At Christie Pits a turn­ing point in Canada’s Jewish his­tory

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - CYRIL LEVITT WIL­LIAM SHAFFIR SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

On Aug. 16, 1933, dur­ing a semi-fi­nal soft­ball game be­tween Har­bord Play­ground and St. Peters Church in Wil­low­vale Park (now known as Christie Pits) in Toronto, a huge swastika flag was sud­denly un­furled to shouts of “Heil Hitler!” This pro­voked out­rage and re­tal­i­a­tion among the Jewish base­ball play­ers and spec­ta­tors. Re­in­force­ments for both sides poured in from nearby neigh­bour­hoods. The re­sult, never ex­pe­ri­enced in Toronto be­fore or since, was a four-hour race riot, which sent many to hos­pi­tal.

Ten­sions had been mount­ing in the Jewish com­mu­nity through­out that hot sum­mer of 1933. Res­i­dents in the east­ern beaches of Toronto – pro­voked by what they thought of as a “for­eign in­va­sion” of their dis­trict – had formed them­selves into “Swastika Clubs” ear­lier in the sum­mer. On the evening of Au­gust 1, the first Swastika Club march was held along the board­walk, from the Balmy Beach Ca­noe Club to Wood­bine Av­enue. A group of more than 100 swastika-sport­ing youths pa­raded down the east­ern beaches board­walk, singing an anti-jewish dog­gerel to the tune of Home on the Range: “O give me a home, where the gen­tiles may roam, where the Jews are not ram­pant all day; Where sel­dom is heard, a loud Yid­dish word, and the gen­tiles are free all the day.”

This in­fu­ri­ated Jewish vis­i­tors to the city’s lake­side re­cre­ation area, as, even back then, when Adolf Hitler first came to power, the swastika had be­come a sym­bol of per­se­cu­tion, tor­ture and death for the Jews.

Cel­e­brated jour­nal­ist Robert Ful­ford once de­scribed the riot as “part of the mythol­ogy of Toronto’s his­tory” and urged us to write a book about the event. Sub­se­quent to the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, the city of Toronto com­mis­sioned a plaque at the park, with a brief de­scrip­tion of the riot. The riot was a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in the his­tory of Toronto’s Jewish com­mu­nity, for sev­eral rea­sons.

First, it rep­re­sented a di­rect re­sponse by sev­eral hun­dred Jewish youth to nu­mer­ous bla­tant and relentless anti-semitic

Many Jews claimed to have been in­volved in the riot.

provo­ca­tions through­out the sum­mer, against the back­drop of Hitler’s com­ing to power in Ger­many, which was as­ton­ish­ingly well-cov­ered in the English-lan­guage press, and in the Yid­dish pa­per, at the time. Re­ports of vi­o­lent at­tacks against Jews in Ger­many were daily fare. And in­deed, with­out the sto­ries com­ing out of Ger­many, the almost daily editorials and let­ters to the edi­tor on Hitler’s rise to power and the ex­am­ples of re­sis­tance and protest that the news­pa­pers re­ported, it is highly un­likely that the riot at Christie Pits would have hap­pened at all.

That sum­mer was un­bear­ably hot, un­em­ploy­ment was rife and hunger was wide­spread. The Orange Or­der dom­i­nated at city hall and mo­nop­o­lized the jobs in the civil ser­vice. Re­stric­tive covenants on hous­ing, rent ex­clu­sion, as well as anti-catholic and anti-jewish at­ti­tudes reached into all areas of the gen­eral culture. El­e­ments of Jewish youth broke with the pas­sive, “sha shtil” at­ti­tude of their par­ents. There was no Cana­dian Jewish Congress, no Anti-defama­tion League, no Civil Lib­er­ties As­so­ci­a­tion, no ec­u­meni­cal movement to speak to power in those days. At Easter, many churches taught that the Jews had killed Je­sus. Vi­cious stereo­types of mi­nori­ties abounded in po­lite so­ci­ety.

Sec­ond, then-toronto mayor Wil­liam James Ste­wart, fright­ened by the out­break of vi­o­lence in the park, called on the chief of po­lice to ac­count for the lack­adaisi­cal re­sponse by his men, who were warned of trou­ble at the park that after­noon, but who did not send ex­tra of­fi­cers in an­tic­i­pa­tion. Re­in­force­ments were only sent, some say, when it be­came ap­par­ent that the Jewish boys were ac­quit­ting them­selves well in the street brawl. And although the Jewish youth in­volved were se­verely scolded by their par­ents for fight­ing with the “goyim” in the park, they were proud of their ac­tions and of their scars. Jewish pride had been re­stored.

Many Jews claimed to have been in­volved in the riot – and some ex­ag­ger­ated ac­counts put the num­ber of peo­ple present in the park that after­noon and evening as high as 15,000, but our far more con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate sug­gests that the ac­tual num­ber of par­tic­i­pants in the fight­ing on both sides was around sev­eral hun­dred. The fact that many more claimed to have been in­volved in the ac­tion tes­ti­fies to the great pride it en­gen­dered among Jews at the time and among those of sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions.

Third, the riot caused anti-semitic provo­ca­tions to be taken more se­ri­ously by the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause it was op­posed to anti-semitism, but be­cause it was fear­ful that such provo­ca­tions would lead to fur­ther vi­o­lence and hence be­come a threat to “peace, or­der and good gov­ern­ment.”

Fourth, the Ital­ian boys who went to the park to fight along­side of the Jews demon­strated that the anti-semitism they ex­pe­ri­enced was em­bed­ded in a more gen­eral xeno­pho­bia, which in­cluded anti-catholic and anti-im­mi­grant sentiments. Our Ital­ian re­spon­dents told us of the prej­u­dice that they ex­pe­ri­enced at the hands of their WASP neigh­bours at the time, be­cause they were both im­mi­grants and Catholics. The Jews and the Ital­ians were neigh­bours in the Wards 4 and 5 areas of the city, and shared the com­mon fate of out­siders linked by poverty and ex­pe­ri­ences of prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion (one Ital­ian spoke to us in pass­able Yid­dish).

Fifth, the riot be­came a marker of re­mem­brance, pride and re­sis­tance not only for the gen­er­a­tion in­volved in the riot, but for suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of Jews. If any­thing, the mythol­ogy sur­round­ing the riot grew with the ex­pe­ri­ences of the Shoah and the var­i­ous wars waged against Is­rael.

Fi­nally, learn­ing about the riot helped the city come to grips with a less savoury as­pect of its past – with its racism, anti-semitism, xeno­pho­bia and the prej­u­dices, dis­crim­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion in­volved with all of that. The plaque that the city un­veiled near the south­east cor­ner of Christie Pits that tells the story of the riot, rep­re­sents a gen­uine at­tempt by the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment not only to give his­tor­i­cal tes­ti­mony to the event, but to ex­pose the con­di­tions that led to the out­break of vi­o­lence on that hot sum­mer after­noon in 1933.

Cyril Levitt and Wil­liam Shaffir are the au­thors of The Riot at Christie Pits, a new edi­tion of which is be­ing published in Au­gust by New Jewish Press, the pub­lish­ing pro­gram of the Anne Ta­nen­baum Cen­tre for Jewish Stud­ies.

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