Steven J. Ross sat down with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Journal, for a conversation about his new book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.”
The USC historian talks about the how he discovered the previously unknown saga of a Jewish attorney named Leon Lewis, whom the Nazis called “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles,” how Lewis and his band of spies foiled more than one Nazi plot against Hollywood, and what this example teaches us about confronting anti-Semitism in our world today.
Jewish Journal: Let’s set the scene for your book: Did the Jewish community in Southern California feel safe and secure during the 1930s?
Steven Ross: From August 1933 until Pearl Harbor [in December 1941], virtually every month — if not more frequently — somebody in Los Angeles was calling for “Death to Jews.” I used to wonder as a kid, as the child of two Holocaust survivors, how could the Jewish community let it happen? As I did the research for my book, I discovered that the Jewish community of Los Angeles did fight back by conducting an espionage campaign against the local Nazis.
“I used to wonder as a kid, as the child of two Holocaust survivors, how could the Jewish community let it happen?” – Steven J. Ross
JJ: I learned everything I know about Leon Lewis, the man the Nazis called “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles,” from your book. Did you know about his anti-Nazi exploits before you started your research?
SR: I knew nothing about Leon Lewis or his associate spymaster, Joe Roos. They purposely kept themselves hidden from history. I stumbled upon them when I was writing “Hollywood Left and Right” and I was doing research in the papers of Edward G. Robinson at USC. That’s when I learned a lot about the Nazis and fascists in Southern California — something I never knew before — and I decided that when I was done with “Hollywood Left and Right,” I wanted to go back to that story. That’s when Leon Lewis emerged out of the shadows of history.
JJ: You introduce us to a long list of Nazi activists who were plotting against the Jews of Los Angeles in the 1930s: Friends of the New Germany, the American Nationalist Party, the California Homesteaders, the American White Guardsmen, the American Warriors — and perhaps most surprising of all — the National Legion of Mothers of America. Who were all these people and what did they have in common?
SR: The common denominator for all of them was anti-Communism. In the 1930s, a lot of people — including James “Two-Gun” Davis, our police chief — argued that every Communist is a Jew, and every Jew is a Communist. They believed that if they got rid of the “Jewish menace” in America, we would also get rid of the Communists.
JJ: Another surprise in your book is the man who served as the German consul in Los Angeles from 1933 to 1941, who turns out not to have been a dedicated Nazi after all.
SR: Georg Gyssling has been the arch-villain of Hollywood history for decades. He was sent to Los Angeles by Joseph Goebbels to make sure that the studios did not make anti-Nazi movies. He was very good at his job, and that’s why he has been seen as a villain. But I also discovered that he was the most beloved and respected diplomat in the city. He just didn’t pass the “sniff test” as a Nazi. And I found out that my gut was right. I tracked down his daughter, who lived in Morro Bay, and she told me that her father hated Hitler. “As far as my father was concerned,” she told me, “he was the German consul, not the Nazi consul, to L.A.” What she didn’t know is that he was actively working with Joe Roos, and he was hated by the local Nazis because they thought he was too soft on Jews.
JJ: The single strangest incident in “Hitler in Los Angeles” is the Nazi plot to kidnap and hang 20 leading Jews, and the most shocking name on the death list was the famous movie choreographer Busby Berkeley. First of all, I didn’t know he was Jewish, and I couldn’t figure out why the local Nazis wanted to hang him.
SR: I didn’t know he was Jewish, either, and I was equally confounded. Maybe it was because Busby Berkeley was considered such a master of the musical. I know that Hitler watched a lot of Hollywood movies. Maybe he hated musicals.
JJ: What practical and actionable lessons do you want your readers to learn from “Hitler in Los Angeles”?
SR: The answer is vigilance without vigilanteeism. I don’t want to encourage my readers to put their own lives at risk. Leon Lewis did all of it without any violence at all. If you hear something hateful, denounce it. Stand up and speak out.