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The Collingwood Massacre

by Gad Nahshon

On September 16, 1931, Irving Milberg, Harry Kewell, Ray Bernstein and Harry Fleisher, members of the notorious 'Purple Gang' murdered in cold blood, the Jewish gangsters from Chicago - Herman Hymie, Paul Joseph, 'Nigger' Joe Lebovitz and Joseph 'Izzy' Sutker.

It took place at Collingwood Street in Detroit. This is the reason that contemporaries called it the Collingwood Massacre. The Purple Gang was established by the Bernstein brothers. Their success had to do with prohibition. Detroit was described at that time as "a wetted city." The Purple Gang's members were Jewish and second generation Americans. "A hard lot of guys, so tough they made Al Capone's playmates look like a kindergarten class," according to one source. Indeed they were Jews who murdered other Jews in the gang wars of the 1920's or the 1930's. They were a segment of the Jewish community of Detroit, around 35,000 Jews. The story of the Purple Gang is a chapter in a new book about Jewish criminals in America. Recently there is a new interest in this aspect of Jewish life in America.

The Purple Gang is only one story in the new narrative history of Jewish crime. It was written by the historian who lives in Israel, Robert A. Rockaway. His book But He Was Good To His Mother - The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, was published by Gefen, Jerusalem, New York 2000.

"...this is not a book of fiction. Wherever possible I verified the accuracy of my sources and based my narrative on fact...," wrote Rockaway, who researched the FBI files or local police files. It is known that recently in books or movies, the Jewish gangster gets many favorable images, a romantic one, or the attempt to rehabilitate his memory. Also many stories of Jewish gangsters keep repeating themselves.

Rockaway wrote: "Many of my stories in the book are humorous. However, the comic nature of the anecdotes is not meant to minimize the viciousness of these men... In no way do I seek to glorify the Jewish gangster. He was however part of the Jewish experience in America." Indeed, many stories and anecdotes in this book are new. Each story, for example, the life of the 'Boss' (New Jersey) Abner 'Longy' Zwillman can be used to write a fascinating script for a movie. But there are stories such as the story of Meir Lansky that were repeated time and again. Rockaway discussed Jewish criminals who were active here before World War I, but the book stresses the 1920's to 1940's experience. The focus is on Benjamin Siegel, Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Waxy Gordon, Harry Horowitz (Gyp the Blood), Moe Dalitz, Louis Amberg, Lepke Buchalter, Diamond Jack (Legs), Flegenheimer, Arthur (Dutch Schultz), Abbe Reles, Herman Rosenthal, Shapiro Jake (Gurrah), Charles Solomon (King), Jack Zelig, Jack Guzik (Greasy Thumb), Hoff Max (Boo Boo), and many others. Most of them were not Kings or Bosses, most of them were soldiers, they were told what to do.

Indeed Rockaway introduced the reader to many new gangsters and new anecdotes. He does not attempt to be analytical such as Joselit Jenna Weisman was in her great research, Our Gang in which she focused on the attitude of the Jews to their 'Black Sheep of Israel.' There is always a question to be asked: What is a Jewish crime? Or, what is Jewish about the crimes of a Jewish gangster?

Rockaway, like other writers, answered by pointing out that the criminals were good family men, loved their families, and pushed the family away from the underworld, from crime. Rockaway's mother told him: "But he was good to his mother." (The typical Jewish gangster). Of course we do not have a sociologically well researched evidence. But Rockaway dedicated a nice chapter to this issue: The family came first. He pointed out that Mickey Cohen wrote that his friends always had "a very, very strong family life...we had a code of ethics...that one never involved his wife or his family in his work."

Rockaway wrote that the Italian families of crime used to inter-marry among themselves. The Jewish gangster pushed his children away to college. He wrote about Lansky's own son who became a West Point graduate and how Lansky was happy and proud about it. It is the same pattern of the famous Jewish Boxers: their children went to college and the fathers were happy about their move away from boxing. Therefore, we did not see a second generation of Jewish typical gangsters in America. Most of the classical ones dies as late as the 1960's. Many died in jail. The only Jewish crime today is perhaps the involvement of Jews in the 'white collar' crimes. But again what is Jewish about it?

Rockaway discussed the story of a Jewish family man who was famous in America: 'Longy' Zwillman, who loved and supported his family and relatives. Rockaway concluded: "Longy's Italian friends on the other hand often brought their offspring and relations into the business. This was a major difference between the two ethnic groups." Longy always kept his family away from his criminal activities. So at least these gangsters such as Lepke Buchalter, the only gangster who died on the electric chair was also known to be a very good family man. Rockaway, like others, did not forget to give some of these criminals more good credit: They protected Jews against anti-Semitic attacks, they were defenders of Jewish communities and Jewish interests. Even the Jewish establishment used them in combating their enemies. The criminals also helped to stop the pro-Nazi movement which was active here in the 1930's and especially in New York.

Again, Rockaway only tells the stories. We cannot assess the scope of the special contributions to the safety of the Jews. Rockaway also points out that the Jewish gangsters gave to the struggle to establish Israel and to the Israelis during their Independence War. We do not have as yet good research but we know that they did help by donations, by helping to achieve arms or other needed military supplies. They also helped the 'Irgun' and the Lehi.

Rockaway wrote that they also helped the 'Bergson Group' (Itshay Ben-Ami) to buy an American boat which later was called 'Altelena.' This boat almost caused a civil war in June of 1948 when it approached the beach of Tel Aviv. The boat served the Irgun and Ben-Gurion decided to destroy it in Tel Aviv, a terrible mistake, a terrible story. According to Ben-Ami, the 'Boss' Mickey Cohen donated $50,000 (the price of this boat was $75,000.) Cohen paid for most of it! Ben-Ami said (1981) that Cohen and other gangsters all together contributed $120,000 to the 'Irgun' or 'The Bergson Group'!

Ben-Ami, a great man and activist, died in 1986. Indeed, Jews, criminal Jews, helped Israel and supported the Zionist struggle in America. Rockaway pointed out that the representative of the 'Yishuv,' Jewish Agency and the Hagana developed before 1948 strong contacts with Jewish gangsters such as Mickey Cohen, Meir Lansky, and 'Bugsy' Siegel. Rockaway used the evidence of emissaries such as Yehuda Arazi, who developed relations with Lansky who mobilized for the struggle of Albert Anastasia. Even Teddy Kollek who came to buy arms here met Jewish gangsters for getting help. Another emissary, Reuvan Dafni, was active in Miami and was helped by the Jewish gangster Sam Kay. Dafni also established contacts with Bugsy Siegel in Los Angeles. Siegel gave him $50,000 when he learned that Jews were fighting in Palestine. Another emissary, Murray Greenfeld, also received $90,000 from gangsters in Baltimore.

Many gangsters did help the Zionists and the Israelis in their struggle but they did not volunteer to fight over there. Rockaway discussed the contribution of these gangsters to the safety of the Jews in this country. This is a well known fact. They did fight for Jewish rights and equality, as well.

The following demonstrates this contribution: Nathan Perlman, a judge and a Jewish activist, contacted Meir Lansky for a mission: to attach and dismantle the activities of the Nazi 'Bundist' movement in New York. He told Lansky: "Attack but do not kill..." Lansky fulfilled this mission. The same was true in the case of 'Longy' Zwillman in Newark, the Nazi Bund was active over there. Zwillman helped to organize 'Jewish Minutemen' to combat Nazism in New Jersey. Of course, the FBI was in the picture but Nazis were active until America declared war on Hitler (Dec. 8, 1941.)

Indeed all over America the gangsters, Rockaway tells us, helped to combat the pro-Nazis, and therefore gained some respect from the Jewish community. Again we do not have enough research to assess the scope of this help. Rockaway concluded that the Lanskys and the Siegels and the Zwillmans "...could provide what respectable Jews could not: physical protection for the community and arms for an Israel struggle to survive. These men were not latter day Robin Hoods and should not be glorified as such. Yet in their time, they contributed to their people's survival."

How can one explain their way of life? Their criminality? In one word: Poverty. They were the children of the Jewish ghetto in America: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark. When the ghetto disappeared, the Jewish gangster disappeared, the new generation of Jews did not need crime in order to make it in America. But it looks as if the subject of the Jewish gangster, this myth of Jewish violence, will stay with us as part of our collective memory. I am sure that even today there are many Jews who would like to forget this memory of the life of the Jewish gangster which Rockaway described in his illuminating book But He Was Good To His Mother. It is not good for the image of American Jewry. Jews, although no more a part of 'ethnic America', still express sensitivity as if we are always responsible for the behavior of each member of our tribe and for each American with a Jewish name.


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