‘The Plot Against America’ is Truer than even Philip Roth KnewHistorians in the News
tags: fascism, literature, 1930s, Philip Roth, Jewish Americans, antisemitism, Charles Lindbergh, television
Not that long ago, America welcomed its first Nazis.
They made their presence known in the spring of 1933 as the Friends of New Germany, re-branded three years later as the German American Bund and mutated from there until they were nearly indistinguishable from most Americans concerned with another World War. But before they looked like everyday Americans, they dressed like brown shirts. They ran summer camps for children and beer gardens for adults. They rallied at Madison Square Garden with cries of “Heil Hitler.” They carried swastika banners, sang anthems to the fatherland and marched through the streets of American towns.
One place with an acute Nazi presence was northern New Jersey. In 1939, an FBI report declared the township of Irvington, N.J., which bordered the largely Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, a “hotbed” of Nazi activity.
On October 11, 1938, two weeks before a Bund rally near Irvington, a nine-year-old boy named Bernard Cohen was walking through Irvington Park when two teenagers attacked him. They dragged him from the top of a flight of stone steps and, with the words, “Let’s try it on him,” threw him to the ground and carved a two-inch swastika into his left forearm with a pen knife. According to the Newark Evening News, the maiming by the teenagers — a 17-year-old of German extraction, and a 14-year-old of Italian descent — was regarded as “mischief rather than an example of racial intolerance.” The Irvington magistrate punished them with a lecture on “Americanism.” Four days later, a two-foot-high wooden swastika was burned in the park where the crime occurred “in full view of the Cohen apartment house.”
One mile from Irvington Park lived another Jewish boy a few years younger than Cohen. His name was Philip Roth.
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