[URBAN NOTE] “Strike Against Hitlerism”
In this weekend’s Historicist feature, David Wencer describes for Torontoist an early protest in Toronto against Nazi anti-Semitism and fascism.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 11, 1933, people began gathering in the park at Wellington and Bathurst Streets. Most of the men and women in attendance were labourers, and many were there to represent Toronto’s predominantly Jewish garment industry unions. Some were there to represent various left-wing Toronto political organizations, which were ideologically opposed to Adolf Hitler’s fascist policies and treatment of German workers. Others were motivated to protest by local newspaper reports of pogroms in Hitler’s Germany. Carrying signs and banners reflecting a variety of interests and causes, the crowd paraded up Spadina to Dundas, then east to University Avenue, and finally up University to Queen’s Park, where thousands of others joined. The protest brought together Torontonians of many affiliations, united in their determined opposition to “Hitlerism” and the events unfolding in Germany.
In the early months of 1933, the Toronto press reported regularly on the developments which were taking place in Germany following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. These articles ran not just in the Yiddish-language Der Yiddisher Zhurnal and in radical leftist newspapers, such as Young Worker, but also in the four mainstream Toronto dailies. They described the increasingly restrictive conditions in Germany, and included reports of concentration camps and attacks on Jews in the streets. In their book Riot at Christie Pits, Cyril H. Levitt and William Shaffir write that Toronto’s newspapers “carried horrifying front-page reports of the atrocities against Jews during the first months of Hitler’s rule…In fact, because of the censorship of the media by the Hitler regime, Torontonians probably knew more about what was occurring to Jews in Germany during those fateful months than did most Berliners.”
A Jewish market on Kensington Avenue, January 14, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 26172.
A Jewish market on Kensington Avenue, January 14, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1266, item 26172.
April of 1933 saw the formation of a new Toronto group, the League for the Defence of Jewish Rights (not to be confused with today’s Jewish Defence League), whose leaders included Rabbi Samuel Sachs and Shmuel Meir Shapiro, editor of Der Yiddisher Zhurnal. The League soon emerged as Toronto’s leading Jewish protest group, and co-organized a massive meeting at Massey Hall on April 2. This meeting, which drew the support of numerous non-Jewish politicians and organizations, included the development of a strategy for countering local antisemitic sentiment, and the organization of a local boycott of German goods. The League was also instrumental in the formation of a new incarnation of a national-level Jewish organization, the Canadian Jewish Congress.
In 1933, Toronto’s Jewish population numbered around 46,000, and was heavily concentrated downtown, near the city’s many clothing factories. In her 1992 book Sweatshop Strife: Class, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Jewish Labour Movement of Toronto 1900–1939, Ruth A. Frager writes that, by 1931, approximately one-third of Toronto’s gainfully employed Jewish population worked in the needle trades, and that “Jews constituted roughly 46 per cent of the people employed in this sector in this city.”