The Day the Brooklyn Dodgers Finally Died
By Thane Rosenbaum
It was a Brooklyn crime. You know, half-baked, second best; the kind you might just forget, or worse, never even hear about. Manhattan is an island of headlines. Wall Street hustlers get carted off in handcuffs. A Muslim sheik stands trial for terror. Mafia men named Roco become quick studies on RICO. A jogger in Central Park gets raped.
The crimes of Brooklyn lie low, like its buildings, the stone clock tower on Hanson Place, the borough's one skyscraper, overlooking Manhattan like granite with a grudge. It's not that the crimes are all petty. Bad things do happen in Brooklyn. But there is a legal ranking to mischief. Not everything that is felonious is a felony. Murder, for instance, in the eyes of the law where justice is purportedly blind, is worse than attempted murder. Criminals, apparently, receive a break for failure. Society deems some crimes more odious than others. And our culture regards some crimes as simply more newsworthy.
And so in the public imagination, the crimes of Brooklyn are all misdemeanors, all bold face and tabloid, the Page 6 of no consequence, a New York City afterthought, always a river away from a bigger story.
But not a lesser moral lesson.
The New Year was young, still January, and a present arrived in the form of prejudice. 2003 announced itself in Brooklyn as some deranged New Year's resolution.
Returning home from synagogue on Saturday, January 25, Max Birnbaum walked slowly, his usual speed, hand over wrist and behind his back, cufflinks as handcuffs, a prisoner only to himself. He was wearing a long charcoal gray winter coat and a beige hat with a brown ribbon trim, tilted to the side like a gangster from the 40s.
Max glanced at his car. Because it was shabbos, he gave no thought to driving. But there was no breach in looking out for what was his. Max came from a world where possessions easily changed hands, where title was trivial and thugs respectable. Looting was the order of the day. Pickpockets had long, larcenous fingers, and reached for valuables that didn't fit inside pockets.
Max liked keeping an eye on the things he owned, just in case. He was cautious, methodical and mannered, a European refinement dulled by his experience with far too much death. No wonder he was caught so off guard by what he saw, especially on his day of rest.
"Veyiz mir!" he shouted, his face, aged, now looking even older. "What is this?"
He knew what it was. He had seen this symbol before. He just had never seen it on his Honda before, a decidedly non-Bavarian motor work. Later that day, when the sight of the swastika downshifted from traumatic to tranquil, he realized he hadn't seen one in all his years living in America. The Stars and Stripes had shielded him from the black flag of his past. But now, spray-painted in silver on the window of his green Accord like a lurid tattoo was the Nazi symbol and what it came to represent—the swastika as flash card, the Rorschach test recognizable to everyone, but lethal to Jews.
"In Brooklyn," he muttered while his body trembled. "After all these years it follows me to Midwood. I feel sick."
Alternate side of the street parking was not in effect; otherwise it would have sickened him earlier. On weekdays, Avenue L and East 29th Street, Max's block, resembled a showroom of jalopies, cars lined up two-by-two, pointing in the same direction as if revving up for a demolition. Most of the cars were beat-up from fender-benders and errant attempts at parallel parking. But the insult to Max's car was no dent, no standard Geico claim. A bird dropping would have been far more welcome.
His morning at shul spared him the indignity for a few hours. There was prayer before the pain. The same was true of his neighbors. His was not the only car. A Saturday morning swastika special awaited nine other Jews, in addition to Max, as they emerged from synagogue. A minyan of hate crime victims returned home to find their cars defaced, reduced to haunted billboards, the most violent provocation in the Jewish galaxy. Brooklyn became center stage for a post-Holocaust crime caper. There was desecration of property. And there was insult to the already injured.
Harsh winds turned scarves into zigzagging streamers—flying confetti and ticker tape, like the kind that floated upon Fulton Avenue when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1955 World Series. Fishing boats glided warily on the icy currents of Sheepshead Bay, trying to find their sea legs. With propellers churning the water resembled the whipped chocolate syrup and white-capped froth of an authentic Brooklyn egg cream. Nine days earlier, in this Brooklyn neighborhood, 26 cars were vandalized in the same way—red swastikas spray-painted on car hoods by Brooklyn hoods.
"Who would do such a thing?" cried Sally Rabinowitz, an Auschwitz survivor upon seeing the window of her Ford Taurus, the windows fogged up by someone who was so undeniably fucked up. She affectionately called her car tsouris, which in Yiddish meant trouble. Now she finally knew why. "What kind of a person wants to be a Nazi? This is an ambition?" she raged. "It's like wanting to be a Hun."
"The Huns would be better," Max said jokingly. "They were more civilized." He was trying to calm his friend, but there was no use. This rant had been in rehearsal since 1945. She had been liberated from the camp, but not the rage. "Sally, my dear, we know there are people in this world who do nothing but hate," Max continued. "That's what they live for; that's what gives them their greatest pleasure. Hate is comfort food, like chocolate or ice cream. And, even with so many varieties, Jews are always everyone's favorite flavor."
"Even here, Max?" Sally said, already knowing the answer, but there was comfort in the possibility that she might be wrong. "After the Holocaust you'd think that the world would be nauseous from anti-Semitism already. It's like the Nathan's Fourth of July hot dog eating contest on Coney Island. Who wants to look at a hot dog after that?"
"Sally," Max said with both a lowered tone and downcast eyes, "this is a free country. You can eat as much as you want, and you can hate until it gives you a stomach ache. The haters have rights here, too, you know."
"God bless America," Sally sighed.
The spectacle of swastikas continued, like a Passover plague that parked itself in Brooklyn, conveniently on its unmoving cars. All of the Jewish neighborhoods became targets: Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Borough Park, and Crown Heights. Williamsburg, with its Hasidim and hipsters, was naturally not spared the torment, either. Whoever was responsible for this Holocaust mind-fuck knew what they were doing. Brooklyn, after all, was the mother lode of Jewish martyrdom. It was a graveyard, even for the living. The four-pointed symbol of the Nazi menace was pointedly directed at where one-third of all Holocaust survivors in the United States lived. Swastikas had followed the survivors like homing pigeons, crossing the ocean, nesting in Brooklyn, reminding the survivors that they would never truly be home.
And not all the graffiti was scrawled on cars. Synagogues, doorposts, and stairwells also became canvases for this graphic and graphical assault. A swastika was burned into the ceiling of an apartment building. The words "Kill the Jews" were painted on the walls of another building like a twisted rap lyric.
Kristallnacht had come to Brooklyn. The glass remained intact, the riot was modestly restrained; the only sound from the street was the creepy, gaseous hiss of an aerosol can.
"Never again!" Stanley Leiblich bellowed when he came upon his Chevy minivan and saw the new exterior design. He spoke those words as if they were his own, as if they were not already a mass-produced slogan of Jewish smack talk. But he was one Jew who could say it and back it up. He loved his car, but he respected his past even more. "Not on my street! Whoever did this will pay!"
Stanley was a beefy man not known to bluster. Everything about him was solid. A former meat packer, he had enormous hands and broad shoulders, a wide back and a stomach that entered a room before he did. Even at his advanced age, he still played in a summer softball game in Prospect Park with much younger athletes who deferred to his slugger swing and granted him the clean-up spot.
Later that day, the Jews of Midwood gathered on the street corners of Ocean Parkway, with its wide, oceanic street traffic, flanked by park benches and cars buzzing in either direction. Other than the Crown Heights riots of 1991, the swastikas of 2003 were the next closest thing to a Brooklyn pogrom. The neighborhood shtetls were growing anxious, as if America afforded no greater protection for its Jewish citizens than Czarist Russia.
"There are now Nazis in Midwood?" Stanley howled. He buttoned his coat and, like a space heater, raised the temperature around him. "How can that be?'
"Not Nazis, Nazis," Max said dismissively. "These people have Brooklyn accents, not German ones. They're home grown, American made, as Brooklyn as mustard on a soft pretzel. They don't goose-step up and down Flatbush or Atlantic Avenues. They're silent Nazis, cowards. The real ones carried nightsticks, not spray-paint. What we have here is probably a bunch of confused juvenile delinquents with nothing else to do."
"Not nothing to do," Sally interrupted. "They found time to do this." Her dark eyes turned red, sleepless even though the day had not yet ended and it was too early sleep. Her forehead creased from the pressure of raised eyebrows. "And I'm tired of giving excuses to anti-Semites. All kinds of people are unemployed and still don't spray-paint swastikas or burn crosses. Why do these people get a pass because they are bitter or have too much free time? Let them play a video game if they're bored, just don't paint a swastika on my car."
Such pockets of whispered panic and outrage spread everywhere.
Max, Sally, and Stanley were Brooklyn friends, united by neighborhood and a common past. Their spouses had died and now all they had left was each other and their memories. They knew the secret handshakes, the paper-thin sensitivities, the rare knowledge that was ultimately too raw to share. They met in Brooklyn but their bond was Poland and what had happened there. Max was from Radom; Sally came from Warsaw; Stanley was a former Lublin Yeshiva boy who had been expelled for fighting. Now, nearly sixty years later they were trying to reconcile how all that had brought them to Brooklyn had somehow followed them, and taunted them, jolting their memories like a cattle prod and reviving all their fears.
"I won't be able to sleep tonight," Sally continued. "Who knows what memories and demons will come."
For these people, nightmares didn't depend on sleep, or night.
"My young wife, Elka," Max said, "killed by the Nazis before we were taken from the ghetto. She died in my arms, and our baby died in her womb. And these people now paint swastikas in our neighborhood? Don't they know about my wife? What did they prove: that a Jew is never safe from his memories?"
Sally and Stanley simply stared at their friend. They knew his ghosts. All of their ghosts were intimates, on a first-name basis and with licenses to haunt freely. But in seeing Max wilt and shrink, Stanley wondered whether these swastikas were actually making the shrieks louder.
"My dead older brothers, Shmulek and Haskell," Stanley sobbed, "hid me in a farmhouse. That was the last time I saw them. And how are they remembered: empty graves in Europe, a Museum in Washington, and now swastikas in Midwood?"
"I lost my parents," Sally said. "I came here an orphan. And, today, because of these Brooklyn Nazis, I feel like an orphan all over again, still alone."
"I don't care whether they are real Nazis or Neo-Nazis or fake Nazis," Stanley thundered. "Brooklyn isn't big enough for Holocaust survivors and the rejects from a Halloween party." His big mitts were clenched into a boxer's fists; his ears coughed steam like a freight train. "I want vengeance. Let's take back the streets and honor the dead."
"But shouldn't we wait first to see what the police do?" Max wondered. "It's their job. They won't neglect this."
"We are American citizens," Sally said. "They will want to help us. They will want to show that such a thing cannot happen in America. They will find these bastards and punish them."
"I'm not so sure," Stanley said, sulking, deflating like the Hindenburg.
Two United States senators, a congressman, and local politicians, including the borough president, a state senator, a state assemblywoman and assemblyman, a city council member, held community meetings, the largest at a Brooklyn YMHA. The police commissioner was there, joined by the NYPD's Hate Crimes Task Force, and officers from the 61st, 63rd, and 70th police precincts. The Holocaust had improbably become a campaign issue in Brooklyn, sixty years later and in a geography far removed from Germany. Unlike what the deniers deny, this was one crime that was not only true, but it was also seemingly never going away.
The Brooklyn district attorney issued search warrants. A number of Brooklyn civic leaders offered an $8,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those connected to the crime. There was a procession of platitudes. Everyone knew what to say; every photo-op was a free-for-all of elected officials trying to fit in the fame. For all the attention showered on these incidents, one would have thought that Hitler himself had returned from the bunker and resettled in the borough.
"One of our greatest strengths is our religious and ethnic diversity," the borough president reassured the audience at a community meeting. "Brooklynites will never, ever tolerate these kinds of cowardly actions."
All the evidence pointed to a copycat crime. With each swastika episode, the police declared that the events were disconnected. There was no lone Nazi-loving graffiti artist. Instead, the experts surmised the possibility of swastika sleeper cells.
"Copycat Nazis?" Sally ruminated. "Voos is a copycat Nazi?"
"Sounds like a fancy way to warn us that they won't be able to catch these animals," Max said dejectedly.
"I'm losing patience," Stanley threatened once more. "If they can't find them, I'll do it myself. I've already gotten all of my baseball bats out of storage—the aluminum and the wood. Smashing Nazi heads is a good way to take batting practice before spring training."
In the meantime, police detectives canvassed the neighborhood like census takers. They interviewed victims. They gathered evidence. They sniffed for DNA using German Shepherds. Up and down the streets of Ocean Parkway the cops patrolled, knocking on the stylish, sometimes Moorish, often garish large-brick homes owned by the vast number of Syrian Jews who preside over the neighborhood like a ruling class. Much of their wealth came from blue jeans—Jordache, Sassoon, and all kinds of knockoffs that might as well have fallen off the back of a truck. Midwood was ground zero for Levi Strauss's decline.
Yeshivas dotted the neighborhood like Starbucks, caffeinating teenagers with Talmud. In and out of kosher restaurants and auto repair shops on Coney Island Avenue detectives stopped to talk to young Orthodox Jewish families with their entourage of children. Pale nervous faces belonged to parents too young to be parents.
"Have you noticed any suspicious looking people lately, anyone who doesn't fit in?" a gruff, yellow-toothed, pockmarked detective asked, finding the Jews themselves strange-looking at the very least.
The Orthodox blinked, finding him equally alien.
Task forces went into action. There was talk of reclassifying the property desecration laws. Defaced property would no longer be deemed just a misdemeanor. If the damage was due to religious, ethnic, or racial hatred, the crime would be elevated to a felony. Everyone cheered this newly proposed decree. Brooklyn became consumed with bias-crime mania.
"Look," the police detective began calmly at one of the many meetings between the NYPD and the shaken community. His name was Podolak. He was Polish-American, born after the war. He didn't know his history, and worse, he didn't know their history. Because of that, he wasn't the best dot connecter around. The Jews had their own biases. They didn't necessarily trust a shiny badge and a Polish surname.
"Him? We're expecting him to protect us?" Stanley scoffed within earshot of the detective, but Podolak pretended not to hear and continued with his questioning.
"I know there are sensitivities," Detective Podolak reassured them. He was tall with a pink, angular face, blazing blue eyes and roadmap veins in his nose, the combined assault of sun and scotch. "Don't worry. We know what we're doing, and we know how to find these guys."
"But you won't know what you're looking for?" Sally said firmly. "It takes a certain kind of person to paint a swastika."
She was a short woman who looked decidedly shorter when surrounded by so many plain clothes detectives. Her dark hair was hoisted up in a bell tower bun as if she were trying to pick-up signals from the NYPD dispatch. With her loose-fitting outfit she looked like a Jewish genie that had just been released from a bottle of Manishevitz.
"You won't solve this crime by comparing it to others," Max joined in. "It's not the same. When it comes to the Holocaust, nothing is the same."
"They are right," Stanley said, bouncing on the balls of his feet as if he was about to dash out and return with a Louisville slugger. "You have to listen to us. You know from regular criminals, but we know from Nazis. "
"Maybe you would like for us to help you?" Max suggested.
"Help with what?" the detective wondered.
"The investigation, " Stanley replied. "You know, catching these guys."
"Oh, I see," Podolak said with a smirk. "Well, it's not like we wouldn't appreciate it. We really would. But we don't want to encourage citizens to get too personally involved. What you're doing right here is more than enough—you know, providing us with information."
"But we haven't told you anything yet," Sally said.
"Not true, ma'am, you've been invaluable so far," Detective Podolak said while heaving up his pants. A pack of cigarettes inched out of his shirt pocket like a periscope. "The main thing is for you folks to remain calm and let the NYPD do our job. You have to trust us. We can't very well have vigilantes out there impeding the efforts of law enforcement, can we?"
The survivors looked at one another as if he was speaking to them in a foreign language, perhaps Polish.
As it turned out, the police were getting nowhere. They were no closer to making an arrest than Nazi hunters had gotten to apprehending Joseph Mengele. For such an otherwise audacious and flamboyant group, Nazis do tend to disappear like vapor, not unlike their favorite killing substance. The NYPD was stumped, and the Holocaust survivors were steamed.
"They wouldn't even listen to us," Sally said.
"They treated us like children," Max said.
"I think they just want this to go away and to make nice," Stanley concluded.
With each week, the New York Daily News and the New York Post reported on the unsolved mystery of the Brooklyn swastikas. The official report from 1 Police Plaza was that all leads were being investigated, but there were very few clues. The police were waiting for the vandals to make their next move.
"What," Stanley scoffed, "solving this crime depends on a tip from Home Depot? Nothing happens until someone walks in and makes a large purchase of spray paint?"
"I'm afraid Stanley is right," Max relented. "I think it's time we do something."
"You sure?" Stanley salivated.
"Deal me in," Sally said, borrowing a phrase from her Tuesday night poker game at the East Midwood Jewish Center.
And so they organized, like partisans of Hungarian and Polish forests, which isn't as ridiculous as it sounds. The original Dutch settlers who founded this borough named it "Brueckelen," and Midwood comes from "Midwout," because of the dense, tangled forest that separated the center of this borough from Long Island. Today, fewer trees grow in Brooklyn, and Midwood is now a misnomer. These Holocaust survivor saboteurs would have to operate from less vernal confines, an urban cityscape where camouflage was found only inside concrete—more like the IRA than the Vilna partisans. Max, Sally, and Stanley formed their own band of Brooklyn bandits, an auxiliary police force working without a permit or portfolio.
This made sense. After all, these once wretched refugees came to America and settled in a section of New York City that named its Major League Baseball team the Dodgers. Could a more suitable refuge have been found? With Slavic accents and old world pasts, the survivors would never become true Yankees; nor, given what they had endured, would they ever grow to be Giants. But Dodgers they had been, and Dodgers they would always continue to be.
By the sheer happenstance of a sports mascot, Brooklyn had revealed itself as a borough of impermanence, of mercurial ways and wavering character—of shifty characters—of people on the run, of people who knew when to run, and how to dodge.
Ironically, the baseball team would earn its nickname by abandoning the borough not long after the Jewish refugees arrived. It would be remembered as the ultimate Brooklyn betrayal, a world-weary example of fleeting loyalties and broken trust. Yet, these were lessons that the Jewish refugees had themselves so recently and cruelly learned. The Brooklyn Dodgers left for LA. Big deal. Not very surprising to survivors. If the Holocaust had taught them anything, it was that no one was to be trusted, not even the home team—especially not the home team. In Brooklyn, as elsewhere, everyone is a flight risk.
Even many of the Holocaust survivors would leave Brooklyn, chasing the sun and retiring to Boca, Boynton, and Miami Beach. But not Max, Sally, and Stanley. They planted themselves firmly in the bedrock of Brooklyn, a strategically unwise move for people who knew to travel light and to minimize all attachments. Yet, after fifty years, the Borough of Brooklyn was in their bones, which is why they insisted that it cleanse itself of this shameful swastika stain.
"We should call ourselves the Dodgers," Stanley suggested during their first underground meeting, which was, in fact, held in the basement of his brownstone just off of Kings Highway. "We can even wear caps. I have some vintage ones, from 1955, when 'dem bumbs' won the World Series. You see, look, Dodger blue."
"I'm not wearing a hat," Max, a yecca, a European intellectual, said.
"I think it's a great idea," Sally said. "Calling ourselves the Dodgers is an act of memory. And besides, they named the team for the trolley cars of Brooklyn over a hundred years ago. They were so dangerous, going in every direction, Brooklynites had to dodge them."
"But what we dodged was cattle cars, not trolley cars," Max remembered bitterly.
In taking matters into their own hands, they created their own sensation. With their Brooklyn baseball caps and faux camouflage fatigues, they patrolled the neighborhoods of Brooklyn like a crack team of stakeout artists. From Carnarsie to Park Slope, Red Hook to Sunset Park, Bed-Stuy to Brownsville, they plowed through the borough, eavesdropping on conversations, interviewing possible suspects, infiltrating dangerous areas, fearlessly penetrating the seedy side of this City of Kings—the drug dens and the mobster hangouts, the gang bangers and the dead enders.
In order to ingratiate themselves to the neighborhoods, they gabbed with gangsters at the site of the old bathhouses in Brighten Beach.
"Meyer Lansky was a Jewish mobster, too, you know, but he wasn't from Odessa," Sally said to two men, both named Vladimir, who ran the rackets out of a restaurant underneath the D train on Brighton Beach Avenue.
Stanley interrupted a pickup basketball game in a Coney Island housing project, asking whether any of these hoopsters knew anything about swastikas. Eleven elevated brothers gathered around this wide-bodied Polish Jew as if he was scouting talent for St. Johns. At one point Stanley seized the ball from a surly point guard and demonstrated a fabulous crossover dribble.
Max, dressed like an undercover cop with hideous fashion sense, spoke with drug dealers in Fort Greene Park. They offered to sell him ecstasy and heroin, and in some hip-slang that Max was unable to translate, they claimed to know nothing about Nazi paraphernalia. Discouraged and heartbroken, Max popped a dissolvable nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue.
"Does that get you high, motherfucker?" a doo-ragged, hopped-up homeboy asked the amiable Holocaust survivor. "And what's that shit on your arm?" He was pointing at Max's Auschwitz tattoo. "I got me some badass, sick motherfucking tattoos right here. You want to see this shit?"
"No, thank you," Max replied.
"You forgot your ATM numbers or something? Yo, word up, dog, you shouldn't go be telegraphing personal, financial information like that, grandpa."
"What do you mean?" Max asked.
"Shit! Them numbers on your arm, those blue digits, dog," the would-be hip-hop, rapper warned his new Holocaust honky friend.
Max stared at his exposed forearm. His sleeve was rolled up as if this brother from another part of the borough was about to give him his fix.
"These numbers are not for a bank account," Max glanced up and replied.
"So what then?" the young man whose blue jeans hanging illegally low, worn more over his knees than on his waist asked gruffly, raising his sunglasses to get a better look, even at night.
"They were my prison numbers."
"No, shit," the gang-banger said. "Yo, motherfucker, you don't look like you've done time, like you're from 'Oz' or some shit like that. And I know, because I've been to Oz, you hear what I am sayin'. I've done me some time. And I tell you what, they don't put that shit on your arm like that! What'd you do? Where'd you get it? That's not from Sing Sing."
"No, it is not," Max spoke in fatherly way. "But it is my bling bling. I have not been to Oz, but I was at Aus . . . chwitz."
While it was true that the numbers came from a prison much farther away than Ossining, they were useful and valuable in Brooklyn, too. The survivors insisted on leaving their mark, their own trace of evidence that no one would actually be able to trace. The government had given them social security numbers, but in return they didn't have to trade in their concentration camp ID's. The numbers were theirs to keep. And now they had a purpose. Wherever Max, Sally, and Stanley went, through each of the bastions of Brooklyn, wherever their fact-finding would lead them, they would locate an appropriately abandoned wall, or the blank slate of a sidewalk, or even the morning snowfall that blanketed cars like a writing tablet, and scrawl with either chalk or with an index finger:
The 2003 Brooklyn Dodgers Were Here
And then they would sign off with their tattoos, a single row of dizzying digits, unaccountable numbers adding up to nothing at all.
It was not an act of defacement, but defiance. The signatures were, after all, erasable and harmless. They offended no one. It was nothing but a calling card from the survivors of concentration camps. The true survivors. Not like those clowns on "reality TV"—you know, the apprentices and runway models—but real survival, where Arbeit Macht Frei was a far more eternal and serious sendoff than being voted off of Fiji, or being told: "You're fired!"
Brooklynites didn't awake the next morning in terror. This wasn't an act of bias, although in some sense it was a crime of passion. All it did was drive everyone in the borough crazy with curiosity. What Dodgers? The team left for LA almost fifty years earlier. And what about those numbers: a lineup card, batting averages, a secret code to some treasure buried underneath Ebbets Field?
The 2003 Dodgers didn't solve the crime either. The swastika vandals went undiscovered and unpunished. They proved to be masterminds at mimicking the Master Race, most of whom escaped capture, too. So this became yet another of the many unsolved crimes of Brooklyn. It was a cold case that was made even colder because the underlying crime, the Holocaust itself, was receding in memory even though no crime on earth ever depended on so much hellfire heat.
Soon the entire swastika saga died out. Newspapers tired of the story and how it stalled, without any criminal prosecution, without any Jerry Springer-esque, trailer-trash drama. Something new would become more newsworthy. The Brooklyn Nazis disappeared and made room for the return of the new-look Brooklyn Dodgers. The spirit of Brooklyn's past and the post-Holocaust present had merged. The ghosts of "dem bumbs" were improbably called upon on behalf of the dead. It was an act of righteous homage, the consequence of cops who couldn't crack a crime of extreme prejudice. And best of all, this auxiliary police force of concentration camp survivors came with their own uniforms—not zebra stripes, or even Yankee stripes, but an immaculate Dodger white. A photograph of the three Holocaust survivors appeared in all the New York newspapers. Even the sports pages got into the act with the Sun doing a piece on Stanley's summer softball team.
New Yorkers may recall a far more lasting and memorable photo op that took place in the 1970s. The Guardian Angels were a ragtag, rainbow coalition that patrolled the streets and subways of the city with their red berets and reassuring presence in an effort to curb crime. Such spontaneous acts of vigilantism is what always happens when the law fails and when justice is undone.
Max, Sally, and Stanley didn't mind that their private investigations led to no public arrests. It would have been great to catch the Nazi wanabees. But it was equally rewarding to feel the sensation of their own relevance. Ignored and dismissed by the police, they had taken charge of the crime that had been committed against them, and expanded their crime scene investigation into a borough-wide manhunt—from the Wonder Wheel on Coney Island to the dormant cherry trees at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
But a year later, as a postscript to this Brooklyn tale, a different post-Holocaust crime occurred. And, yes, it happened once again in Brooklyn. This time, however, there were no swastikas. And there was no shabbos surprise. What was done took place in broad daylight, in a public building, with witnesses present and a court reporter recording the moment for posterity. The vandals wore vests, carried attaché cases, and one donned a robe. And the damage was not to property, but to pride.
Like all major crimes that linger and labor until they result in a re-injury, the genesis of this offense took place earlier. Both before and during the Holocaust, Jews had purchased life insurance policies and opened Swiss bank accounts—all in anticipation of an impending nightmare. They were looking for protection, hedging their bets. Governments had already failed them. Perhaps corporations were more likely to honor their customers than disgrace and defraud them.
Or so they had believed.
After the war, the survivors and their beneficiaries submitted claims to the insurance companies, which refused to pay on the policies. The Swiss banks, similarly, did not allow the depositors to reclaim their money.
"Death certificates! You want us to show death certificates?" the survivors shouted.
Yes, there was a legal loophole. As long as there are lawyers, there will always be ways for respectable people to capitalize on their inner lout. The Nazis had little tolerance for senseless paperwork that didn't advance the Final Solution. Why issue death certificates, and to whom? The Swiss and the insurance companies insisted on seeing the one document they knew didn't exist.
But it was even worse than that. It always is. A new wrinkle in history began to unfold. The truth about Switzerland was finally revealed. It seems that the Swiss were not "neutral" during the war as they had wanted everyone to believe. They had not, in fact, stood up to the Nazis. Their courage was a myth. The story of Swiss valor had about as many holes in it as their cheese. Believing in Swiss virtue was as cuckoo as one of their clocks.
The Swiss banks bargained away their honor on the way to making a buck. They bought their safety by fencing the Nazis' wartime booty. The Germans and the Swiss actually were allies. As the Nazis conquered land and blackened the sky with smoke and ash, the vaults of Swiss banks swelled with stolen artwork, gold bullion from state treasuries, and gold teeth from dead Jews.
Over fifty years later, American government negotiators, banking regulators, and class action lawyers muscled the Swiss banks to finally, and reluctantly, own up to their crimes. They were no longer able to yodel their way out of it. A small settlement fund was established of $1.2 billion.
But no one asked the Holocaust survivors how they thought the money should be distributed. No one included them in the negotiations; they never got a chance to confront the Swiss—face-to-face, depositor to despoiler. Decisions were once again being made on their behalf and without their input. Their opinions didn't much matter.
A federal judge in Brooklyn where the class action lawsuit had been filed decided to divert a significant, disproportionate amount of the Swiss bank settlement to Jews living in the former Soviet Union, even though there were Holocaust survivors living below the poverty line in the United States and the case was brought in Brooklyn, not Kiev. Class action lawyers in these and other restitution cases got rich without ever having to meet with the clients whose interests they were purportedly serving.
Bleak House had come to Brooklyn.
And so a perfunctory hearing was scheduled in federal court, on Cadman Plaza East, just over the Brooklyn Bridge. The federal judge had already decided to reject the wishes of the Holocaust survivors, but he scheduled a hearing anyway, as an act of phony listening, the illusion that someone was actually paying attention.
With the lesson of the swastikas still fresh in everyone's mind, the Dodgers organized once again. Only this time their numbers grew, as if a farm system of greeners was now feeding so much unsettled, pent-up fury. Stanley made sure to order more caps. Sally chartered a bus to haul survivors to the courthouse. Everyone made placards and signs. Max worked the press.
A lawyer from Miami righteously stood up and argued on behalf of those who no one actually wanted to hear. And he gave his clients a chance to speak, too, with audible accents, broken English, and broken hearts.
It was a sunny spring day, April in Brooklyn, with flowers blooming on Pierrepont Street and strollers shuttling toddlers on the Brooklyn Promenade. The federal courthouse was filled with survivors, lawyers, and onlookers. All the emotion sucked the chill out of the air-conditioning. Every seat was taken, and every lap was possessed by a ghost. Outside the building hundreds of Holocaust survivors gathered and held signs, written in magic marker and, of course, spray paint.
"You can't steal money that was already stolen and returned!" a bushy-bearded survivor exclaimed.
"We want to take care of our own!" a chirpy woman with blue makeup and a bad platinum dye-job shouted from the fray.
"No respect for the survivors!" a crescendo of voices picked up the chant.
Inside the courtroom, standing before a podium with wrinkled hands and clutching fingers, Max, his face sweating, his mind turning over words like a blackjack dealer, searched for the right ones that would express all the indignity that he and his fellow survivors had come to say.
Inside the courtroom, standing before a podium with wrinkled hands and clutching fingers, Max, his face sweating, his mind turning over words like a blackjack dealer, searched for the right ones that would express all the indignity that he and his fellow survivors had come to say.
"And worst of all, with all due respect, judge," Max sneered, "who are you to ignore us, to not listen to us, to assume that you know better when it was we who saw these crimes firsthand because they happened to us. You allowed the Swiss to settle too cheaply, and now you have cheapened us all by pretending that we are not here and do not matter."
"Look," the white-haired judge, a Brooklyn Law School graduate, interrupted the survivor, "many of you don't even have bank account numbers. The money I am distributing is discretionary. It doesn't belong to anyone in particular."
And with that remark the judge aligned himself more with the Swiss than with the forces of history. Rows of Holocaust survivors stood up in the gallery of the courtroom, shuffling like senior citizens, disordering the court. And in one simultaneous, unscripted yet graceful move, they revealed their left arms. It was not some mass donation of blood. The judge was faced with numbers that didn't match any bank records, but were as good a claim as any to Swiss bank accounts that were no longer in anyone's name.
Outside the protestors all wore blue Dodger caps, a great ensemble for the sky and the mood. Without knowing what was happening inside the courtroom, their forearms itched, as if the tattoos were sending signals, as if the numbers were not so random after all.
There are all kinds of crimes. Some damage and destroy, others merely scar. By the end of the day the judge's gavel pounded like a drum signaling defeat. Everyone was dismissed. Holocaust survivors poured out from the courthouse like curdled milk. They greeted their fellow protestors, who had already dropped their signs like white towels.
There was no sadness. The outcome was expected. These were old people, after all. They would soon be dead. The judge's ruling was surely not the worst thing that had ever happened to them. It was not so much about the result as the respect, of which there was none.
That was the truest crime of all.
And little wonder that this all took place in Brooklyn, the second city inside the city. Respect did not come easy here. The borough is a tribute to bad treatment. There are always snide remarks and the frown of an unfashionable address. It is a cliché of all that underachieves, always overshadowed by an island that knows enough to stay away from swastikas and the Swiss.
Copyright © Thane Rosenbaum 2010
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, and law professor, the author of the novels, The Golems of Gotham (San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Book), Second Hand Smoke, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish-American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in The New York Times and other national publications. He appears frequently at the 92nd Street Y where he moderates an annual series of discussions on Jewish culture and politics. He is the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham Law School, where he also directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the author of The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right (Harper Collins 2004), which was selected by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the Best Books of 2004.