This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Christie Pits riot, when Toronto Nazi sympathizers disrupted a baseball game at the Pits and fought Jews and other immigrants in a pitched battle that lasted through the night of Aug. 16-17, 1933.
You’ll be hearing a lot about the riot itself elsewhere, but I’m going back to a Nosey Parker blog post from July 19, 2009, to look at the situation in Toronto leading up to the riot.
It’s fashionable nowadays to dismiss North American flirtations with Nazism in the early 1930s as a combination of innocence and ignorance, to say Canadians who admired Hitler didn’t really understand what the Nazis were all about. That’s bullshit.
The Torontonians who unfurled swastika flags and put up signs proclaiming “Hail Hitler” (sic) 80 years ago knew exactly what the Nazis were all about. And they approved.
By August 1933, the Nazis had only been running Germany for seven months (since being handed power in a coup-from-the-top) and already they had suspended civil liberties, banned all political parties except the Nazi party, put absolute power in the hands of the chancellor (Hitler), purged Jews and communists from government, banned trade unions and opened the first concentration camp. And that was just official government policy, quite apart from the rampant campaign of persecution and murder the Nazi military arm, the SA, had been carrying out against Jews and leftists and democrats for several years.
This isn’t old news, history. Looking back at this blog post reminded me that in the summer of 2009 some Torontonians were still scrawling swastikas on the boardwalk.
And anyone who thinks that Putin putting gays in their place in Russia today is a good thing shouldn’t be surprised when that persecution escalates. You KNOW what’s going to happen if it’s allowed to.
The following blog post first appeared under the title Five Things You Probably Don’t Know About Toronto on July 19, 2009. As well as Nazis on the boardwalk, it also looks at some other things like the time when tobogganing was banned in the city and the celebrity dad who performed Honest Ed Mirvish’s circumcision. Honest.
As well, here’s a link to a July 22, 2009 Nosey Parker blog post entitled Hitler’s Nephew And 5 More Things You Probably Don’t Know About Toronto. William Patrick Hitler’s 1939 visit to Toronto is interesting, but also note the fifth item, about 1930s Toronto Police Chief Constable Denny Draper who would rather beat up the unemployed than keep Nazis from starting riots.
A postcard shows Kew Beach long before the Swastika Club tried to drive “undesirables” from the area.
1. There was something resonatingly vile about the racist graffiti spray-painted along a stretch of the Beach boardwalk earlier this month. It harkened back to a time more than 75 years ago when Nazi supporters marched six-abreast down that same boardwalk to threaten Jews and other “foreigners.”
After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, a group of Toronto admirers formed the Balmy Beach Swastika Club. One of the group’s objectives was to stop “undesirables” — recent immigrants in general, but mainly Jews — from using the Eastern Beaches. On Aug. 1, 1933, about 150 members of the Swastika Club marched the length of the boardwalk from the Balmy Beach Club to Woodbine Ave., posting swatikas on buildings, singing anti-semitic songs and roughing up anyone who opposed them.
The Telegram front page on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 1, 1933.
What happened? Nothing immediately — except that Toronto Mayor William Stewart, an undertaker and member of the Orange Order (pretty much a prerequisite for Toronto mayors before 1945), gave the “boys” a good talking-to.
In a meeting on Aug. 9, Stewart convinced the Swastika Club to change its name to the Beaches Protective Society with a stated goal of “beautification of the Beaches.”
(Toronto’s anti-semitism wasn’t clustered in the east end in the 1920s and ’30s — it was everywhere. Resort hotels on the Toronto Islands posted signs saying “Gentiles only” and the enormous public swimming pool opened in 1925 at Sunnyside allowed only a limited number of Jews in at any given time.)
Two weeks after the march down the boardwalk, members of the former Swastika Club and their cronies started the largest riot in Toronto history when they unfurled a homemade Nazi flag at a Christie Pits baseball game with many Jewish players and spectators present. Fighting broke out and soon thousands of people from throughout the downtown core had rushed to the scene to join the melee — on both sides. No one died but hundreds were injured and the city reeled in shock.
A few days later city council outlawed the display of swastika symbols in the city. The rest is history, but we still get swastikas on the boardwalk 76 years later. God help us.
Victims of the 1949 Noronic disaster are laid out in the Horticulture Building at the CNE grounds awaiting identification by relatives.
2. The Horticulture Building at the CNE was turned into a giant temporary morgue after the cruise liner Noronic burned in Toronto Harbour on Sept. 17, 1949, killing at least 118 people. No final death toll for the Noronic disaster was ever set.
Tobogganers enjoy a winter’s outing in High Park a few years before the city’s 1912 ban on Sunday tobogganing came into effect. Because most people worked at least half-days on Saturday, the Sunday ban pretty much eliminated tobogganing for the average worker in Toronto.
3. City council banned tobogganing on Sunday in Toronto parks before World War I — a ban that was still on the books, although no longer enforced, until 1961. Pressed by the Lord’s Day Alliance and other religious groups, council passed the bylaw against Sunday tobogganing on Feb. 19, 1912. It was just one of the “blue laws” that restricted Sunday activities in the city for decades — and gave “Toronto the Good” an incredibly boring reputation. The first modern professional baseball game on a Sunday wasn’t played in Toronto until 1950. By the way, when Sunday tobogganing was banned, Sunday skating — which wasn’t banned — suddenly became the most popular outdoor winter activity in Toronto.
Skating on the Don River — after Sunday tobogganing was banned in Toronto.
Cawthra House is the smaller building that can be seen to the left of the larger commercial building on the corner.
4. Cawthra House, the downtown mansion that was home to one of Toronto’s most prominent — and richest — families, had solid gold doorknobs on its front entrance less than a century ago. The mansion — its golden knobs already removed — was torn down in 1946 to make way for the Bank of Nova Scotia head office on the northeast corner of Bay and King Streets.
5. Here’s one of my favourite obscure Toronto facts, just because you have to know Toronto for it to be of even the vaguest interest — but yet it’s a fascinating tidbit:
The great “Honest Ed” Mirvish, who died two years ago at age 92, was born Yehuda Edwin Mirivish in Colonial Beach, Virginia, on July 24, 1914. Colonial Beach — as you might expect — did not have a large Jewish population at the time and there was no local mohel to perform the bris (ritual circumcision) on baby Ed. So the Mirvish family engaged the services of a mohel named Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson from nearby Washington, D.C., to officiate over the bris.
Rabbi Yoelson was the father of singer Al Jolson, then on the verge of becoming the most popular performer in North America. Al Jolson was already enormously successful as a vaudeville headliner before starring in the first full-length talking movie, 1927′s The Jazz Singer.
Who would have figured there was a direct and intimate connection between Ed Mirvish and Al Jolson?
Al Jolson stands with his dad, Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, in 1931, by which time Ed Mirvish would have been 16, living in Toronto and, having lost his father the previous year, been running the family store.