Home > Uncategorized > The amazing heroism of Leon Lewis – posted 12/18/2022

The amazing heroism of Leon Lewis – posted 12/18/2022

While the great battle against fascism in World War 2 was fought in Europe, there was also a fight against fascism inside the United States in the 1930’s-1940’s. There is little recollection now that there was a burgeoning movement inside America that was sympathetic to the German Nazis.

The Jewish response to our American fascism during this period has been little explored. One stereotype that exists is the idea that Jews did not fight back. The stereotype is related to the European theater and the false notion that Jews went passively to their deaths in the Nazi gas chambers.

However, contrary to the stereotype, there is an amazing story of Jewish fight back against American Nazis and their sympathizers here in America. The story is wonderfully told in Steven J. Ross’s book, Hitler in Los Angeles. Ross centers the story around the anti-fascist efforts of Leon Lewis, a little-known Jewish attorney who lived in Los Angeles.

Lewis grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1913. He got an early job as the Executive Director of the newly-formed Anti-Defamation League. Lewis was a veteran and he served in army intelligence in England, France and Germany during World War 1.

After the war, Lewis moved to Los Angeles. With a background in intelligence, he started tracking the growth of anti-semitism on the west coast. As the Nazi movement advanced, the Jewish community was divided about how to respond. Some Jews favored quiet diplomacy, worrying that direct action would stir up more anti-semitism. Others pursued a much more activist path.

Lewis was in the activist camp. With close ties to the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, he tried to interest federal and local government officials in countering the Nazi threat but, to his dismay, he found much sympathy for the Nazis within the government and law enforcement. Law enforcement, both the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department, were much more focused on the communists than the fascists.

From 1933 until the end of World War 2, Lewis independently initiated and ran a spy ring where he organized operatives he recruited to disrupt and counter the Nazi movement. Lewis found Aryan types with blond hair and blue eyes to be his agents. Most were German-Americans who were either anti-Nazi or financially needy. Lewis had a budget and he paid his agents.

The Nazis had a variety of front groups and Lewis’s spies were successful in penetrating inside the groups. Some of the spies rose into leadership positions in the pro-Nazi front groups. They accelerated splits and discord where they could inside the Nazi ranks.

Lewis gathered a wealth of information about what the Nazis and their front groups were up to. American intelligence agencies had no comparable operation. They came to rely on the information Lewis provided.

Money was always an issue for Lewis because he never had enough to expand as he might have liked. Later he was able to get financial support from Hollywood moguls. The Nazis had plans to assassinate Jews who were connected to the motion picture industry. They planned to kidnap and hang twenty prominent Angelenos. Among others, they wanted to murder Louis Mayer, Jack Benny, James Cagney, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson.

With his able associate Joseph Roos, Lewis disrupted this plot and others. Lewis learned early that the Nazis planned to sabotage the American defense industry on the west coast. His spies fed the Nazis bad information about the defense installations. Lewis tried to warn the U.S. government about this threat but he was not taken seriously.

The Nazis did shockingly blow up the Hercules powder plant, an armaments factory, in Kenvil, New Jersey. No explosion happened on the west coast largely because Lewis and his agents were monitoring defense industries for saboteurs.

The Nazis saw Los Angeles as a great place to develop a beachhead for their assault on America. In 1937 Hitler sent his personal deputy, Captain Fritz Wiedeman, to Los Angeles to assess the level of pro-Nazi sympathy on the west coast.

Wiedeman found strong sympathy for the Nazis among leading businessmen and in the west coast financial elite. The American Nazis were trying to recreate the success their German compatriots had in places in Europe. They were forming hundreds of “Hitler cells” in the Los Angeles area as a prelude to their conquest of power.

At the same time, after a six month underground investigation, a former FBI agent, James Metcalfe, reported in the Chicago Times that “an army of 20,000 American Nazis is preparing to seize control of the United States”. Ross quotes Hitler:

“ We will undermine the morale of the people of America…Once there is confusion and after we have succeeded in undermining the faith of the American people in their own government, a new group will take over. This will be the German-American group and we will help them assume power.”

It is hard to recreate how desperate and scary a time the 1930’s were in America. The depression fed hunger, mass poverty and a complete loss of faith in capitalism. It also led many to be attracted to demagogues and there was no shortage of those.

Far right extremists like Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald Winrod and William Dudley Pelley emerged. Pelley’s Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund aimed to create a fascist alternative in America. In this period, anti-semitism was almost normal and was widely accepted. Tens of millions listened to Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts where he preached virulent anti-semitism. Coughlin was one of the most influential public figures in the United States.

Lewis and Roos gathered the information that ultimately put many American Nazi leaders behind bars. The Nazis were well aware of Lewis’s activities and for years, Lewis and his family lived under great stress. The Nazis constantly threatened his life and that of his family. Lewis died at age 65 in 1954 after suffering a fatal heart attack.

For those concerned about the spread of fascism now, Lewis provides an important positive example and lesson. He got almost no help from any official source. He relied on himself and his closest colleagues. Independently, he figured his own creative strategy of self-reliance for intervening to stop the fascists.

His accomplishments were remarkable and courageous. He showed it was a mistake to rely on governments for help that never came. His story should be far better known.

The Nazis called Lewis “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles”. I expect he would have liked that.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Len Ziefert
    December 18, 2022 at 6:08 pm

    • December 18, 2022 at 6:13 pm

      Yeah Lenny. I know about that rally. There was a documentary made about it

  2. jlewandohotmailcom
    December 22, 2022 at 12:52 am

    This is fascinating. I knew a little bit about Nazism in the US, but not a thing about the resistance. One of my favorite movies is “Barton Fink,” which, it seems to me, had quite a bit to say about the failure of the LA creative class’s failure to pay attention to what was going on in Europe in 1939.

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