicating the Luther Statue in Druid Hill Park. (Baltimore Sun)
Oct. 31, 1936
Local sculptor Hans Schuler and 7,999 others are in Druid Hill Park for the unveiling of a new statue of Martin Luther. (As of 2017, it stands across 33rd Street from Lake Montebello.) The mayor gives a short speech and Fritz Evers makes “a brief address in German.” Also present is a distant relative of the real Martin Luther, Dr. Hans Luther, Adolf Hitler's ambassador to the United States.
Money for the statue had been put up by Arthur Wallenhorst, a prominent German-American jeweler who three years earlier went to Germany and wrote back home with glowing reviews. Hitler “seems to be bringing the German people out of all their trouble,” he beamed. “The Jews in America would do better to keep their money in America, as they all seem to be doing fine here. … I can see improvements everywhere; the German people say they now have something to look forward to; they seem more contented than they have for many years; they are all happy, with smiling faces. … Hitler's idea is a good one; business is improving everywhere.”
Fritz Evers standing before an image of Martin Luther, whose 1543 treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies” was reprinted and widely circulated by Nazis (Baltimore Sun)
Just one year before the Luther statue, a monument to Italian-Americans' hero, Christopher Columbus, had been dedicated in Druid Hill Park with similar fanfare. Baltimore's Italian community is grappling with fascism, too; in 1928, for example, the Italian consul opened a school on Stiles Street in Little Italy to train local boys in the Balilla movement, Benito Mussolini's equivalent of the Hitler Youth. The day of the Columbus statue's dedication in Druid Hill Park —Columbus Day, 1935—was celebrated in New York City with actual street violence between anti-fascists and supporters of Mussolini. But in Baltimore in 1935 and 1936, city leaders know how to sooth a group of people whose loyalties seem just a little up in the air: Let 'em have a statue. It works around here—a little more than a decade later, the Lee-Jackson Monument would go up in Wyman Park.
Nov. 27, 1936
If you take a ruler and draw a straight line from Baltimore across the Atlantic Ocean, you reach a city called Alicante on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. It's a Friday afternoon and the people of Alicante are shopping, laying bricks, eating paella, sitting on their terraces, and looking for pesetas in the street when they notice a German sailor wandering around their city holding a camera. He's come ashore from the Emden, one of those same blue-eyed boys who wined and dined at the Lehmann Hall last May.
The next night, a correspondent reports, “planes coming from the sea started to fly over Alicante, dropping bombs with remarkable accuracy. Obviously they knew the exact positions of oil and gasoline depots….”
May 6, 1937
“OH, THE HUMANITY!” cries the radio announcer as the Hindenburg bursts into flames above the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It's a miracle that there are survivors at all, and a smaller miracle that it doesn't happen above Glen Burnie: Reps from the German Zeppelin Transport Company had been talking to the mayor of Baltimore and local officials about making the Hindenburg's new docking spot somewhere around Marley Creek. “Listen, folks,” says the announcer. “I—I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.”
July 26, 1937
Deciding to ignore the Red Cross emblems, a sniper for the fascist side of the Spanish Civil War ends Dr. Randall Sollenberger's life today as he tends to a wounded man along the road between Villanueva and Quijorna. And so, no more letters come to 2102 Maryland Avenue.
Charles Scarpello, who lived near what is today the Smile Carryout at the corner of Harford Road and Cliftview Avenue, arrives back from Spain in April, 1938 with a silver watch lifted from the corpse of one of General Franco's finest. As a sailor Scarpello goes on to survive the torpedoing of two different ships by the Nazis during World War II. He dies at home in Timonium in 1991, having lived long enough to hear the judgment of one former B-movie actor that the Americans who went to Spain on behalf of the anti-fascist cause had “fought on the wrong side.” President Reagan said that in 1985, so Charles Scarpello lived long enough to think about it, too.
Sept. 6, 1937
At an Andover, New Jersey rally of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, Baltimorean Donald Shea is in his element, whipping up the crowd in a cap that says “American Fascist.”
Shea is head of a Baltimore group called the National Gentile League that never amounts to anything, but the Bund has given him a big platform today. His call for Jewish businesses to be boycotted and Jews themselves to be deported from the United States gets massive cheers from the Jersey brownshirts. “The issue,” he tells them, “is Jewism versus gentilism, forced on us by a challenge of the Jews.”
Like at many of these rallies, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung. For the Bund, open goose-steppers, there is no contradiction in being a good American and a good fascist. “We stand fast for American principles, America for Americans,” says Fritz Kuhn, national leader of the Bund, who will later go to jail for subversion. “We are warring against the enemies of America.”
The swastika flies at German Day in Gwynn Oak Park, 1937. (Baltimore Sun)
Sept. 12, 1937
Swastika flags fly side by side with American ones at the biggest German Day yet recorded: 23,000 people at Gwynn Oak Park. Four years earlier the swastika was verboten, The Sun recalled, “but now it is tacitly accepted, being the official emblem of Germany.”
About one hundred in the crowd raise their arms in salute after singing the old Nazi anthem, the “Horst-Wessel-Lied.”
Raise the flag, stand rank on rank together
Storm troopers march with firm and valiant tread
Comrades gunned down by Red Front and reaction
March on in spirit, swelling our ranks
As always, the Attorney General of Maryland and the Baltimore State's Attorney talk like they're working the poles at Scores; both “spoke of the law-abiding character of the German people, remarking that they have had no part in the lawlessness which has afflicted this nation from time to time.”
The Duchess of Windsor in Timonium, 1941 (Baltimore Sun)
Oct. 22, 1937
Today the Duchess of Windsor, formerly Bessie Wallis Warfield of 212 E. Biddle St., becomes probably the last person from Baltimore to shake Adolf Hitler's hand. Simpson and her husband, who likes her so much he gave up being the King of England just to marry her, meet Hitler at his headquarters in Bavaria, exchange pleasantries, and have tea. Her husband likes Hitler so much he's photographed on more than one occasion Sieg Heil'ing (and this was before cell phone cameras, so who knows how many times he really did it).
As the couple leaves, rumor has it Hitler sighs to some bastard that our Bessie “would have made a great queen.”
Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis that June. (Baltimore Sun)
June 22, 1938
At long last, possibly the most anticipated sporting event in American history up to this point or since: the Joe Louis - Max Schmeling rematch at Yankee Stadium.
Louis breaks the shit out of Schmeling.
Puts him up in the hospital for 10 days.
That night, according to reports, Chicago's South Side becomes “a sea of smiling faces” while Seventh Avenue in Harlem is “a solid mass of celebrants from one end to the other.”
Maya Angelou hears the fight at her family's general store in Stamps, Arkansas, and later remembers: “People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas.”
In Baltimore, the German sections are comparatively quiet.
June 25, 1938
The Baltimore branch of the German-American League for Culture organizes itself tonight “to fight by all means the un-American activities of the German Nazi in the United States.”
Nov. 9, 1938
The “law-abiding character of the German people” is on full display tonight across Germany as mobs smash and burn Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues. Perhaps a hundred Jews are murdered outright and an unknown number raped; 30,000 are rounded-up for concentration camps.
Two weeks later in Baltimore, organizers move a performance of the German Boys' Choir at Peabody to Zion Church after “recent events in Germany” leave them “fearing a demonstration or some other manifestation of anti-Nazi sentiment.”
Aug. 18, 1939
Knew it! After German-American Bund leader Fritz Kuhn testifies before Congress that a secret chapter of the group meets in Baltimore, the anti-Nazi German-American League for Culture tells it on the mountain to anyone who will show up for a meeting (and there aren't many).
Word is, there are four Nazi-sympathizing groups in the city and one of them must be the secret Bund. Everyone asked is tight-lipped. Maybe it's the similarly-named Kamaradschaftsbund that meets at the Deutsches Haus on the corner of Cathedral and Preston. “What if the Bund does have a secret chapter here,” one of their lot says. “It doesn't do America any harm.”
The truth about the Bund in Baltimore never quite comes out, but anyone who claims to know anything about it gets to meet a real-live FBI agent a few years later.
Not a good time to visit Poland: Cecilia Mecinski (Baltimore Sun)
Sept. 1, 1939
War in Europe begins as the Nazis invade Poland. Cecilia Mecinski, of 1974 Bel Air Road, says a fast farewell to relatives and grabs the last train from Warsaw to Riga that's not blown apart by German bombs. She makes it home safe.
The English poet W.H. Auden, who gives a reading one year later inside the church at Read and Cathedral, takes the date as the title for a poem that includes these lines:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
April 7, 1940
Decked in swastikas, the Lehmann Hall hosts a crowd of 1,000 tonight to hear an address of the German consul, a flat-out propaganda speech delivered by the representative of a soon-to-be enemy nation in the heart of Baltimore. The Sun estimates half those present give the Nazi salute and shout “Sieg Heil” when called upon.
April 25, 1940
Evidently wanting to listen—wanting to be good allies, maybe—the German-American League for Culture invites local groups from the Scandinavian, Czechoslovak, and Polish communities to join them for a mass meeting to organize against Nazi sympathy in Baltimore.
“Only if the German-Americans show openly their love and loyalty for American democracy, only if the German-Americans are willing to work together with other minorities . . . will they succeed in counteracting the waves of hatred aroused against them because of Hitler's acts in Europe,” reads the meeting's announcement.
“If we German-Americans are not going to move in that direction, disavowing Hitler and all the evil he stands for, we will be acting as cowards without honor, and the American people, too, will justly charge us with having betrayed their hospitality.”
At the meeting three days later, the Scandinavians and Poles are nowhere to be found. Neither are the mayor and other expected guests of honor. One attendee says that several of the politicians invited had quietly told her “that they were afraid to take part in a German-sponsored meeting for fear of giving the impression they were pro-Nazi,” even though this is the main anti-Nazi German group in the city. One Danish group had already sent out a public notice making clear its members would have nothing to do with it.
For a meeting organized by Germans, hardly any of them show up either.
The camp at Fort Meade, Maryland where both POWs and “enemy aliens” were interned during World War II (Baltimore Sun)
Dec. 9, 1941
Early this morning, the FBI and Department of Immigration launch a roundup across the city that nets 71 foreign-born Baltimoreans, some of them sent to the City Jail for safe keeping and others to locations undisclosed for questioning. Most of those taken in are Italians and Germans, including a local travel agent and German-language radio host who allegedly agreed to an offer from the Reich to spread Nazi propaganda on Baltimore airwaves. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor two days earlier; yesterday America entered World War II.
The FBI also grabs Harry H. Sekine, manager of the I. Sekine Company's brush factory in Reservoir Hill. The factory employs 140 people, none of them Japanese save for him. For the 20 years Sekine has lived here, there have been no Japanese singing societies or baseball teams for him to join, no saké halls to frequent, no Japanese Days at Gwynn Oak Park, no conversation in his native language except at home on Wilkins Avenue. The FBI lets him go almost immediately but the factory isn't allowed to reopen until Christmas, when Sekine sees to it that his employees are paid back their lost wages in full. According to the company's lawyer, during the month of closure Sekine's workers “showed more concern for his fate than for their jobs.”
Harry Sekine lived with his wife, Cherry Blossom Sekine, until he died in Catonsville in 1975, too soon to see President Reagan sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that formally recognized the injustice of Japanese internment and began a program of reparations. And though he himself was spared the fate of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast during the war, that thought could never have been far from him as he lived out the rest of his life in Baltimore. Close, too, must have been the thought of what could have been if he had never left Japan in the first place. He must have wondered, now and again, what he had gotten himself into coming to a city like ours.
Next summer, the Reverend Fritz Evers will appear before a Federal Court in Hartford, Connecticut, after his name arises in the espionage-conspiracy case brought against his friend Kurt Molzahn, the pastor of Zion's sister church in Philadelphia. Molzahn had told an FBI informant that Evers was a good man to talk to if one wanted the ear of the German Embassy. Molzahn will spend three years in prison before his sentence is commuted by President Truman at the end of the war. Evers denies any wrongdoing and is never charged with a crime, but at the Sour Beef dinner at Zion Church last October, I didn't notice his portrait anywhere on the wall.