When I was a kid growing up, I used to love my grandfather Milton’s stories. “Pop-Pop” as we called him, was in WWII and as a ten year old, of course, war stories were my favorite stories. Only children get to ask veteran’s about war stories. He was reluctant, but he would occasionally tell me some war stories, especially if they had a good moral. I can almost hear is old raspy voice saying, “It was night somewhere in the South Pacific. Our platoon was hiding in the dark for hours. The officers told everyone not to make a sound. We had one guy in our platoon that was a wise guy and talked a lot. So this guy got bored and started talking to his friend. Then ‘CRACK,'” my grandfather would say, (really loud to for the startling effect), “He was shot dead. SO keep your mouth shut.”
More often he would tell me stories about growing up in Newark, NJ. There were a lot of interesting ones, and Newark, even back then, had its fair share of battlefields. Once he told me a similar-themed story about smuggling booze for Longie Zwillman. “They had a chain of men passing cases of booze down a dock off a ship from the Jersey shore. It was dark and you couldn’t see nothing but the hands passing you the booze, and the hands you were passing too. Well some guy was a wise guy and started talking and BOOM, and then you hear a splash. Never heard from again, SO keep your mouth shut.” I remember being suspicious that the stories weren’t true and my parents were more than happy to cast a shadow of doubt.
I definitely had a favorite story. I made him tell it to me often. It was when Milton and his friends beat up what he sometimes called “Bunds” or the “Brownshirts,” but usually just called “Nazis.”
“Before the war there were these Americans that loved Hitler. They were called Bunds and they wore Brownshirts. They would have meetings around town and they had camps around here (where we lived in Western New Jersey) where they would go and they would always talk bad about Jews and call us Kikes. They wanted to create a “New Germany” in America. Well, I was friends with this guy Nat, he was a big boxer at the time and connected to Longie Zwillman, and he had a group called “The Minutemen” to fight Nazis.”
“One day we got the call that they were having a big meeting and that they were going to be talking bad about Jews and that we should get them. One of the guys had a plumbing truck and we went around and picked up guys and took them to their meeting. Me and a couple of other guys snuck into the meeting and we sat in the back row.”
“We had snuck these stink bombs in and we set them off. The whole hall started to stink to high heaven. Well, eventually they all had to come out and when they stepped outside “BOOM” we’d hit them on the head with pipes from the plumbing van. We had a line of guys waiting for them and just “BOOM” and “BOOM”. We kicked their tuchuses until the cops came and made us stop.”
Fast forward ten years and I am at Rutgers University. I was taking the very popular “Jerseyanna” course that was taught by two professors who were experts in New Jersey history and culture. There I was, reading my textbook for class, (Jerseyanna written by Marc Mappen), there it was in front of me. Suddenly, I am reading a very similar story to the one my Grandfather told me… in my college textbook! It is hard to explain the feeling it gave me. I was definitely proud, and also surprised. I remember going to visit my Grandfather and telling him, “I learned about you in my class at college.”
I did more research and the story is told in acute detail in the book, Nazi’s in Newark, by Warren Grover. Most of the details my grandfather told me were true, including the “stink bombs” which I found surprising. However, the book refers to it less as the righteous fight it seemed when my grandfather told it and more as a “riot,” complete with tear gas and all.
I can imagine this story happening now. I can imagine “Project Veritas” infiltrating them and accusing them of “chemical terrorism”. I can imagine talk radio talking about their “criminal gang” affiliations. I can hear the calls to “lock them up” and referring to them as “professional rabble rousers” who disobeyed the police. I can imagine the undercurrent of anti-semitism that would be just below the surface giving the story a certain type of legs.
I don’t have to imagine how I felt, as a kid, hearing this story in the 1980s. I don’t have to imagine how I felt as a college student learning that this was true in the 1990s. Then, as we do now, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know what those ideas lead up to. We know that these ideas, and the people associated with them, caused some of the worst catastrophes in modern history. What I find so interesting is that, my grandfather and his fellow “Minutemen,” didn’t know that at the time. They couldn’t have imagined the horror that Nazis and their allies caused, or that he would have to go to war to fight them with guns and bombs, instead of stink bombs and lead pipes. As I am typing this, I am aware of the irony of being in defiance of my Grandfather’s favorite moral-of-a-story to “keep my mouth shut.”
At this time in America where those willing to stand up to Nazis and Fascists in the streets are already being referred to as “terrorists,” a label which can deny them any of the protections our legal system offers citizens, there is a wisdom to keeping your mouth shut. I know many people around me are keeping their mouth shut. The best lessons however aren’t that simple. Perhaps, in this instance, it was the Nazis who should have “kept their mouth shut.” Perhaps freedom of speech also means, sometimes, having to pay for what you say.
I also have to say it has been fascinating watching the Right go from ridiculing the Left as safe-space seeking snowflakes to being scared of the violent mobs. Lastly, I am going to open my mouth one more time because there is something one last thing I have to say,
“Thank you Pop-Pop. I love you.”