Saturday, August 10, 2013
Remembering the Christie Pits riot of Toronto in 1933
On the evening of Aug. 16, 1933, the elder Black obligingly let a youth into his store who said he desperately needed to make a call. The fellow was carrying a long steel rod. As Mr. Black hovered nearby, he overhead the teenager trying to summon anti-Semitic reinforcements for the melee that had shockingly broken out across the street.
“My dad took the guy’s arm, pulled it up behind him until you could hear it crack, dislocated the arm completely,’’ recalls the son, now 87 years old, but with vivid recollections of that chaotic night.
“I have memories of everything.”
This was one time that Toronto’s Jewish community would not stand for the abuse, the Jew-baiting, which was quite prevalent in the city in those years just before World War II, when Adolf Hitler had just taken power in an economically flattened Germany and Nazism was ascendant.
This one time, Toronto’s Jews — the teen boys, at least — fought back, with help from Italian lads (the late Johnny Lombardi among them) who’d been equally resented and unwelcome as “foreigners’’ in what was an insular, xenophobic town sometimes called the Belfast of Canada because of its militantly Protestant character and the flamboyant annual Orange Parades.
Working-class youth of Scottish and British stock were just as socially and financially frozen out of the landed gentry privileges personified by the Eaton family — “they ran the city,” snorts call-me-Joe. (At Eaton’s, Jews were hired only for jobs where they wouldn’t deal with the public; a Jewish woman, for example, would not be considered for the elevator-operation position.)
But the white trash had kikes and wops to look down their noses at, as the two largest “ethnic” demographics in the ’30s.
Swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes were not an unfamiliar sight in Toronto. Neither Jews nor Italians were permitted to swim at the city-run Sunnyside pool. They weren’t welcome, either, during that hot summer of ’33, at public beaches in the east and west.
Temperatures and tempers were seething.
It all broke at the end of a softball game at Christie Pits between a Catholic youth team from St. Peter’s Church, and Harbord Playground, composed mostly of Jewish boys but also some Italians.
The rumble erupted when a clot of boys from the self-styled Pit Gang, who’d been sitting on the “camel’s hump’’ — a knoll just south of the baseball diamond — unfurled a large white quilt featuring a black swastika. Young Joe, 7 ½ years old but wandering around the park by himself as usual — “it was such a different time’’ — had been nearby. This was a kid who’d frequently been beaten up for the mere crime of being Jewish. Yet his jaw dropped, watching the riot that developed and raged for six hours.
“As soon as some of the Jewish players on the youth team saw that swastika, they went after those guys and tore that flag apart.’’
Using whatever came to hand — baseball bats, clubs, chunks of wood, a few knives (no guns involved, likely explaining why no deaths ensued) — the two sides went at each other furiously, one great big jumble of flailing arms and legs in the donnybrook middle, spilling over into smaller brawls around the park.
“Everybody was hell-bent for whatever,’’ recalls Joe. “Then a rumor started that a Jewish boy had been killed.’’
Hearing of that, Italians loaded onto trucks, arriving from the heart of their neighbourhoods along College St. Jewish youth were also falling in, armed for battle, from their primary turf at Spadina and Bloor. “It went on for hours and hours,’’ says Joe. “This was summer, so it stayed light till around 9 o’clock. But they were still at it at two, three in the morning.’’
Joe, a child, flitted here and there but never actually hit anybody or got hit. “I was a perfect coward.’’
No victor was ever declared.
“Let’s just say those Pit Gang boys got the s--- knocked out of them. The next day, the city woke up to the news of this huge riot.’’
The Toronto Telegram, status quo to its core, blamed the violence on “Jewish hooligans who started the whole thing,’’ says Joe.
The Star, with the late Jocko Thomas covering the event as a cub reporter, wrote: “While groups of Jewish and Gentile youths wielded fists and clubs in a series of violent scraps for possession of a white flag bearing a swastika symbol at Willowvale Park last night, a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens, excited by cries of ‘Heil Hitler’ became suddenly a disordered mob and surged wildly about the park and surrounding streets, trying to gain a view of the actual combatants, which soon developed in violence and intensity of racial feeling into once of the worst free-for-alls ever seen in the city.
“Scores were injured, many requiring medical and hospital attention … Heads were opened, eyes blackened and bodies thumped and battered as literally dozens of persons, young or old, many of them non-combatant spectators, were injured more or less seriously by a variety of ugly weapons in the hands of wild-eyed and irresponsible young hoodlums, both Jewish and Gentile.’’
Typical Star, blame everybody.
It was the first and last genuine riot in Toronto. Police, possibly for the first time, came under intense criticism for failure to avert a showdown, which, as was later revealed, many people had been expecting. There had been preliminary scrimmages in the east end, in previous days. Yet there were only three cops at Christie Pits.
“Toronto police were completely anti-Semitic in those days,’’ says Joe.
The riot may have been a historical watershed, but little would change for Jews, Italians and other minorities in the city, not for decades. Now we so proudly trumpet Toronto’s ethnic diversity.
The 80th anniversary of the Christie Pits riots is being commemorated with a softball game Sunday featuring media celebrities, organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, from both the Jewish and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Joe will be there, too.
He was not much more than a teenager when he enlisted, joining first the army and then transferring to the air force during the war years. As a civilian returning to Canada, Joe would lead an adventurous life. He was official photographer for the NHL and the CFL, for the Beatles’ first trip Toronto, Elvis, the romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that played out here. His own romance with wife Beatrice, who passed away earlier this year, lasted 67 years.
After WWII, Joe hoped to buy a house in a new suburban Toronto development built expressly for returning vets.
He was rejected — no Jews allowed.
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