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When Nazis tried to take over LA

Raising the Swastika at German Day Celebration, Hindenburg Park
Raising the Swastika at German Day Celebration, Hindenburg Park
Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, Community Relations Committee Collection, Part 2, Special Collections and Archives, Oviatt Library, California State University, Northridge

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Secret Nazi meetings, underground spy operations, foiled assassination attempts — no, it's not some Hollywood blockbuster. This was Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s; a war narrative that is finally getting told in a new book titled: “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America."

It tells the story of a man named Leon Lewis, a lawyer and leader for the Anti-Defamation League. Few people knew his name, but among the Nazis, he had a bit of a reputation:

"He was known very early on as the 'most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles,'" said book author Steven Ross. "They knew that Lewis had spies."

These "spies" were World War I veterans like Lewis, along with their wives. Soon after the lawyer learned that Nazi sympathizers were taking root in the city, he brought together a team to infiltrate fascist gatherings and report back on their plots. The spy ring operated out of an office building Downtown, just off Seventh and Flower. 

Leon Lewis,1918
Leon Lewis,1918

Seeds of discord 

In 1933, the US was reeling from the Great Depression. Then, to cut spending, the federal government slashed pensions for WWI disabled veterans. One-third of affected vets lived in Southern California. 

That’s when groups like the “Friends of New Germany” moved in. 

They held rallies around the city to recruit angry veterans. They blamed communists and Jews for the country’s problems and presented fascism as the solution.

When Lewis learned that the group was planning to turn violent, he went to the LAPD. But his meeting with then-chief James Davis didn't go as planned. 

"Two minutes into his speech about how the Nazis were planning sabotage, Davis stopped him and said, 'you don't get it. Hitler's only doing what he needs to do to save the German economy from the Jews who have perverted it,'" Ross said. "And he proceeded to imply — as far as he was concerned — every communist was a Jew, and every Jew was a communist."

Leon Lewis kept trying to raise the alarm. He went to the Sheriff and the FBI, but no one did anything. 

"They thought it was Jewish paranoia," Ross said. 

With no help from local law enforcement, Lewis realized that he’d have to stop the spread of fascism himself. 

Raising the funds

In 1934, when the money ran low, Lewis brought his findings to wealthy executives at Hollywood's most prominent studios.

"Leon Lewis told them — much to their surprise — that foremen in virtually every studio were firing every skilled Jewish worker and unskilled worker and replacing them with Aryan workers," Ross said. 

Some of those workers, Ross said, were members of Nazi-connected organizations operating in Los Angeles like the "Silver Shirts" and the "Friends of New Germany."

"And he shocked them by saying 'you guys are also being targeted for death,'" Ross said. 

By the time the meeting concluded, the leaders had pledged thousands of dollars to help Lewis' spy operations, which continued to report on groups with Nazi sympathies for nearly seven years without the acknowledgment of the US government. 

But in 1941, everything changed. 

On December 7th, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Days later, Germany declared war on the US. Ross says that within two days of the attack, 66 Germans, 12 US citizens with German sympathies, 14 Italians, and 326 Japanese fascists were arrested — all based on information Leon Lewis had provided to the authorities. 

Ross says that Lewis received little credit for his efforts. 

Disturbing parallel

Author Steven Ross started his book six years ago, but he thinks the timing has been serendipitous. He sees the story of Leon Lewis as a cautionary tale of what happens when people think “it can’t happen here.”

"We all need to be vigilant. When we hear hate speech, say something. When you know there's a demonstration, go there and let neo-Nazis, skinheads, Ku Klux Klan, John Birches, let them know 'not in our city and not in our nation.' There's no place for this," Ross said.

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