Marshall Curry’s A Night at the Garden’s provocative archival footage of a Nazi rally that packed Madison Square Garden 80 years ago earned Curry a ticket to the Oscars earlier this year because of the film’s uncanny relevance to our times.
When Curry first learned about the 1939 German American Bund rally, the subject of his short documentary, he could barely believe the event had happened. “I thought it was very surreal and frightening,” Curry told the New York Times.
While white liberals in the age of Trump have been pushed to examine new depths of this country’s history with a self-congratulatory righteous indignation, those of us who are most targeted by this administration have never had the luxury of forgetting America’s less than savory past.
I first saw the clips Curry supposedly discovered for his film five years before they were brought to his attention when I visited the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The footage played then, and continues to play to this day, from a projector on the third floor of the museum as part of its permanent core exhibition.
While Curry has been lauded by The New Yorker, The New Yorker Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Rolling Stone, The Smithsonian, and Vox, none of these media outlets acknowledge the role that Jewish historical and cultural institutions have played in preserving the memory of this all of a sudden all too relevant episode from America’s past. The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Smithsonian further fail to identify Isadore Greenbaum, the protester who interrupted the event, was attacked by Nazis, and subsequently arrested by the police and fined, as being a Jew.
When white liberal journalists write about the largest Nazi rally in American history without talking about the Jewish community or antisemitism, they are not simply being irresponsible, they are directly undermining any capacity to intelligibly make sense of and confront this moment’s upsurge in white nationalism. The consequence is cold blood. Just yesterday, Lori Gilbert-Kaye ז״ל was murdered at her synagogue in Poway, California, where she had come to remember her mother and observe the end of Pesach, the Jewish festival of liberation.
Instead of exceptionalizing A Night At The Garden, Curry could have used his film to demonstrate just how normalized support for Nazi Germany was in America leading up to World War II. By failing to do so, Curry perpetuates the amnesia to which he purportedly has provided us the cure.
Long before A Night At The Garden, the celebrated industrialist Henry Ford paved the path for the emergence of just such an evening. A century prior to Trump’s election to president, Ford won Michigan’s 1916 Republican presidential primary. Ford’s popularity surged as he published tirades against the Jews in the most widely circulated antisemitic newspaper in American history, The Dearborn Independent.
Ford helped to introduce the forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to American readers. A collection of his essays, published together as The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, was deliberately never copyrighted to encourage its rapid proliferation around the globe. A translation, Der internationale Jude, appeared in Germany where it became a bestseller during Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power.
Hitler praises Ford in Mein Kampf as “a single great man.” On the occasion of Ford’s 75th birthday, Hitler bestowed the Grand Cross of the German Eagle upon him, the highest honor a foreign national ever received from the Nazi government.
In 1935, a German ship, the Bremen, raised the swastika flag high above the New York harbor. After antifascist demonstrators climbed aboard the ship and cut the flag down, police swiftly arrested them and the United States Secretary of State Cordell Hull issued a formal apology to Hitler.
The most famous radio personality in all of American history, Father Charles Coughlin, broadcast virulent antisemitism over the airwaves. His dedicated listenership donated funds to build his church in Royal Oak, Michigan, and spawned Christian Front street gangs that attacked Jews across the country.
Before the United States entered World War II, concerned internationals traveled to Spain to try to curtail the rise of fascism by fighting against Franco. Such high numbers of Jews volunteered that they formed their own brigade, the Naftali Botwin Company, which even published its own newspaper in Yiddish. When the volunteers returned from the battlefields, they were not lauded as heroes, but denounced by Americans as premature antifascists.
Even after Pearl Harbor, antisemitism remained so pronounced in the United States that the government refused to open its borders to Jewish refugees. Officials turned around the St. Louis, a boat carrying nearly a thousand Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, back to be massacred in the Holocaust. After the war, the government opened its borders to Nazi scientists, who, with the protection of the CIA, quickly climbed to prominent positions in the states.
Today, as Confederate monuments crumble, statues of Ford continue to litter the landscape of Detroit. Schools, hospitals, streets, sports fields, and even a so-called social justice foundation all continue to bear the name of America’s foremost Nazi. When the historical society in Ford’s hometown tried to release an article a few months ago that mentioned the significant role Ford’s writings continue to play among the emboldened white nationalist community, the mayor swiftly fired the editor and had the publication destroyed at the press before it reached subscribers.
Pope Francis, widely regarded as one of the most progressive popes in history, recently honored Father Coughlin by designating his church a Basilica.
While nominating Curry for an Oscar may help to alleviate white liberal guilt, it does nothing to concretely address the forces of this past that are all too palpable in the present, as blood continues to be spilled upon the pages of our prayer books. It is precisely in this moment of the erasure of Jewish historical and cultural institutions that we are most in need of the wisdom they have to offer us.
White liberals, you do not own our pain, nor does our pain owe you any accolades.
You have no right to criticize any law passed in Poland used to obfuscate the country’s role in collaborating with the Nazis when you yourself have failed to interrogate how your own ancestors contributed to this country’s complicity in that unfathomable catastrophe. Your avoidance of this fact contributes to the ongoing violence you supposedly abhor.
If we are to get serious about reckoning with this country’s antisemitic roots, let’s call for the melting down of all monuments to Henry Ford and the recasting of them into a statues of Isadore Greenbaum to place at the entrance of Madison Square Garden and outside his Brooklyn home. Let’s insist that New York City be the first to contribute to these efforts by returning the $25 it fined Greenbaum for defending the humanity of the Jewish people.
Let’s insist that no foundation supposedly committed to social justice can operate under the name and fortune of a Nazi.
Let’s lower all flags of hate to their rightful place of drowning in the harbor and rise in their place a spirit carrying forward the motto of the Botwin Company, “For your freedom and ours.”