Isadore Greenbaum was a humble Jew from Brooklyn who stood up to 20,000 Nazis at a pro-Hitler rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939.
The rally was held by the German American Bund, an organization established in 1936 to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany. Headquartered in Manhattan, the Bund published books, ran summer camps, and had thousands of members all over the country. Fritz Kuhn, the German-born leader of the movement, saw himself as the "American Fuhrer.” He distributed propaganda demonizing Jews and deifying Hitler, and gave fiery speeches to his enthusiastic followers. The Bund’s goal was to create a Nazi state in America.
In 1939, the Bund planned a huge rally at Madison Square Garden for 20,000 American Nazi supporters. They called the event a “Pro American Rally” to mislead people into thinking Nazism was as American as apple pie.
Many Jewish groups objected to the rally, but Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia - whose mother was Jewish - maintained that “If we are for free speech, we have to be for free speech for everybody, and that includes Nazis.” LaGuardia was widely criticized for the decision, but the event took place as planned on February 20, 1939. The stage was decorated with a massive picture of George Washington flanked by an American flag and a giant swastika. Madison Square Garden was filled to capacity, while thousands of people protested outside and 1700 NYPD officers formed a fortress-like perimeter around the building.
In the midst of 20,000 Nazis was Isadore Greenbaum, a 26 year old unemployed plumber’s assistant from Brooklyn who wanted to see for himself what was going on. Isadore sat through the three hour rally, increasingly agitated because he felt Kuhn was directly inciting violence against Jews. Isadore knew of the first concentration camps being built in Europe, and he did not feel this was a free speech issue anymore. Kuhn's fiery rhetoric was putting Jews’ lives in danger, and Isadore Greenbaum from Brooklyn was not going to stand for it.
As Kuhn ranted about Jewish devils and demanded a white Aryan United States, Isadore made his way through the crowd. When he reached the front, he pushed the startled guards aside and jumped up on stage. Before security could reach him, Isadore yanked on the cables, knocking down Kuhn's microphone. He yelled “Down with Hitler!” before he was tackled by Kuhn’s brownshirts. They brutally beat Isadore and ripped off his pants. The crowd went wild - Nazi storm troopers kicking a helpless Jew clad only in his boxers was red meat to them.
Isadore sustained a black eye and a broken nose but he said he would have done it again. He was arrested and fined $25 for causing a disturbance at the rally. Supporters quickly raised the money to pay Isadore’s fine. The day after the event, Isadore told the judge, “I went down to the Garden without any intention of interrupting. But being that they talked so much about my religion and there was so much persecution I lost my head, and I felt it was my duty to talk.” The judge asked, “Don’t you realize that innocent people might have been killed?” Isadore’s response: “Do you realize that plenty of Jewish people might be killed with their persecution up there?"
When the U.S. entered World War II, Isadore enlisted in the Navy so he could fight Nazis. He went on to serve as chief petty officer and later moved to Southern California, where he died in 1998, surrounded by his family. Known affectionately by his grandchildren as Pops, Isadore Greenbaum's last words were, “Get me a hot dog and a Heineken and call the media.”
For doing his part to stop the Nazi demonization of his people, we honor Isadore Greenbaum as this week’s Thursday Hero.
With thanks to Dennis Vasquez
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