John Turturro in "The Plot Against America." by the Forward

‘The Plot Against America’ is truer than even Philip Roth knew

Image by Courtesy of HBO

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.

Roth knew about Nazis and anti-Semitic politicians from his father. But it was only as an adult, when he stumbled on a reference to a Nazi-friendly hero being considered as a Republican presidential nominee, that Roth began to wonder what Nazi doctrine would have looked like as American policy.

The result of that thought experiment was his 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” now an HBO miniseries arriving in time for a pivotal presidential election, one where hopes and fears trail voters to the ballot box.

“Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear,” Roth begins his counterhistory, “no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”

Roth imagined himself, at the ages of seven, eight and nine, living through the administration of Republican president and Nazi sympathizer Charles A. Lindbergh, who had flown to victory over FDR in 1940 on the wings of a family tragedy, a legendary transatlantic flight and a promise not to involve America in another war. In real life, Lindbergh was the spokesman for the anti-interventionist America First Committee, a group that peaked at 800,000 members, many of them former German American Bundists. Early in his imagined presidency, Lindbergh signed nonaggression understandings with Hitler and the Japanese emperor and praised the Third Reich’s wartime maneuvers as a deterrent for the spread of communism. In the book, these actions cast a pall over Roth and his neighborhood.

Roth had nightmares about the American stamps in his collection being replaced by swastika-inked profiles of Hitler. He saw his older brother, Sandy, become the poster child for an Americanization program seeking to erode the Jewish identity of “city youth.” His bitter (and fictional) cousin, Alvin, unable to fight for an America that remained neutral, volunteered for the Canadian Army, and lost half his leg in the process. Roth’s family narrowly missed being forcibly relocated from Newark to Kentucky. And, as word spread of nationwide pogroms against Jews, the White House remained silent — by then, the Roths were not surprised.

II: NAZIS IN NEW JERSEY

In “The Plot Against America,” Roth envisions how a Jewish family might have responded to a national threat akin to what European Jews faced in the 1930s. Their Americanism is questioned, their livelihoods are threatened and even their assimilated, overwhelmingly Jewish corner of the earth cannot escape the anti-Semites emboldened by Lindbergh’s victory. The family he used — names and all — was his own. The setting was his home.

Roth grew up at 81 Summit Avenue in Weequahic. His childhood house still stands, a yellow-green clapboard affair built, he writes, for “two-and-a-half” families; the Roths lived on the second floor. Save for some faux-sandstone siding on the first floor — an addition shared by its frame house neighbors — it resembles his description from the book, with a notable exception: There’s a plaque outside marking it as a historic site. Two sisters, one 90, the other in her 80s, live there now. (Roth visited them while he was working on “Plot,” going upstairs to refresh his memory of the house’s layout.)

The block has kept its quaint, middle-class profile, lined with gable-roofed homes with garret windows, small patches of yard and room in between residences to park the family car — only SUVs and satellite dishes betray the passage of time. Three minutes away, Weequahic High School and the elementary school on Chancellor Avenue, where some of the novel is set, still stand: stone, Art Deco buildings, where many Jewish artists, musicians, doctors and writers completed K-12. But the neighborhood has changed since Roth graduated from those institutions and from living in Newark.

Across the street from the high school, at the crest of a hill, are two churches, a small, red brick Baptist chapel, and a larger Assembly of God building with a soaring, white cross spire. More churches and two mosques are nearby. The neighborhood is 93% black today, and the I-78 highway, built in 1957, forms a gridlocked border between the enclave and Irvington.

Gone are the neighborhood’s delis, the shuls and the home of Newark’s first and only Jewish mayor, Meyer Ellenstein. Gone too are many of the sites where, in the 1930s, a group of Jewish gangsters fought Nazis with fists and rubber-wrapped pipes.

“From the time I was 12 or 13 years old, I knew the story about how Longie Zwillman’s gang beat up Nazis in Newark,” Warren Grover said one afternoon over a “fully-dressed” turkey sandwich at Hobby’s delicatessen in downtown Newark, about three miles from Weequahic. The over 100-year-old deli, with its red vinyl chairs and dark, faux-wood-paneled walls, is the kind of old school Jewish institution where words like “shtarker” are tossed around with abandon by the owners as they sit near the entrance looking over receipts.

Grover, 81, comfy in a black sweatshirt and known to the staff, is co-founder of the Newark History Society. He spent three years in the New Jersey Room of the Newark Public Library researching his 2003 book “Nazis in Newark.” Roth bequeathed his books to the same library, and after his death in 2018, its staff found a copy of Grover’s tome at his Connecticut farmhouse, brimming with margin notes.

Grover’s history, sourced from nearly a decade’s worth of back issues of the Newark Evening News and The Jewish Chronicle, tracks the evolving Friends of New Germany and German American Bundist presence in Essex County from the early 1930s to 1941. At its peak, the Bund had 25,000 members and a strong foothold in northern New Jersey.

“Newark was one of the handful of cities in the country where Germans emigrated in the first big immigration after the 1848 revolutions in Europe,” Grover said. “There were seven or eight major cities in the United States where Germans moved, and Newark was one of them.”

‘The Plot Against America’ is truer than even Philip Roth knew

But with a second wave of Germans who arrived after World War I, the German American Bund found its most fertile ground and much of its leadership. Newark also had a Jewish population that didn’t shy away from a fight.

From 1933 to America’s entry into the war, the “Minutemen,” a group of Jewish boxers and gangsters tied to Abner “Longie” Zwillman’s Third Ward crime empire, broke up meetings and rallies of the Friends of New Germany and its successor group, the Bund, ready to strike Nazis with bats, crowbars and stink bombs if the rhetoric turned anti-Semitic. When things got violent and arrests were made, the involved parties were typically charged only with “disorderly conduct” or “creating a disturbance.”

It helped that Zwillman was on good terms with the police. In “Plot,” Zwillman — often mentioned, though he never appears — runs afoul of the police when his gang forms a de facto defense force for Newark’s Jews. The real Zwillman did bankroll Nazi-resisting efforts and held remarkable sway over local politics.

Grover says Newark was unique in America for its level of organized resistance, not only from the Minutemen, but from the New Jersey chapter of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, a boycott group. That group’s leader, the physician S. William Kalb had a friendship with the Minuteman captain, former pro boxer Nat Arno. Arno made regular visits to the Kalb home, during many of which, Grover says, the boxer came with the offer, “Doc, is there anyone I can kill for you?”

Under Arno’s leadership, Minutemen patrolled Nazi meetings. Famously, they gassed out the Schwabbenhalle, a German auditorium, near Irvington with stench bombs and fought with the fleeing Friends of New Germany on the street outside. They staked out Nazi venues and camps and even engaged in a car chase to recover Nazi propaganda films. As time went on, they expanded their sights to Christian Fronters, followers of anti-Semitic priest Father Charles Coughlin. After a group of men in their 20s — believed to be Coughlinites — goose-stepped in front of Jews moving their Torah scrolls to a new synagogue building in September 1940, 20 Minutemen arrived at the group’s garage hideout with bats and clubs, sending five of the dozen hecklers to the hospital with head injuries. (Turns out that Zwillman’s mother was a member of the shul under attack.)

The Minutemen were rough-necked machers, unwilling to let Nazism slide. But, if the German American Bund only comprised a small sliver of Germans-Americans, the Minutemen and their most effective allies were also unrepresentative of Jews.

“One of the enigmas to me is that so many middle class Jews were not affected intellectually about what was going on in Europe,” Grover said. “They didn’t have the same gut feeling that the Minutemen had. The Minutemen knew that the Nazi Bund in Irvington and Newark was an existential threat as Hitler got stronger.”

But the Bund lost its vigor, even after their flagship February 20, 1939 “Washington’s Birthday” rally at Madison Square Garden, an event that, while it drew over 20,000, was effectively the group’s last major exercise.

Shortly after the Madison Square rally, the group declined, beset by scandal after it was discovered that Bund leader Fritz Kuhn was embezzling funds. By the summer of 1940, with the nation fearing “fifth column” activities, much of the mainstream German community openly shunned the the pro-Nazi group, going to great lengths to express their American patriotism. New Jersey stepped up enforcement of its bans of Nazi symbols and uniforms, and local authorities and the FBI accelerated investigations of the group, leading to indictments for “race hatred” for nine New Jersey Bund members and prison sentences for nine other Bundists.

By the summer of 1941, authorities shuttered the Bund’s operations, including the 205-acre grounds of Andover, N.J.’s Camp Nordland — a nerve center of Nazi propaganda where American youth learned to goose-step and pledge allegiance to Hitler. By then, the Bund had been superseded by another, larger concern cloaking itself in stars and stripes.

Many Bundists threw in their lot with the isolationist America First Committee, among them Newark’s former Bund leader, who joined the city chapter’s nearly 3,000 members in the summer of ‘41. The Committee did not want to be regarded as an extension of the pro-Nazi, Hitler-devoted Bund, however. The group was founded by longstanding patrician Americans at Yale. Accordingly, they picked the all-American Lindbergh as their mouthpiece.

According to Grover’s book, when the Sussex County sheriff raided the Camp Nordland on May 30, 1941, he discovered a diary listing Bund leadership that included the notation “Lindbergh will take command of the United States when Hitler wins.”

In real life, that never came to pass.

Lindbergh’s infamously anti-Semitic September 11, 1941 speech at the Des Moines Coliseum in Iowa led high profile AFC board member and New Jerseyite Thomas N. McCarter to resign. The speech, delivered at an America First Rally, received widespread censure from the press, politicians and White House press secretary and prompted protests from anti-Nazi groups.

Still, Lindbergh’s ardent defender, Senator Gerald P. Nye, headlined a successful September 23 AFC rally at Newark’s Mosque Theater to an overflow crowd of around 4,500 people. The Minutemen came out to patrol, along with picketers, but by the time a second rally was held at the Mosque on Armistice Day 1941, attendance had slumped to 1,500 and Zwillman’s enforcers were no-shows. Interventionists gained traction in public opinion and on December 7, 1941, a date that lives in infamy, entering the war was no longer a question.

The Bund dissolved almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, and the America First Committee folded on December 11.

“Had Pearl Harbor not happened, or an equivalent because of the obvious coming confrontation between Japan and the United States, for sure the Bund would have gotten stronger,” Grover said. “The Soviet Union would have succumbed, and if you remove them from opposition, it would have been Germany and the United States. Period. You have to pick sides. And you know the German-American population, overwhelmingly, would have been Bundist.”

But as for what would have happened if Lindbergh ran for president, Grover couldn’t say.

“In my mind I never saw that,” he said. “But then, I never could have seen Trump.”

III: LINDBERGH: FROM FLYING ACE TO DANGEROUS DEMAGOGUE

When David Simon’s father was seven and living in New Jersey, he went for a day trip to New York.

“His father took him on an excursion on the tube train from Journal Square to Lower Manhattan,” Simon said of his father, Bernard. “He remembers being put up on his father’s shoulders to see Lindbergh come down Broadway with the ticker tape parade. 12 or 13 years later, he’s a 19-year-old, 20-year-old college student at NYU and Lindbergh’s the devil.”

Simon who, like his father, worked as a journalist before creating such TV shows as “The Deuce” and “Treme,” adapted “The Plot Against America” for the screen with his frequent collaborator Ed Burns, with whom he worked on “The Wire,” among other projects. During the Obama presidency, a producer first asked Simon to tackle a screen treatment of the book. He saw no compelling reason to do so. After 2016, he changed his mind and urged HBO to make the series about a Jewish family marginalized by the presidency of a highly visible celebrity demagogue.

There were many reasons why Bernard Simon and so many other Jews reversed their position on the once-heroic Lindbergh.

The Forward’s own coverage from the time reveals the shift: We marveled at his feats of aeronautics on the front page, were appalled by the abduction of his child and dispatched our founding editor to cover the subsequent trial. But when Lindbergh began his flirtation with fascism, we vilified him.

Following the kidnapping and murder of Lindbergh’s infant son, the aviator and his family sought privacy in Europe. During that period, he visited Nazi Germany, praising it often in his journals and correspondence and, in October 1938, accepting a swastika-spangled medal from Hitler that the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, personally pinned to his chest. Lindbergh didn’t return the medal, even after Kristallnacht. His elevation to spokesperson for the isolationist America First Committee did not help his standing with Jews.

“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration,” Lindbergh declared in his September 11, 1941 “Who Are the War Agitators” speech in Des Moines, before a large and raucous crowd.

“At the time if you were Jewish and you heard something like the Des Moines speech, you understood fundamentally that your loyalties were being questioned as an American,” Simon said.

In both the book and the series of “The Plot Against America,” the Des Moines speech, Lindbergh’s least-veiled public display of anti-Semitism, is moved to 1940: An election year. After delivering it, Lindbergh announces his bid for the presidency, further stirring the fears of Newark’s already Lindbergh-leery Jewry, overwhelmingly New Deal Democrats. But as election day approaches, Lindbergh becomes more discreet. He doesn’t mention Jews again — even when they’re being attacked on his watch.

He goes from airstrip to airstrip campaigning with the same simple stump speech: “My intention in running for the presidency is to serve American democracy by preventing America from taking part in another world war. Your choice is simple. It’s not between Charles A. Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it’s between Lindbergh and war.”

“It would fit on Twitter” Simon said of those “41 words,” “That tells you all you need to know about political messaging and simplicity by which a growing plurality of our electorate can be swayed.”

The messaging combined with Lindbergh’s national profile, cowlick and Midwestern sense of self-effacement might have been enough to actually win, Simon said. Even though his message doesn’t vary, radio broadcasts and newsreels put the speech in their rotation — it’s Lindbergh after all, and what he’s saying sounds good to much of the country.

“Most Americans in 1940 were in fact isolationists and you could not explain fascism or what was happening in Europe or the vulnerabilities of a western-style democracy to people in a simple enough way to counter a message of ‘Do you want to be in a war, or do you not want to be in a war?’” Simon said.

A catchy platform — the self-interested clarity of “America First” — works. And in the current administration’s rhetoric, the slogan still holds up. But Roth was loath to draw a straight line between his work of fiction and contemporary America — at least in one regard.

In their one meeting at Roth’s New York apartment in late 2017, months before the author’s death. Roth told Simon much the same thing he’d been telling journalists since November 2016 (and book critics since 2004, under the last Republican president): Don’t confuse the message for the person.

“The lack of parallel between Lindbergh and Trump just makes the current political moment that much more astonishing,” Simon said. “Which is to say what Roth was saying to me, if I understood him correctly — and I think I did — was ‘don’t mistake the two characters.’ One is a buffoon and a real estate magnate who doesn’t pay his bills and a failed casino operator, and the other one really was one of the greatest American heroes of this generation — perhaps the greatest standing hero at the moment that he gave himself over to isolationism and anti-Semitism.”

At the same time, Simon said, Roth recognized that the 2016 campaign tapped into the same reservoir of fear and disdain for the other. “That train is never late for the demagogues, and Trump played it beautifully and he’s still playing it and it has worked to great effect,” Simon said.

The Lindbergh of the book and series is in many ways a cipher. In a video interview, Roth described him as “not a fascist, but somebody who unnerves the Jews.” Played by Ben Cole in the series, he’s only ever heard delivering prepared remarks. His inner life is so impenetrable that it seems plausible that he may have been a double agent fed his lines and policies by Berlin. He’s a cool customer, where the current president can’t stop himself from the 3 AM logorrheic tweet or angry, off-teleprompter harangue.

‘The Plot Against America’ is truer than even Philip Roth knew

Through the six-episode arc, we see what Lindbergh’s America might have been like. At the Jewish cemetery on Newark’s Orange Avenue, Jewish headstones are toppled and painted with swastikas. The FBI takes a special interest in the central Levin family (the name has been changed from Roth for the series), knowing that Philip’s cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) fought with Canada against the fascists. Friends and neighbors cross the border into Canada, and matriarch Bess (Zoe Kazan) essentially sits shiva for her sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) after she marries a prop of the Lindbergh administration and waltzes at a White House function with the Nazi foreign minister.

At the same time, the family is introduced to patriarchal programs like Just Folks, which outsources Jewish kids like Sandy (Caleb Malis) to farms as an assimilation ploy, and Homestead 42, a resettlement program with the aim of “absorbing American Jewry into the mainstream” by having major companies transfer their Jewish employees. Pater familias Herman (Morgan Spector), is slated through that program to move to a Kentucky branch of Metropolitan Life insurance.

Overseen by the Office of American Absorption (a Rothian invention), these programs may not have clear equivalents today — in fact, the genteel bigotry of “absorption” has been sidelined in many circumstances for more draconian measures that Simon noted, such as the Muslim Travel Ban, detainment on the Southern border and a slowdown on admitting refugees into America. But Simon believes they speak to enduring prejudices, the same thread of “mendacity and human affront.”

“The same fears that are being metastasized by Trump are the ones in the book — in terms of the immigrant and whatever the immigrant class is: ‘They’re not going to be good additions. Their loyalty is suspect, they don’t worship the same god in the same way. Their politics are suspect.’ These were the things said about Jews,” Simon said. “It’s the same things delivered to Muslim legislators nowadays or to Mexicans or Latinos at the Southern border, who are basically trying to get to a better life, and being treated as though they’re rapists and gangsters.”

A further distinction can be seen in the last case. Trump began his campaign alighting a gilded escalator and inveighing against Mexicans. In “Plot,” Lindbergh initiates his own run by standing behind a podium before the Spirit of the St. Louis, saying nothing more than that he would prevent America’s involvement in another war.

In fact, Lindbergh brings a war to America.

Following the enactment of Homestead 42, a vocal Jewish critic of Lindbergh sparks riots from the president’s bigoted base when he travels to major cities speaking out against him and promoting himself. Jewish storefronts throughout the country are looted and smeared with anti-Semitic graffiti, synagogues are burned and scores die. A staggering murder prompts New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to condemn Lindbergh’s silence.

“It can’t happen here?” La Guardia asks. “No, it is happening here. And where, I ask you, is Lindbergh?”

Lindbergh takes his time, flying himself to Louisville, KY., where the murder occurred, to address the nation. His belated speech makes no mention of what happened — or his role in it. Immediately after the remarks, the mayor of Louisville thanks the president and “the fine people on both sides of this incident.”

Simon said he wrote these scenes with August 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA., and President Trump’s weak response, in mind. In the aftermath of Trump’s tepid acknowledgement of the white nationalist demonstration, where a white supremacist struck and killed a counter-protester with his car, Gary Cohn, Trump’s Jewish then-finance advisor, reportedly considered resigning.

In “Plot,” Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), Lindbergh’s Court Jew and the mind behind the absorption programs, pleads for a meaningful response from the White House to calm the country and stop the violence. When he finally hears Lindbergh’s “all is well” declaration, he concedes to his wife Evelyn — Philip’s aunt — that the speech was “brief.” It’s the first time he breaks ranks, having until then defended the president and his agenda at the expense of Jews both abroad and at home.

Two names came to Simon’s mind when I mentioned Bengelsdorf to him: Trump donor Sheldon Adelson and Trump’s immigration policy architect Stephen Miller.

“I can’t help but be deeply ashamed for anybody who would target and utilize as political fodder any immigrant anywhere, as a descendant of families that always had to have one bag packed and one eye on the Cossacks,” Simon said.

“I can name the 11 members of both my families who didn’t get out of Europe — at least 11 that I know of. And they couldn’t get out of Europe because the world didn’t want them, because they were held suspect because of their politics, or because there were too many of them, or they made people uncomfortable and they might not be American enough, so there were quotas and they couldn’t get in and they couldn’t get out. I have photographs of these people who were shot in the woods outside a slum or went to Auschwitz and all I can think of is ‘How can you engage in a politics that so diminishes these people who are trying to get to a better life now and still call yourself a Jew? How can you do it?’ If there’s ever a singular place where our allegiance has to be, it’s gotta be on the stranger in a strange land.”

IV: 2020, AN ELECTION YEAR

“The Plot Against America” is about large and small acts of resistance. Bess — in between caring for Philip (Azhy Robertson) and Sandy — takes a job to save up money for a possible move to Canada. Her husband, Herman, refuses to move to the Bund-friendly town of Union and quits his job to avoid uprooting his family to the deep South. Alvin does his part in the Canadian army, affecting global events more than any of intimates may ever know.

“My father never let a Passover go by without delivering the line about ‘Freedom can never be entirely won, but it can be lost,’” Simon said, repeating the quote that is also being used as the series’ tagline. “That really is a democratic dynamic. If you’re not up for a quotidian fight for what the republic means, then you lose the republic. I think it’s a lot more fragile than we think. I didn’t think so for a while. There were times when I thought we were on a better path, but I’m really astonished by the levels of fear and hate that have been delivered to the country in the last three years.”

It’s hard to read the end of the series, which deviates from the book, as anything other than a lament for the state of the country and its uncertain future. Unlike Roth’s tidy resolution, which rights the course of history, Simon leaves us with questions that have no easy answers in a “post-truth” world.

Since the series was announced, Simon has faced a fusillade of invective from Twitter users and anti-Semitic bloggers who believe he’s baselessly likening Trump’s “America First” to fascism, unaware that the phrase was not, as Simon put it in a tweet, “first pulled from Donald Trump’s ass.” His pugnacious online presence is just one way he’s staying in the fight.

“You’re always fighting. You’re always trying to rescue your institutions from mass capital, from disinformation from apathy. That’s democracy, and it’s never going to get any better. The question right now in my mind — the sort of sinister question — is whether or not we’re up to it anymore.” Simon said. “I have real questions about whether or not the fuel you need to sustain a republic — which is accurate information and an educated electorate — are still available to us in proper numbers. It’s scary.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com

‘The Plot Against America’ is truer than even Philip Roth knew

‘The Plot Against America’ is truer than even Philip Roth knew

We once escaped a ‘Plot Against America.’ Can we now?

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