More than one writer of fiction has imagined what it would have been like if the Allies had lost World War II and the West had come under Nazi occupation. That’s why the title of Steven J. Ross’ new book, “Hitler in Los Angeles,” may strike some readers as something purely fanciful. But if the phrase conjures up a nightmare, it is one that actually happened.
Ross is a professor of history at USC and director of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. He has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize, once for “Working-Class Hollywood” and again for “Hollywood Left and Right.” His latest book already has created a buzz in the movie industry because he has written a history book that doubles as espionage thriller with a cast of characters that includes movie stars, studio moguls, entertainment lawyers, diplomats and pols, all of them quite real.
The real hero of “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America” (Bloomsbury), however, is a man who has been wholly overlooked by historians until now. A Jewish attorney named Leon Lewis took it upon himself to organize a campaign of espionage against the Nazi activists who demonstrated openly — and plotted secretly — against the Jewish community of Southern California during the 1930s.
“Los Angeles seemed the perfect place to establish a beachhead for the Nazi assault on the United States,” Ross explains. “Nazi plans to conquer an industry, a city and a nation were not idle fantasies. But what Hitler, Goebbels, and their American disciples did not know was that Los Angeles also served as the epicenter of Jewish efforts to spy on Nazis and thwart their plans.”
The Nazis themselves knew and feared Leon Lewis, dubbing him “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles” and “the ring-leader of all Jews here.”
What makes “Hitler in Los Angeles” so remarkable is the fact that Ross found his way to a story that has been overlooked by other scholars. Historians, like prospectors, aspire to find some glimmer of gold in the dross that constitutes their raw material. Ross has struck the mother lode, and he reveals a tale that expands and enriches our understanding of how Jews responded to the first stirrings of Nazi aggression in the early 1930s.
The plotters dubbed themselves with names that sound silly nowadays — the Silver Shirts, the California Homesteaders, the American White Guardsmen and the National Legion of Mothers of America — but the plans they made were in deadly earnest. They proposed to kidnap and hang 20 influential Jews, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. They wanted to use cyanide to fumigate the homes where Jewish families lived, and to take shotguns to Boyle Heights, then a Jewish neighborhood, in a coordinated drive-by shooting.
To oppose such enemies, Lewis was not content with boycotts, rallies and demonstrations. He worked in military intelligence during World War I, and now he put his skills to use in organizing an undercover operation against the “Hitler cells” in Southern California. Operating out of his small law office in the Roosevelt Building at Seventh and Flower streets, and assisted by his deputy, a newspaper reporter named Joseph Roos, Lewis recruited non-Jewish war veterans to join “every local Nazi and fascist group and report back on their activities.” The Silver Shirts, for example, “had maps of Los Angeles showing all the houses in which Jews lived,” a fact that made even their most far-fetched schemes seem all the more credible.
Ross, by the way, displays an impressive map as the frontispiece of his book. He pinpoints the key locations in the underground campaign that was conducted by Lewis and Roos. Thus we can see for ourselves that Wilshire Boulevard Temple was flanked within a few blocks by the meeting hall of the Silver Shirts and the headquarters of America First, and the office where Lewis ran his espionage operation was literally encircled by Nazi venues, including the German consulate, the KKK meeting hall, the American Nationalist Party headquarters, and facilities used by the American Warriors, the American White Guardsmen and the California Homesteaders.
To rally support, Lewis turned to the industry where Jews had enjoyed the greatest success — the movie business. The moguls were accustomed to being asked for gifts by Jewish charities, but now they were called upon to support to the spy operation. “He planned to frighten them into generosity,” Ross reports, and the fact that their names were on the Nazi death lists turned out to be a great motivator. By the end of the fundraising appeal, approximately a half-million dollars (in 2015 dollars) had been pledged.
Lewis and his exploits remained unsung throughout his lifetime, which is precisely what he intended. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Ross can pay to Lewis, however, is his discovery that the Nazis themselves knew and feared Lewis, dubbing him “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles” and “the ring-leader of all Jews here.” And their work did not end when the United States finally went to war against Nazi Germany. “No explosion rocked the Pacific Coast in part because Lewis, Roos and their agents had been carefully monitoring defense plants for potential saboteurs.”
Now that anti-Semitic chants recently have been heard in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., “Hitler in Los Angeles” must be seen as much more than an accomplished work of historical scholarship.
“Lewis, Roos, and their network of spies refused to sit back and allow their city and nation to be threatened by hate groups,” Ross concludes. “They showed us through their actions that when a government fails to stem the rise of extremists bent on violence, it is up to every citizen to protect the lives of every American, no matter their race or religion.”
Every Jew who contemplates the events of the Holocaust is morally compelled to ask himself or herself: What would I have done in that time and place? Ross brings the question very close to home. We live in L.A. now; what would we have done then? And, in Leon Lewis and Joe Roos, he finds role models who suggest a provocative answer to those questions.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.