Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

On Ross's Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

On Ross's Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America

Article excerpt

On Ross's Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. By Steven J. Ross. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. 414 pp., ISBN 9-781620-405628 (pb), US $21.65. Reprint, 2019: 432 pp., ISBN 978-1620405635 (pb), US $18.00.

Expectations ran high in 2013 when it was reported that University of Southern California history professor and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Steven Ross (with whom I later teamed on a project) was working on a book about a Jewishled spy ring in Los Angeles in the 1930s that played a crucial role in thwarting Nazi and other fascist groups' terrorist plots. And he hasn't disappointed. Ross's meticulously researched Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, for which he received his second Pulitzer nomination, not only adds an overlooked but important chapter to Nazi-era historiography but does so in highly suspenseful fashion.

The spymasters in this real-life cloak-and-dagger saga were two Jews, Leon Lewis and Joseph Roos, both with impressive portfolios to match their patriotic anti-Nazi fervor. The US-born Lewis became the first executive director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 1913, fought in World War I, partnered in a Chicago law firm in the 1920s, and moved to Los Angeles in 1931-whence, besides monitoring Jewish images in Hollywood movies for the ADL, he put up a shingle downtown and founded his makeshift spy operation shortly after the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933. Benefiting from connections with the American Legion and the Disabled Americans of World War I, Lewis recruited a courageous group of mainly Christian, German-speaking veterans, as well as two of their wives, one daughter, and a lone Jew-all except the latter untrained in undercover work-to infiltrate the Nazi groups. The Vienna-born, Berlinraised Roos immigrated to the United States in 1927 at age nineteen. Starting as a journalist, he worked as a foreign correspondent in pre-Hitler Germany, and was later trained in intelligence by the US army, for which he investigated Nazi activity in Chicago in 1933. Moving to Los Angeles in 1934 to work in the film industry (doing story editing first for Universal and later for Paramount and United Artists), Roos shortly joined Lewis's cohort in an administrative capacity and remained his indispensable associate into World War II.

Besides its largely amateurish make-up, Lewis's group was hamstrung throughout the 1930s by a lack of cooperation-indeed, often subversion-from official auspices on all levels. Complacency-cum-resistance from a Los Angeles Police Department more concerned with communism than Nazism came as no surprise, given its rightwing, anti-Semitic top brass-including ChiefJames "Two Guns" Davis-and ranks riddled with Nazi and fascist sympathizers. A blind eye from the FBI proved similarly frustrating but explicable, partly owing to the bureau's underfunding and its own share of anti-Semitic agents but mainly due to its anti-communist-obsessed chief, J. Edgar Hoover. The newly formed (in 1934) Special Committee on House Un-American Activities Committee (changed to the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, in 1938), meanwhile, though cofounded by sympathetic Jewish congressman Samuel Dickstein, also tended to see Reds as a graver threat than Silver Shirts, thanks to Dickstein's openly anti-Semitic HUAC colleagues Louis McFadden and Martin Dies.

Not all government entities were unresponsive. Naval intelligence used information funneled by Lewis and company to stymie a 1934 raid on the San Francisco National Guard Armory aimed at powering a pro-Nazi revolt, and later to preempt a Gestapo-devised plan to blow up aircraft factories in Los Angeles, the center of the nation's defense industry. Finally, in 1939, with world war increasingly imminent, HUAC began to shift its emphasis to the real enemy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered a sharing of vital information-much of it supplied by Lewis's group-among all government agencies. …

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