Historicist: Strike Against Hitlerism

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Historicist: Strike Against Hitlerism

Thousands of Torontonians join a protest against fascism in July 1933.

Woman holding banner for the International Left Opposition demonstration, possibly at the 1933 anti-fascist parade. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 32, item 8. Used with permission.

Woman holding banner for the International Left Opposition, likely at the 1933 anti-fascist parade. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 32, item 8. Used with permission.

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.”

Toronto dress makers on strike, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 23260.

Toronto dress makers on strike, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1266, item 23260.

At this time, there was a strong connection between Toronto’s Jewish garment workers and the city’s left-wing political groups. Some of Toronto’s Jews had brought political ideas with them from their home towns and cities in Europe; others were drawn to left-wing activism for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the poor pay and working conditions they found in Toronto during the depression. Ruth Frager writes that socialism

“[H]ad a special appeal for the Jewish needle trades workers in particular, because of the limited gains that the garment unions could make. The highly competitive structure of this labour-intensive industry set strict limits on what could be gained through collective bargaining; after all, pushing for decent wages ran the risk of driving one’s employer out of business. Hence radical workers became even more convinced that the whole economic system needed to be changed.”

Historian Irving Abella notes that the labour movement provided a “new home” for Jewish immigrants “who had become alienated from traditional Judaism…It represented a way of life that was totally encompassing. Indeed, for most urban Jews it constituted their first real introduction to Canadian life. It served not only as an agent for economic benefits, but also as a cultural shelter.”

By the mid-1930s, the radical left-wing political scene in Canada had become fractured. Following the rise of Stalin in the Soviet Union, the international Communist Party had grown intolerant of those who disagreed with the official party line. By the early 1930s, many prominent Canadian communists had been expelled from the party for questioning its policies, and had joined other left-wing groups, such as Leon Trotsky‘s International Left Opposition. Furthermore, the Communist Party of Canada and several other radical organizations had been declared “unlawful associations” under the controversial Section 98 of the Criminal Code of Canada; some left-wing activists preferred to work underground, while others were more open in their efforts and risked being arrested or assaulted by local law enforcement.

Drawing featured in the April 1933 issue of October Youth, an official publication of the Spartacus Youth Club.

Drawing featured in the April 1933 issue of October Youth, an official publication of the Spartacus Youth Club.

In a 1975 article published in Labor Challenge, Ian Angus wrote that it was Maurice Spector, a Jewish left-wing activist who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1928, who emerged as a leading voice of the Toronto branch of the International Left Opposition. “Largely on the initiative of the Toronto branch of the International Left Opposition,” Angus writes, “the Jewish trade unions of the city, primarily centred in the garment trades, formed a united front Anti-Fascist Conference in April 1933. Maurice Spector, elected to the executive of the Conference, became its principal spokesman, speaking for it at rallies held in April and on May Day.”

The Toronto protest on July 11, 1933, appears to have been organized, jointly, by several different organizations seeking to form a “united front” in their shared cause. A broadside promoting the protest, now part of the collection of the Ontario Jewish Archives, attributes the protest’s organization to the “Joint Council of Action of Trade Union and Conference Against Fascism and Pogroms in Germany,” and indicates that the Joint Council of Action was “composed of representatives of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, I.L.G.W.U. [the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union], Headgear Workers, Fur Workers, Bakers, and other Unions.”

Broadside of general strike notice and demonstration against German fascism. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, Accession # 1988-4-8. Used with permission

Broadside of general strike notice and demonstration against German fascism. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession #1988-4-8. Used with permission.

The language used in this broadside to call workers to protest was repeated in a notice which ran in the July issue of The Vanguard, the official publication of the Toronto branch of the International Left Opposition. Summoning its readers to action, The Vanguard added: “The Hitler regime is the Fascist agency of German monopoly capitalism…The workers’ press has been suspended, freedom of speech and assemblage are prohibited. Mediaeval racial persecution and ‘cold’ pogroms have been revived against the Jews. Thousands of militants, sympathizers of the working class, and [others] who dared protest against the Nazi outrages have been incarcerated without trial in concentration camps…Demonstrate Tuesday, July 11th, against Nazi terrorism!”

Participants were told to arrive at Wellington Park (now Clarence Square Park) by 3 p.m. Several days prior to the demonstration, the Globe reported that the unions had arranged for all of the city’s garment factories to be closed in the afternoon, making the protest also a form of strike. Research by Ruth Frager reveals that by the 1930s, many of the city’s garment industry employers were Jewish—it is possible, therefore, that they may have been sympathetic to their workers’ participation in this protest. Several of the local labour unions were already on strike; Toronto newspapers from the preceding weeks note multiple ongoing strikes amongst garment workers, including between 400 and 600 men and women employed in the manufacture of cuffs and collars for women’s fur coats.

The front page of the July 1933 issue of The Vanguard.

The front page of the July 1933 issue of The Vanguard.

Despite the clear presence of communist and other radical left-wing groups at the protest, the event was evidently held with the city’s consent, possibly due in part to the influence of mayor Jimmy Simpson, a career labour activist who had spoken at the April 2 meeting at Massey Hall. The Globe reported that the organizers had also met ahead of time with police Chief Dennis Draper to secure his assistance, a somewhat surprising development given the Toronto police’s reputation at the time for breaking up left-wing gatherings. Indeed, the Toronto Star reported that it was “the first parade of its kind permitted [in Toronto] in twelve years.”

Reports differ as to how many people attended. The Globe estimated the turnout at 15,000, while the more conservative and notoriously antisemitic Telegram put the number at 12,000. The local left-wing publications suggested that between 20,000 and 25,000 were in attendance. Most sources agree, however, that the number of people who participated in the initial parade was closer to 5,000, with the crowd swelling substantially when thousands more joined after 5 p.m. at Queen’s Park, where the organizers had promised a “monster Mass-Meeting.” The Globe claimed that “approximately two per cent of the city’s population [was] in the crowd at Queen’s Park.”

Protestors holding banners, probably at the July 11, 1933, anti-fascist protest. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 32, item 9. Used with permission.

Protestors holding banners, probably at the July 11, 1933, anti-fascist protest. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 32, item 9. Used with permission.

Reports also differ over the number of officially represented groups, with the estimates ranging from 100 to 350. Amongst those reported in attendance were numerous communist and socialist groups, dozens of trade unions, the Progressive Arts Club, anti-fascist groups affiliated with specific European immigrant communities, including the Ukrainians and the Finns, and numerous Jewish organizations. Because of the large turnout, the protest’s organizers chose to have several speakers at Queen’s Park, who addressed the crowd concurrently in different sections of the park. Some spoke in Yiddish, others in English, and the Globe suggested that some of the speakers were more moderate than others. Thus, those on hand could find the speaker closest to them, whether physically or politically.

The mainstream newspapers mentioned many of the signs seen at the protest, noting that the banners appeared to be evenly split between Yiddish and English. Many of the communist groups held up signs not directly related to Germany, using the event as an opportunity to call for the repeal of Section 98 of the Criminal Code, or to agitate for the release of Communist Party leader Tim Buck, then incarcerated in Kingston. According to the Mail and Empire, the Canadian Labour Defence League’s banner “showed a ruthless, belligerent caricature of Hitler with a sword in his teeth trampling men and women as he walked.” The Globe noted one banner reading “Hitler is a Skunk, and the Furriers Will Cut Him to Pieces,” and another from the Bakers’ International Union 181 reading “Give Us Hitler and We Will Bake Him.”

Coverage in The Globe, July 12, 1933.

Coverage in The Globe, July 12, 1933.

October Youth, the local publication of the (Trotskyist) Spartacus Youth Club, listed several of the unions and political groups who were present, noting that marchers “representing every section of the labour movement from extreme Right to extreme Left” were present, and claimed that they were united “for the first time in the history of the Canadian Labour movement…in one front against the common enemy.” The Young Worker, the publication of the Young Communist League of Canada, wrote that “members of the Young Communist League, marching under a splendid red and gold banner, brought applause and admiration from the thousands of spectators that lined the sidewalks, by their spirited singing and militant enthusiasm…The workers protested against the Nazi terror and demanded an end to the persecution of Socialist, Communist and other radical workers, and of the Jewish masses.”

While the Star appears to have only given the July 11 protest a brief write-up, the Globe went into considerably more detail, calling it a “spectacular mass protest against Hitler’s antisemitic program in particular, and ‘fascism’ in general.” The Globe‘s reporter was particularly struck by how orderly and peaceful the protest appeared to be. “Apart from those officers on traffic duty, there were not more than a baker’s dozen policeman in sight. The whole situation was a tribute to the orderly sense of Torontonians.” Nevertheless, the unnamed reporter observed that crowd was enthusiastic, and that the event was clearly stirring, inspiring several sympathizers to join the protest along its route, including “a white-robed dentist [who] was so fascinated with the parade that he left his patient in the chair.”

Coverage in The Telegram, July 12, 1933.

Coverage in The Evening Telegram, July 12, 1933.

The Telegram, which frequently ran antisemitic editorials throughout the 1930s, had a curious take on the demonstration, opting for the headline “‘Reds’ Butt in As City Jews Hit Nazi Acts.” Their position seemed to be that the event had been organized specifically as a Jewish protest opposing Hitler’s actions toward German Jews, but had been hijacked by what one editorial called “this unauthorized invasion of communists.” The Telegram also saw the presence of so many different groups and banners as a source of confusion and lack of cohesion. “While the parade was ostensibly one to protest against Hitlerism,” ran one article, “it would have been hard for anyone witnessing it to understand what it was all about.”

Later in the week, several of the Toronto dailies reported that the protest had proceeded without the support of the League for the Defence of Jewish Rights. “We decided that we ought not to be associated with it,” Rabbi Samuel Sachs, chairman of the League, told the Mail and Empire. “It was not a parade to urge protection of Jews in Germany, strictly speaking, but a parade of united workers, union people, demonstrating against ruthless treatment and subordination of organized labour by the Fascisti in Germany.” The League’s position was repeated in subsequent Telegram editorials, which expressed the belief that encouragement of the local radical communist element undermined the Jewish cause. “That a large and influential section of the Jewish community disapproved of the parade has been made manifest,” ran one editorial. “They have been put on the defensive by permitting a disloyal element to take advantage of this opportunity to flaunt their offensive propaganda…If they cannot prevent it, the proper authorities will have to take steps to see that it is prevented in the future.”

The weeks following the July 11 anti-fascist protest were difficult ones for Toronto, as the press reported on an increasing number of antisemitic incidents across southern Ontario. In the beaches, a local “Swastika Club” formed: Local residents took to wearing swastikas while publicly parading along the boardwalk and singing anti-Jewish songs, claiming that their aim was to “keep the beaches clean.” On August 16, a baseball game at Christie Pits featuring a predominantly Jewish team ended in violence when an antisemitic mob unveiled a large, swastika-emblazoned blanket, prompting a clash with outraged Jewish youths. This incident, known as the “Christie Pits Riot,” took on additional significance for Toronto’s Jewish community as events in Germany, and indeed across Europe, unfolded over the subsequent years.

The emergence of "Swastika Clubs" in Toronto. The Evening Telegram, August 1, 1933.

The emergence of “Swastika Clubs” in Toronto. The Evening Telegram, August 1, 1933.

The city’s labour movement remained fragmented during the 1930s, frequently divided by political ideologies. In her study of the history of the Jewish labour movement in Toronto, Ruth Frager observes that the manufacturers “strove to capitalize on and reinforce the fragmented nature of the labour force in [the clothing industry],” and “worked to intensify divisions between Jews and non-Jews, women and men, and Communists and anti-Communists in the workforce.” Historian Irving Abella observes that “the incredible energy and time spent fighting amongst themselves, many of the major protagonists now concede, could better have been used fighting Jewish labour’s real enemies.”

“Although the immigrant Jewish activists were often unable to overcome these divisions,” Frager adds, “they fought courageously despite blacklists, police brutality, and the threat of deportation or incarceration. They strove for justice for working people and for Jews.”

In his 1975 article, Ian Angus writes that the protest, although evidently not well-remembered by Torontonians in later years, was a significant event in Canadian history, as it provided “a model of united front action for others to follow. Organized around the single issue of opposition to fascism, it welcomed all who agreed on that issue from the Communist Party to social-democratic labour leaders, from the Left Opposition to working class Zionist groups. Within the united front framework, each group was free to put forward its own program and raise its own slogans.” One of the July 11 marchers, quoted in the next day’s Globe, summed up this united front attitude, saying “Some of us may be more to the Left than others, but the main thing is solidarity.”


Additional material from: Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948 (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982: Toronto); Ian Angus, “The Toronto Anti-Fascist Strike, 1933,” The Socialist History Project (Originally published in Labor Challenge, July 14, 1975); Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975: Toronto); Morris Biderman, A Life on the Jewish Left: An Immigrant’s Experience (Onward, 2000: Toronto); Ruth A. Frager, Sweatshop Strife: Class, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Jewish Labour Movement of Toronto 1900–1939 (University of Toronto Press, 1992); The Globe (April 3, June 2, June 22, July 7, July 8, July 12, July 13, 1933); Cyril H. Levitt and William Shaffir, The Riot at Christie Pits (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987: Toronto); Jack Lipinsky, Imposing Their Will: An Organizational History of Jewish Toronto, 1933–1948 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011: Montreal & Kingston); The Daily Mail and Empire (July 11, July 12, 1933); The Militant (July, 1933); October Youth (April, June/July, August/September, October/November, 1933); Shmuel Mayer Shapiro, The Rise of the Toronto Jewish Community (Now & Then, 2010: Toronto); Spartacist (February, 1988); Stephen A. Speisman, The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 (McClelland and Stewart, 1979: Toronto); The Toronto Star (March 24, March 31, April 1, April 3, July 12, 1933); The Evening Telegram (March 11, April 3, July 12, July 13, July 14, 1933); John Herd Thompson with Allen Seager, Canada 1922–1939: Decades of Discord (McClelland and Stewart, 1985: Toronto); “The Trotskyist Movement in Canada, 1929–1939,” The Socialist History Project (Originally an undergraduate history essay written at the University of Toronto; author unknown); The Vanguard (July, 1933); The Worker (July 15, 1933); Young Militant (December, 1933); Young Spartacus (January, 1933); Young Worker (March 25, May 13, July 19, August 21, 1933).


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