The Long Damn Summer of ’42: An Untold Story of Stolen Dreams
By Robert Leonard Berkowitz
Copyright © 2017 all rights reserved
In a letter from the outskirts of the Warsaw Ghetto my cousin Ignacy, a brilliant chemical engineer, made an urgent request for care packages and transit visas for himself, his young wife Janina and his parents. Near the end of the letter he asked that my grandmother, in America, “please not forget us.”
On May 15, 1942, years before I was born, my cousin Allie Stolz, a second-generation Jew from Newark, New Jersey, fought for the lightweight boxing title of the world at Madison Square Garden. More than 16,000 fans packed the Garden on 8th Avenue between 49th & 50th Streets. Nearly 4,000 came from Newark’s heavily Jewish Clinton Hill and Weequahic neighborhoods, where Allie grew up. As famed sportswriter Dick McCann wrote in the Daily News on the day of the fight, “Most of the fans will be traipsing across the Hudson from New Jersey where Stolz has staged most of his best fights.” More than a few came from the heavily Jewish boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn, including Jersey City, often referred to at the time as the “sixth borough.”
Many more, from both sides of the Hudson, retired to their living rooms to listen to the blow-by-blow account beginning at ten in the evening - long after the flames of the sabbath candles had flickered out.
If my family was any indication, there was a lot of praying beyond the standard candle-lighting blessings that evening. They, along with most of Allie’s fans, were first or second-generation Eastern European Jews with relatives living under Nazi-occupied rule. As letters from abroad stopped appearing in their mailboxes, more than a few of Allie’s fans scoured the press, including the Jewish Chronicle, a Newark weekly, and the New York Times, for any hint of their relatives’ status.
The prior December, the Chronicle published a front-page article ominously headlined “Nazi (sic) Plan Systematic Extermination of Jews…” Based on a recently published study entitled “Jews in Nazi Europe,” the piece told a nightmarish story of sweeping arrests, beatings, slayings, savage maltreatment, and callous deportations of Jews herded into cattle cars and taken to forced labor camps and overcrowded ghettos in Poland.
In early February 1942, the Chronicle reported a recently hatched plan by the Nazi Minister of Occupied Territories “to create a ‘Jewish State’ enclosed by barbed wire and machine gun nests and shut off completely from communication with the outside world.” In its coverage, the Times left little doubt that the plan had become reality in the largest city in Poland. “That is already the case with the Jews of Warsaw, who are left to live or starve to death behind barbed wire enclosing the Jewish quarter there,” the Times reported. A few weeks later the Chronicle reported the massacre of 52,000 Jews in Kiev, the single largest pogrom in the history of world Jewry.
In the beginning of March, under the headline, “Extinction Feared by Jews in Poland,” the Times quoted a highly respected Polish author and refugee with access to reports from the Polish Underground that the Nazis had “deliberately managed to create such a condition in the ghettos as to annihilate the inhabitants in the shortest possible time.” “If that situation continues,” the author made clear, “the complete disaster of the Jewish population in Poland in the next few years is imminent.” Describing the near-starvation food rations, he wrote “ it is a known fact that in each city a ghetto was established and that about 3 million Polish Jews are doomed to annihilation there.” He reported that a few weeks earlier ten Jews from the Warsaw ghetto had been executed for leaving its walls without permission.
Escaping in Dreams
Dreams born of hope and desperation abounded on the eve of Allie Stolz’s title fight. The old-timers, who lived through the golden age of Jewish boxing during the twenties and thirties when Benny Leonard and Barney Ross dominated the popular lightweight class, dreamed that Allie would step into their shoes and bring back those glory days. Burris Jenkins, the great sports illustrator for the New York Journal-American, captured those hopes when he wrote, “There’s something about the flash and studied skill of the young Stolz that stirs memories of lost ring loves in the hearts of old timers.”
Then there was the family dream drummed up by my forever hopeful grandfather, Herman, to lift the spirits of my bereft grandmother, Helene. She had three close siblings whose entire families were trapped in Poland. Undoubtedly embellished over the years, my grandfather’s dream was that the family relatives at risk in Poland would someday escape to take part in the annual fall family picnic at Crystal Lake Park- an enchanting pastoral retreat atop the first ridge of the Watchung Mountain Range eight miles west of Clinton Hill. The four-and-a-half-acre park was home to a pristine spring-fed lake for boating and fishing, a picnic grove set in a pasture, an Olympic-size swimming pool, amusements that included skeeball alleys, a “test-your-strength” sledge-hammer tower and a carousel housing a merry-go-round. There was also a makeshift boxing ring where pugilists from the boxing meccas of Newark and Jersey City like Tony Galento, who nearly deposed Joe Louis, would go a handful of rounds on Sunday afternoons.
The high point of the dream was that cousin Allie, the newly crowned lightweight boxing champion of the world, would display his winning skills with the retired Benny Leonard, and let the freshly-arrived and wide-eyed young nephews and cousins try on his championship belt for size. Then the entire “mishbucha” would retreat to the “Grove” where my Aunt Jeanie and Uncle Syd, who owned Syd’s, the famed sandwich shop on Chancellor Avenue in Weequahic, would supply the boiled hot dogs, spuds and knishes, and Allie’s father Sam and uncles, former bootleggers who owned the Log Cabin Grille and Tavern just north of Clinton Hill on South Orange Avenue, would provide the beverages. My grandfather, a retired furniture store owner, who lost his business and savings during the depression because he lacked the heart to collect “IOUs” from his neighborhood customers, promised to foot the bill for the joyous celebration with the proceeds from betting big on Allie winning the title fight.
In retrospect, that dream of family members imprisoned in a barbed-wire “Jewish State” arriving in New York Harbor at summer’s end seems like an exercise in magical thinking. But for that one sabbath night on the eve of Allie’s May 15th title fight, it seemed entirely within reach. The United States had entered the war in December and was mobilizing on a scale never seen in the history of modern warfare. More importantly, the Russian allies had been steadily beating back the Wehrmacht after the latter’s retreat at the battle of Moscow. The morning of the title fight, the Times reported that the Russians had broken through the strategically-important Kharkov line in Western Russia and appeared to be gaining ground in the critical Donets drive.
And what if the world were to awake the next day to the headline, “Allie Stolz, 5’ 6”, 135-pound Jewish wunderkind from Newark, New Jersey - new lightweight champion of the world.” Wouldn’t that defiant feat help tilt the scale against the Nazi onslaught and blow one giant hole in Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda machine? Wouldn’t that triumphant victory in the ring be an inspiration to our troops, especially our boys from Clinton Hill, Weequahic and Jersey City, gearing up for battle? And if the news reached just a handful of European Jews, would it not inspire resistance, or at least give hope to their relatives that it was only a matter of time before their liberation?
Those were some of the rhetorical questions posed by Grandfather Herman. He was not alone in his thinking. My white-haired, cherubic-cheeked Uncle Syd, a voracious reader of the Times, posed those same possibilities to his clientele from the open window of his sidewalk sandwich counter in the days before the title fight. They nodded agreeably as they wolfed down delicacies that they hoped to one day share with their liberated relatives.
It certainly would have taken a miracle for the Russian troops to reach Poland over the summer and free our relatives. But miracles happen. Against all odds, my Polish-born Uncle David, who had suffered under three years of Nazi rule in Vienna, had escaped and made his way to Newark in July of 1941, well after the Nazis had halted voluntary emigration and begun the massive involuntary resettlement to the East. So, just maybe our cousin Ignacy, a brilliant chemical engineer whose last letter from Warsaw was a desperate plea for our family to send care packages and procure transit visas would, along with our many relatives stranded in Poland, be liberated by the Russians and make it safely to America. Magical thinking? In hindsight, yes. At the time, it was just one of the ways my family and other Clinton Hill and Weequahic Jews stalled their descent into despair. “Allie and the Allies” seemed their only hope. The emotional stakes could not have been greater the night of the title fight.
Beauty and the Beast
When Jenkins captioned his front-page sports section illustration “Beauty and the Beast,” it required little imagination to read into the phrase a metaphor for the Allied war effort against the Nazis, instead of just a description of the contest between Allie Stolz’s pure boxing skills versus those of defending champion Sammy “Clutch” Angott, well-known for his dirty wrestling tricks.
Aldo Spoldi, a European lightweight champion who had firsthand ring experience with Angott, detailed those tricks in an interview with Journal-American sportswriter Hope Igoe. “His foxiest trick is to clinch and bear down on you so heavily that you can scarcely keep an upright position. He adds more unwelcome weight by shoving you backwards while hanging down on you, so that an opponent spends most of his time carrying Angott’s dead weight around while trying to keep a forward balance.” Aldo could easily have been describing the military tactics of Nazi general “Rommel the Desert Fox”.
Describing a move by Angott even more analogous to the blitzkrieg-style flanking maneuver used by the Nazis on the battlefield, he continued. “Another of his moves is to pin your gloves under his arms. When the break is ordered by the referee, he jerks you sideways, to the left or right, with such force that your arms and wrists get a severe twist and after a while they lose all sense of feeling.”
Most New York sportswriters expected Angott to win. Igoe, in an article titled “Angott Seems Due to Score Easy Triumph,” observed “Stolz doesn’t seem to be quite ready for such a tough hombre as Angott.” McCann, in a piece headlined “Angott 2–1 to Beat Off Stolz’ Challenge,” noted, “Stolz, troubled by a sinus condition, is unaccustomed to 15-round bouts and this observer believes the 24-year-old Jewish lad may be stopped late in the fight.” Stolz had never gone 15 rounds, and in more than a hundred fights Angott had never been KO’d. Joe Nichols of the Times summed up the situation: “Aware of Stolz’s ability at long range, Angott is prepared to keep inside his rival’s punches and bring Stolz down with a steady two-fisted body fire.” He concluded that “Odds on the outcome favor Angott at 5 to 7.”
Angott had unbounded confidence. “I love to meet the pretty boxers,” he boasted, “and they tell me Stolz is a thing of beauty and that he stands up straight! Gimme that kind…I’m champion now. I’ll be champion at midnight.”
Still, victory for the “beast” was no sure thing. Allie had speed, youth and an armament of punishing lefts and rights. As McCann conceded, “Stolz, a standup Barney Ross type of boxer, packs a putaway punch in his left hook and right cross.” Spoldi also believed that “Stolz has the hard wallop and footwork to avoid Angott’s mauling tactics.” Even Igoe acknowledged that “anyone who can hit like Stolz isn’t a chippy.”
What none of the New York Metropolitan area sportswriters could possibly have known about was “Allie’s secret weapon,” a hidden power revealed to me years ago by Allie’s kid brother, Stanley.
Allie’s Secret Weapon
Stanley shared a bedroom with Allie in their Johnson Avenue home in Clinton Hill. Allie would often stay up late practicing his moves in front of a full-length floor mirror. Stanley loved to watch his brother bob, weave, cross, jab and hook, and to give him helpful coaching tips. Stanley didn’t mind that it kept him up long past his bedtime, even though he would end up sleepwalking to school the next morning. No sacrifice was too great to see his older brother become the light-weight boxing champion of the world. But seeing his brother head from the floor mirror to his desk to sketch illustrations into the wee hours of the night was another story. Watching his big brother waste time “doodling,” when he should have been resting up for the big fight made him crazy, and, as his junior coach, he let Allie know just how strongly he felt. Though Allie had dreams of becoming a great illustrator like Burris Jenkins, he told Stanley a different story to allay his concerns.
Allie insisted that he was just practicing eye-hand coordination and timing. Great illustrators, he told his brother, draw from fleeting images. They see it and draw it. Eye and hand are like one organ and response time is instantaneous. “Just like Benny and Barney,” he explained, “they think and see with their muscles. And they have star-shaped eyes in their hands just like these.” Allie extended his arms and Stanley meticulously inspected his brother’s open-fisted hands. Unable to see the star-shaped eyes, he questioned his brother’s veracity. When Allie explained that they had to be concealed because the six-pointed Star of David had been banned from the ring, Stanley wisely realized his brother’s “secret weapon” was his passion and pride for his Jewish heritage. The word “Stolz” in fact meant pride in German. In Allie’s family that meant Jewish pride. As Allie would tell Allen Bodner, author of When Boxing was a Jewish Sport, “At the table, at the shul, with people, with cousins and relatives and friends, it was Judaism.” When in the ring, Allie continued, “I really felt that I was representing Jews.” Allie was being modest. He didn’t just represent Jews. He stood up for them, as he did time and again as a teenager on the streets of Newark when he and his friends were subject to anti-Semitic verbal and physical assaults. This was never more the case as he prepared to fight for the lightweight title of the world on that sabbath night in the greatest boxing arena of all time and when his people were experiencing the most brutal assault in their history.
Perhaps privy to those Clinton Hill bedroom secrets, Caswell Adams of the Herald Tribune wrote, “This observer just came from a joust with the borrowed tea leaves and has it on excellent authority from the mystics that Stolz at 2 to 1 is money in the bank.” He concluded his pre-bout reflections by presciently observing, “He won’t win by a knockout because no one knocks out Angott.”
On cue, my grandfather heavy-upped his stockpile of betting slips.
“Miracle” on 49th Street
Allie came as close as anyone to knocking out his opponent. As Adams described it, “the big moment came in the 3rd round when Allie stunned Angott with a left-right to the chin and dropped Angott to the canvas — like an anvil.” For those nine eternal seconds the crowd let out a deafening roar that nearly lifted the roof off the Old Garden. However, one ringside spectator chose not to share in the frenzied jubilation. If the cheering fans could have seen through the cloud of gray smoke that enveloped him, they would have observed a piercing, bone-chilling glare in the direction of Allie’s corner.
As near as Allie came in that third-round, a KO of Angott was not in the cards that sabbath night. The fight went the grueling fifteen rounds that Adams predicted. And as he had prophesied, Allie won hands-down. Describing the fight the next day, Adams wrote, “Stolz did all the real fighting, hitting with much more thunder, scoring the only knockdown of the fight and many times buckling the champion’s knobby knees. Allie was much more accurate than Angott who was made to look like a novice as he missed wild swings all night long.” He made clear, “Stolz made the fight. He made it the exciting thing that it was by doing most of the leading and badgering the champion almost every moment.” All despite Angott being “content to grab the boy and hold and then chop and cuff and use elbows and the forearm.”
When the bell sounded the end of the 15th round the crowd let out an even more deafening roar, shaking not just the Garden rafters but the sabbath candelabras still sitting on credenzas in the dining rooms of almost every Jewish home in Clinton Hill, Weequahic, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Jersey City. The New Jersey boxing commissioner stood on a chair and declared that Newark now had the first lightweight champion in its history. Famed entertainers Milton Berle and Red Buttons made their way to Allie’s corner to congratulate the new champ. Mayor Murphy of Newark dipped his hands in his jacket pocket to retrieve the keys to the city that he had promised Allie in victory. The formal announcement took a bit longer than the customary fifty seconds, but the crowd, swept up in the dizzying euphoria of the moment, hardly noticed. As the bow-tied announcer finally made his way to the center of the ring and called for “mike down,” the Garden went silent, the crowd held its breath and my grandfather began to calculate the windfall winnings that would not only cover the cost of the Crystal Lake reunion, but help set-up his soon-to-be liberated family refugees for their new life in America.
The announcement was short and abrupt: “Winner and still champion Sammy Angott!”
There were more than a few hisses. Most were directed at Frankie Fullam, the referee who took rounds 12 and 14, which Allie had dominated, away from him for purported low-blow infractions. Loud catcalls and jeers- “Stolen!” “Cheated!” “Swindled!”- were followed by a fusillade of objects hurled into the air — cigar stubs, half-filled paper cups, Crackerjack boxes, chairs and hats. Anything not bolted down. As Adams reported in his write-up of the fight, “Two low blows seen only by Frankie Fullam, referee, cost young and stylish Allie Stolz the lightweight championship of the world last night and almost precipitated a riot.” Describing the pandemonium at greater length, Adams continued, “The mob went wild. Some charged to the ringside, threatening Fullam with all sorts of dire punishment. Others contented themselves with yelling and booing and shouting unprintable words and libel at the referee. Others showed their feelings by merely giving Stolz a great ovation and hooting at the champion as he danced in glee around the ring.”
Unknowingly, the crowd had misdirected its wrath. As sportswriter Adams reported, despite those two low-blow infractions, Fullam “gave Stolz the fight by a husky margin, with nine for Allie, five for Angott and one inning even.” However, as Adams noted with a hint of suspicion about the scoring, “The judges George Lecron and John Potter voted exactly alike, which is a major miracle with eight rounds for the boss, six for the stabber from New Jersey and one even.” The “miracle” was not just that the two judges had the same totals. They had identical scores for each round! What Adams may have suspected in the choice of the words “boss” and “miracle” was that the crowd had directed its venom at the wrong Frankie.
The Real Beast
The right Frankie was the one sporting the pearl gray Stetson and chomping on his cigar stub at his ringside seat. Dubbed the “Shadow Commissioner of Boxing,” Frankie “Mr. Gray” Carbo ran the numbers racket for the Lucchese crime family. He also moonlighted as a hit man for Murder Inc., the contract killing squad for the five New York City metropolitan-area crime families. Carbo had a history of arrests and incarcerations thicker than his stubby cigar-stained fingers. He clocked twenty-two months for the probable murder of a cab driver and had been fingered as a primary suspect in countless killings. One of them included the contract execution of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a mobster-turned-government informer who the previous November had been thrown from the tenth floor of the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island while in the “safe-keeping” of Brooklyn District Attorney Paul O’Dwyer. Carbo had also been named the primary suspect in the murder of Bugsy Siegel. Carbo was not a person one says “no thanks” to when he makes an offer.
Which is exactly what had happened back in late February in the real “Beauty and the Beast” encounter in front of Jack Dempsey’s Steak House a block south of the Old Garden — an encounter shared with me by Allie’s kid brother Stanley and reported by legendary Newark Star-Ledger sportswriter and Allie’s childhood friend, Sid Dorfman.
The encounter occurred a few days after Allie drubbed Bobby Ruffin in an upset at the Garden, earning him a shot at a title fight with Angott. As Allie crossed 49th Street on his way home to Newark after a grueling workout at Stillman’s Gym, a deep gravelly voice called out, “Hey Stolzy, wanna be my fighta?” Allie turned in the direction of the voice. Leaning against his black Hudson, sporting a long black double-breasted wool overcoat with lapels wider than the wings of a B-52, warming his head with his pearl gray Stetson, and chewing on his fat wad of a cigar stub was the “Shadow Commissioner of Boxing.”
“Wadda ya mean?” Allie replied.
“You know what I mean, I wanna make you a champion.”
The unstated offer was that Carbo would manage Allie and guarantee him the championship. Allie would have to take a few spills to get the championship belt, or to regain it, but that was the way it worked in the shadows of professional boxing, or, as Allie would later put it, “in the Carbo days.” Allie let Carbo know that he had a manager and the wherewithal to become champion. Carbo turned on the fake charm.
“Use your yiddisha cup,” he said, tapping his temple with his cigar-stained stubs of fingers. “Hymie is in the can.”
He was referring to Allie’s long-time manager Hymie Caplin, one of the best managers in boxing at the time, with five championships to his name, who was in jail for a gambling conviction. Although Hymie’s stand-in, Willie Ketchum, was a second-rate manager, Allie was not going to make a deal with a beast who had violated more holy commandments than could fit on Moses’ stone tablet.
“No thank you Mr. Carbo,” the kid with the curly hair and pink cheeks politely replied.
The Real Infractions
Other sportswriters besides Adams agreed with referee Fullam that Allie had won the fight. Jesse Abramson of the Tribune was unambiguous, siding with the majority of fans who witnessed the fight firsthand. “The crowd was in an ugly mood over this miscarriage of justice, for they saw a stylish demonstration of boxing and clean hitting by the fellow who should be the new champion today.”
So too did Willie Ratner, veteran sportswriter for the Newark Evening News, who insisted, “He (Stolz) not only outboxed Angott from almost every angle, but he also proved far better than Sammy at what had been Angott’s ace-in-the-hole, infighting.” According to Ratner, “To Stolz belonged the credit of landing the cleanest and hardest punches. Not only did he floor Angott but several times he dazed the champ. Only in spots was Angott able to dominate and then chiefly through his mauling tactics.” As Ratner saw it, the only winning score that Angott deserved was the number of penalty infractions. “Although Angott lost only the fifth round for fouling, in the opinion of many the referee would have been justified in penalizing the champ much more for his wrestling and use of elbows and forearms in the clinch.” Other sportswriters observed that, but for those two, small late-round low-blow infractions, Allie had won hands-down.
Had those sportswriters been privy to Allie’s encounter with Carbo in late winter they would have understood that the real infractions that cost Allie the championship title were his courage and integrity.
We’ll never know for certain whether in scoring for “the boss,” to use Adams’ words, Lecron and Potter were scoring for Angott or Carbo. Rumors floated that the two judges earned an extra $200 each that night — chump change for Carbo, who cleaned-up by betting big time on Angott through street proxies. But if Carbo had the fight fixed, one wonders if that had less to do with money than with exacting revenge for Allie’s refusal of his sinister offer.
Berle and Buttons tried to console Allie in the dressing room after the fight. “Bubba, you’re still our champ,” Berle insisted, giving Allie a big hug. But Allie was heartbroken. So too were Allie’s devout Jewish fans from Clinton Hill, Weequahic and Jersey City, whose hopes and dreams were lost that night. Heads hung low as they funneled out of the Garden and began the long midnight walk down 8th Avenue to the tubes and back to Newark. Stanley described it as an interminable funeral procession. Cramming into the rail cars on 33rd Street on their way back to Newark’s Penn Station, they could not have begun to imagine that they were foreshadowing the fate of their families in Eastern Europe in the months ahead. In our family, only my grandmother, steeped in old-country superstition, saw the fight decision, just like the letter-empty mailbox, as a bad omen. Upon seeing the distraught look on my grandfather’s face when he arrived home, she sensed that the gates of Hell were about to open as wide as the distance from Poland to the Statue of Liberty.
The Long Damn Summer of ‘42
And so began what came to be known in our family as “the long damn summer of ‘42.”
Three days after the fight, the Times reported that Hitler’s “firing squads” had killed 400,000 Europeans. Living standards were described as “bare existence.” In mid-June, German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was widely quoted threatening the mass extermination of Jews in response to the Allied bombing of German cities, “The Jews are playing a frivolous game and they will pay for it with the extinction of their race in all of Europe and perhaps beyond Europe.” On June 26th, the Chronicle reported that “close to 100,000” Jews in Warsaw had died the previous year and hundreds of thousands were being rounded up and resettled in labor camps throughout Eastern Europe. On June 30th, the Times reported the World Jewish Congress charge that “the Germans have massacred more than 1,000,000 Jews since the war began in carrying out Adolf Hitler’s proclaimed policy of exterminating their people” and that the Nazis had established a ‘vast slaughterhouse for Jews’.” The London-based organization went on to say, “Information received by Poland’s government in London confirmed that the Nazis had executed several hundred thousand Jews in Poland and that about another million were imprisoned in ghettos.”
Whatever hopes lingered that the Russians would sweep through western Ukraine and shut down this “vast slaughterhouse for Jews” were dashed when the Nazis began their summer offensive, beating back the Russians and preparing for the battle of Stalingrad.
The only break in the bad news for Newark’s Jews came in late June when Allie handsomely defeated Billy Banks, the classy featherweight known for his electrifying left-right combinations. But only a handful of fans from Clinton and Weequahic had the endurance to traipse to Baltimore. Their thoughts were elsewhere. Three weeks later 1500 people, predominately from the Clinton Hill and Weequahic neighborhoods, would crowd into Newark’s Mosque Theater on Broad Street to hear Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham, among other speakers, make a desperate and impassioned plea for opening a second front in Europe.
July was no better. Germany continued its advance towards Stalingrad, capturing Rostov-on-the-Don and forcing the Red Army into retreat along the Don River. The month ended on an ominous note. In a July 27th article datelined London, the Times noted that, of the 250,000 recently reported killed in Poland, 50,000 had died in “concentration camps.” Were these the labor camps that were popping up all over Europe or were they something else? My grandfather tried to comfort my distraught grandmother, trying hard to convince her that they were just labor camps to support the German war machine. My grandmother was far less sanguine. To her, the only things that the camps seemed to be mass producing were corpses.
It rained almost every day in Newark that August. The weather gods knew something was up. Two front-page articles in the Times on August 5th were far bleaker than the shroud of dark clouds that had begun to settle over Clinton Hill and Weequahic. In a piece headlined, “3,000,000 in Invasion Zone Reported Moved by Nazis,” the Times reported “that thousands were being torn from their homes daily and moved deep into the interior of Europe.” “The victims were sent to concentration camps,” the articled continued, “or to Nazi-controlled fields and factories in other parts of the Continent.” In the second article, one didn’t need to read past the headlines, “Nazis sweep on in the Caucasus,” “Advance in Don Elbow” and “Red Army Wavers,” to be overcome by sickening feelings of hopelessness and despair about the fate of loved ones in Europe.
Allie returned to the Garden on August 6th for a ten-round non-title lightweight fight against Chalky Wright, the featherweight champion of the world. A victory for Stolz would assure a rematch with Angott. More Newark Jews showed up at the Garden than in Baltimore. These were mostly family, friends and stalwart boxing fans who braved the rain and sought a brief respite from the dreadful drumbeat of news coming out of Europe. Allie won that fight decisively with great stabs, hooks, and a battery of walloping punches in the 10th round.
As soon as the decision was announced, Allie’s fans began to muse about a “Beauty and the Beast” rematch in the Fall, drawing comparisons to the great rematch between Joe Louis-Max Schmelling in 1938. In that fight, Louis won by a TKO two minutes and four seconds into the first round, after unleashing a non-stop barrage of head and body blows to Hitler’s celebrated sports hero. However, the hopes and dreams that a similar outcome in a Stolz-Angott rematch would have any material effect on the fate of the European Jewry had not only been dimmed by the devastating retreat of the Red Army, but by what Allie’s fans had read in the Chronicle a few weeks earlier about Schmelling’s new vocation. As the Chronicle reported, Schmelling had gone on to head one of Hitler’s chief concentration camps in Poland. According to an escaped prisoner, “the tremendous mortality in the camp is caused not by executions, but by beatings and sadistic tortures.” This revelation brought home the harsh reality that what happened in the ring had little relevance beyond the ropes. A hoped-for rematch with Angott would now only be about Allie realizing his childhood dream of becoming the lightweight champion of the world.
Still, my grandfather stubbornly refused to give up his dream of the family reunion. He just put it on the back burner, telling my grandmother that when a second front opened in Europe the tide would turn.
The chilling truth of the Schmelling revelation hit painfully hard as the somber news from Eastern Europe continued to mount. On August 14th, in an article datelined Geneva and headlined “Nazi Massacres Continue,” the Chronicle disclosed further evidence that the Nazis were proceeding with “their scheme to wipe out the Jewish population of Poland as a forerunner to the destruction of all European Jewry.” The piece reported that 110,000 Polish Jews had been murdered the previous two months and conservatively estimated the number of Polish Jews murdered since the Nazi invasion of Poland at 700,000.
As Labor Day approached, reports of the horrors befalling European Jewry were everywhere. The two major newspapers in Newark were now giving the Nazi rampage full coverage. On September 2nd, the Newark Evening News reported that thousands of Jews, including the elderly and children, were being “piled into cattle cars.” A day later the Star-Ledger reported Jews “dying like flies” and paraphrased a European observer who said, “the Germans planned to exterminate the Jews not only in Europe, but throughout the world.” “The Nazis,” he reported, “had executed 2,000,000 Jews in the past three years and that hundreds of thousands of others had been deported from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other European countries.” On September 4th, the Chronicle laid bare the desperation in the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis began the wholesale deportations to the East. It described a “wave of suicides” of “appalling proportions,” with entire families ending their lives. In another article in the same issue, the Chronicle reported that as many as twenty elderly Jews were murdered in a synagogue in Lwow for refusing to surrender their prayer shawls to a “gang of Nazi hoodlums.”
My grandfather’s dream was rapidly dissolving into a nightmare. In the absence of any word about the fate of family members in Warsaw and Lwow, my grandmother would sit all morning on the front stoop of her apartment building awaiting the mailman and praying that he would miraculously deliver a letter postmarked Warsaw, Lwow or Przemysl with news that their loved ones were still alive. My grandfather, who was beginning to experience shortness of breath and other respiratory ailments, would spend the better part of the day scouring the dailies at the kitchen table and praying for any news that the Allies were mobilizing a second European front. Praying had taken a front seat to dreaming.
Almost all Jews who lived in the Clinton Hill and Weequahic neighborhoods, including Allie and his family, attended one of the handful of shuls that dotted the area.
By far the largest was B’nai Abraham. Located in the heart of Clinton Hill, the synagogue was a majestic wonder looming over the Hill’s tree-lined streets and low-story shops, professional offices and homes. The building was a round brick and concrete neo-classical structure, with a two-tiered domed roof crowned with the Star of David set on a vertical spire. Sweeping entry staircases with imposing doors were framed by classic Ionic columns with signature scrolls. The sanctuary was a vast rotunda with rows in the shape of a crescent where all two-thousand seats had unobstructed views of the pulpit. Centered in the ceiling of the sanctuary was a magnificent stained-glass window that formed the second, smaller tier of the domed roof. Supporting the window was a crisscross of heavy-duty steel beams in the shape of the six-pointed Star of David.
B’nai Abraham was the center of spiritual and cultural life in Clinton Hill and Weequahic, even for families who did not belong to the synagogue. Many attended its regular lecture series and symposia, including several of my family members, but most came to the Friday Sabbath services to hear the much-anticipated sermons delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz. It was common for teenage boys to take a first date to his Friday night sermon.
Today, Prinz is best known as the past President of the American Jewish Congress and a champion of civil rights, who spoke immediately before his good friend Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime,” Prinz said against the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial, “I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
As a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin, the young Prinz had courageously spoken out against Nazi persecution despite repeated arrests and threats. From the pulpit, Prinz urged Jews to emigrate before it was too late. Personally, he had no choice in the matter. In 1937, he was expelled. For his first two-years as a refugee in America, he went on lecture tours to create awareness of the gravity of the Nazi threat to world Jewry, democracy and peace. On September 9, 1939, nine days after Germany invaded Poland, Prinz was installed as the rabbi of B’nai Abraham. Four days later, in his first Rosh Hashanah sermon, Prinz sadly reflected, “it is the great tragedy of our time that the other nations did not understand and recognize the danger of the new German regime.” Having had direct experience with the depravity of the Nazi regime during his years in Berlin, Prinz predicted, “this war will undoubtedly be long and cruel enough to destroy not only the European civilization and vast stretches of land, but it will wipe out millions of Jews. For the battlefields of today,” he continued, “are inhabited by 3,500,000 million Jews.” During the next two years, Prinz thundered from the pulpit at B’nai Abraham and from other stages against Hitler admirer Charles Lindbergh, as well as the America First isolationists who had dismissed news of the spreading virus of Nazi madness. He tirelessly raised money to support life-saving emigration of European Jews and when no longer possible, for refugee relief programs in Palestine and Newark.
In mid-July, Prinz had spoken at the Mosque Theater in downtown Newark before a full house of 1,500, passionately urging the Allies to form a second front in Europe. His congregants knew that Prinz was actively involved in the American Jewish Congress and had recently been elected chair of its administrative committee. What they did not know was that during a meeting Prinz held in late August with his friend Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, a cable had come across the wires from the World Jewish Congress office in London relaying the following message from Geneva:
Received alarming report that in Fuhrer’s headquarters plan discussed and under consideration. ‘All Jews in countries occupied or controlled (by) Germany, number 3–1/2 to 4 million, should after deportation and concentration in East at one blow [be] exterminated to resolve once for all Jewish question in Europe. Action reported planned for autumn. Methods under discussion includ[e] prussic acid. We transmit information with all necessary reservation as exactitude cannot be confirmed. Informant stated to have close connexions [sic] with highest German authorities and his reports generally reliable.
In his posthumously published memoirs, Rebellious Rabbi, Prinz described the scene: “Holding the cable in his hands, Wise began to cry…” Wise sent the message to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles in Washington. Welles insisted on confirmation before agreeing to make the message public and beginning to consider actions . He did not receive satisfactory confirmation until November.
Prinz conveyed his dismay to Wise about Welles’ unconscionable inaction. “All this makes me very unhappy,” Prinz said, “because it smells of an American conspiracy to withhold information and to postpone action.”
This suppression of highly credible news gnawed on Prinz as he began to think about his upcoming Rosh Hashanah sermon, his fourth since taking the pulpit at B’nai Abraham.
One week later another alarming telegram — this one from Switzerland — came to Prinz’s attention, reporting the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and ensuing mass murders.
The following week, on the morning of September 11th, hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, the Times reported two disheartening developments on the European front that confirmed Prinz’s worst fears. A front-page, above-the-fold headline declared, “Russians Yield for 4th Day.” The war news summary reported, “The Russians lines sagged again in front of Stalingrad yesterday, with Soviet troops withdrawing from three more populated places west of the city.” With Russia fighting for its survival, with the British bogged down in battle with Rommel to protect the vital Suez life-line, with the US forces concentrated in the Pacific theater, and with a second European front on the back burner, any near-term hope for the liberation of European Jewry seemed beyond reach.
In a second article headlined, “War on Judaism by Nazis related,” the Times observed, “Tonight, on the occasion of Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year, even the solace of religious services will be denied 7,000,000 Jews under Nazi rule, already the victims of a barbarous war upon their existence.” Based on documentation by the New York-based Institute of Jewish Affairs, the article went on to state, “the present tempo of the drive against Judaism, moving toward the goal of total extermination, was established in September 1939, when the Nazis launched their new attack during the high holiday services of the Jews during the invasion of Poland, according to the institute.”
This drumbeat of horrifying news over the previous two weeks confirmed for Prinz that plans to wipe out European Jewry, as disclosed in the London cable, were well underway and the massive deportations of Jews that were being reported from Europe with ever-greater frequency were to death camps, not labor camps, as my grandmother had sadly suspected. As Prinz gathered his final thoughts before delivering his Rosh Hashanah sermon, it’s easy to imagine him recalling the first sermon he gave at B’nai Abraham in 1939, and wishing he had not been so prophetic.
Last Spark of Hope
Rosh Hashanah, the most sacred Jewish holiday after Yom Kippur, marks the beginning of ten days of penitence in the Jewish calendar. It commences the period when Jews seek forgiveness for their sins and ends on Yom Kippur when they atone for them. Falling on the sabbath made this Rosh Hashanah an even more auspicious occasion. However, Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and inspires the hope that, with forgiveness and atonement, the coming year will be a better one.
In that spirit, in an article on the front page of a special high Holiday section of the Chronicle boldly headlined “The Right to Fight,” the National Secretary of the Committee for a Jewish Army tried to inspire a “spark of hope” on the eve of the new year. It stated:
David fought Goliath and became forever a symbol of the power that courage gives to the underdog. The heritage of courage and daring that Mattathias and Judas Maccabeus left to all Jews, today keeps alive the spark of hope to thousands who stare through the barbed wire of their persecution into the hazy future of a better world to come.
For a fleeting and stirring moment, the image of “David and Goliath” had supplanted that of “Beauty and the Beast.”
As the cloud-covered sun began to dip behind the first ridge of the Watchung Mountain Range, families lit the sabbath and holiday candles, chanted blessings, and prayed that their loved ones be spared the fate that Prinz predicted back in 1939 and that their uniformed husbands and sons be protected in battle. Retiring to the dining room table, they dipped sliced apples in honey, shared the sweetened carrots, and concluded with the customary honey cake, all symbolizing the hope for a “sweet new year.” In that spirit, Allie’s father Sam, president of one of the many local Jewish Beneficent Associations in Newark, placed an ad in the Chronicle wishing a “Happy and Prosperous New Year,” to those directly or indirectly connected to the war effort.
Many of the 40,000 Jews of Clinton Hill and Weequahic made the journey that evening and the next day along the tree-lined streets to their respective shuls, wishing their neighbors a very “good yur.” Several thousand headed in the direction of B’nai Abraham. Many more would have done so were the synagogue able to accommodate them, for they were eager to hear Rabbi Prinz’s sermon — his first of a summer like none other.
Rosh Hashanah Sabbath Sermon
There do not appear to be any first-hand accounts of the sermon except by a reporter from the Newark News. Though fortunate enough to have sat in the pews of the B’nai Abraham sanctuary years later to hear Rabbi Prinz’s Friday night sabbath sermons, especially the one he delivered hours after the assassination of President Kennedy, I still cannot begin to fathom what it must have been like to experience this extraordinary speech. Rabbi Prinz was a powerful, dramatic, and passionate orator. He spoke with great warmth, emotion, and directness. He had an empathetic connection with his congregants that made them feel he was speaking personally to them. It helped that he spoke without text or notes. There was no greater thrill than to see Rabbi Prinz approach the pulpit draped in his robe and black and white prayer shawl — except when he began to speak.
According to the reporter from the Newark News, Rabbi Prinz reviewed the history of Jewish suffering through “the old eyes of the Jewish people” who have “wept bitter tears in many lands where persecution of Jews prevailed in such tragic measure.” He revisited the distant past when “Our body has been crucified a million times and our souls have been tortured and insulted in as many languages as were spoken in the medieval world,” as well as more recent times, when “we have felt the whip of the Czar in Russia on our back.” He reminded congregants that through all those years, “death and destruction have followed us like the shadows of our existence.” Rabbi Prinz concluded the first part of his sermon on an ominous note, “Yet never in our history has there been a year as destructive and torturous as that which has passed.”
He most likely paused at length, his eyes lingering on his congregants, mindful of the magnitude of the painful news he was about to deliver.
We are a small people,” Rabbi Prinz continued. “However, since the beginning of the war we suffered casualties that can be compared with those of large nations.” During the last three years the Jewish people have lost 9,000,000 men, women and children who have fallen on the battlefield of faith. Every day throughout the last year more than 650 Jews have been shot, beaten to death, starved, dissected alive, raped, burned, hung on meat hooks, destroyed in every painful way known only to the scientific minds of the German Gestapo…
Prinz bluntly catalogued the horrors congregants had been following in the local press, which seemed even more horrifying when detailed in the authoritative voice of their esteemed spiritual leader:
We have viewed with horror the ghostly spectacle of living corpses, millions of Jews living in the concentration camps and ghettos of a Nazi-dominated Europe. We shudder at the thought that 2,000 Jewish college boys and girls were used for the purpose of testing poison gas and thus died in the war laboratories of the Gestapo. We have seen a thousand Lidices, Jewish communities in Poland and Russia, leveled to the ground, their inhabitants shot…
Projecting defiant strength in the face of unspeakable sorrow and tragedy, Prinz concluded on a confident and hopeful note, undoubtedly to lift the spirits of his congregants and look to the future.
Thus we begin the New Year 5703, not with a trembling heart of a down-trodden persecuted people. Nor do we stand in mere defense. We are sailing on a sea of tears and blood, but we know that we have a sturdy boat beneath our feet. It is the ship of home and great confidence…It is an ancient Jewish belief that a new world may be born where men can live so that the world may live.
Prinz’s sermon was followed by the mourner’s kaddish. The kaddish is a special prayer recited by those who have lost a parent or loved one in the past year. The kaddish’s origins are thought to trace back to a prayer to console grieving congregants after the tragic destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. We can only speculate on how many congregants who hadn’t lost a parent or loved one in the past year recited the kaddish to mourn greatest tragedy in Jewish history.
Members of the congregation filed out the imposing doors of the synagogue. The mournful walk home had to be infinitely longer than for those who had funneled out of the Garden on that sabbath night four months earlier.
The Newark Jews who did not hear Rabbi Prinz’ sermon would later read about it in the special High Holiday section of the Newark News headlined, “Jews Hopeful as New Year Dawns, Declares Dr. Prinz.” Had they not read past the headline and not glanced down the column at the bold-print subtitle with those chilling words, “9,000,000 Lost” they might have had a momentary lifting of the spirits. For those who struggled through the entire article, the experience may have been less vivid than witnessing the sermon in person, but hardly less painful and agonizing. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins might as well have been reading a collective family death certificate. For my grandfather Herman, it was the final stake in the heart of his dream of a family reunion at Crystal Lake.
It was surely no less painful for Rabbi Prinz, who knew that among the millions slaughtered were his relatives, former congregants, students, colleagues, and friends from Berlin. And it was certainly no less agonizing to have had the unenviable task of delivering the news to his congregants about the probable fates of their many loved ones in Europe.
But Rabbi Prinz could neither soften the truth nor remain silent. He hadn’t done so either during his years in Berlin, when his warnings to emigrate saved many lives, or in his five years in America, where he crusaded against what he called “a complete blackout of human conscience” in the face of an historically unprecedented outbreak of madness. He certainly wasn’t going to do so now, if it meant saving even one precious life.
In hindsight, we know that Rabbi Prinz overestimated the number of European Jews who perished. How he arrived at a human toll of nine million is nowhere revealed. But had he halved that number, it would have been no less devastating to 40,000 Jews from Newark, forced to accept that their relatives might not have survived. The new year would not be a sweet one by any measure.
So ended “the long damn summer of ‘42” for two small Jewish neighborhoods in the southwest corner of Newark — a summer that began with a dream on one sabbath in May in Madison Square Garden, and ended in a nightmare on another in September in B’nai Abraham synagogue.
A few relatives miraculously survived. In April 1945, the family received a Western Union telegram from a cousin living in Poland.
The two brothers, Norbert and Leopold, escaped the notorious Janowska labor camp in Lwow and were mercifully hidden by a courageous Catholic family. They came out of hiding in 1945 when the Russians finally liberated Poland.
However, as we would later learn, their father Edward, a prominent businessman, had been dragged from his home, as were 43 of the preeminent Jewish citizens of Przemysl, savagely beaten and shot to death several days later. Those round-ups occurred on September 14, 1939, the day that German troops had entered the city, and thirteen days after the surprise invasion of Poland. On that day, Edward and his wife Clara, their pregnant daughter Ruth, her husband and their Uncle Leon were observing Rosh Hashanah. Clara and Leon were my grandmother’s siblings. Leon’s valuable stamp collection was given to my Uncle David to help secure his way out of Vienna when the Nazis had halted emigration. The family members who survived were rounded up between July 27 and August 3 in the summer of ’42, along with more than half the Jewish population of Przemysl. Crammed into rail cars, they were deported to the Belzec death camp where they were either shot and dumped in mass graves or directed to gas chambers described as “bath houses”.
A week later, my Aunt Celia and two of her three children, Danchia and Nelly, along with their spouses and children, were rounded-up in an “Aktion” in Lwow that turned the city into what has been described as a two-week “nightmare of blood.” They were herded into rail cars that terminated at the gates of Belzec.
About the same time, the third child, Ignacy, and his wife Janina, were rounded-up, along with more than a quarter million Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, in what came to be known as the “Gross-Aktion.” They too were herded onto crowded rail cars, destination Treblinka. That murderous liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on July 23, the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and ended on Yom Kippur on September 21, marking the end of the execrable summer.
Less is known about the fate of Allie’s relatives in Boryslaw, Horodyszcze, and Komarno, but they are believed to have been victims of the same ruthless “Aktions” sweeping across almost every city and town in Poland. They too were likely corralled into rail cars, under conditions not fit for cattle, with Belzec the last stop.
The much-hoped for Western European second front was not launched until two summers later, in 1944. My father, who fought in four major campaigns, was awarded the Silver Star Medal for his heroism in the invasion of Southern France. He never stopped regretting that he was unable to save a single family member.
We now know not only that more Jews were murdered during that ghastly summer than at any other time of the Holocaust, but also that the plans for complete extermination of European Jewry were hatched in 1941 and executed with ferocity in the months beginning in early 1942. In total, 5.5 to 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
My grandfather Herman, whose common roots with Allie trace back to innkeepers in a shtetl in Southeastern Poland, fell seriously ill in the fall of 1942 and passed away the following June. Although he suffered a fatal heart attack, the family story was that he died of a broken heart when his dream of a family reunion at Crystal Lake went up in flames.
My grandmother Helene, who suffered the greatest family losses during those July and August months, ascribed my grandfather’s death to “the long damn summer of ‘42.” She lingered for six-more years, burdened with the guilt of that final heart-wrenching request from her nephew Ignacy “to please not forget us.” It wasn’t enough for her that she had helped to save the lives of her brother David, his two children and their spouses, otherwise likely destined for Auschwitz or Treblinka death camps.
And what of Allie? He never got a second shot at Sammy Angott. In November, Angott retired and enlisted in the war effort. The next day Allie fought Beau Jack at the Garden in an elimination fight for the vacated lightweight title. Allie was odds-on favorite and put up a good fight, but lost in the 7th round on a technical knockout. Maybe Allie just had a bad night, but odds are his heart just wasn’t in the ring. Allie got one more shot at the title in the Garden in June 1946. This time he lost legitimately.
But Allie didn’t need a second shot at Angott. His simple headstone, with the engraved six-pointed Star of David, reads ALLIE STOLZ: “CHAMP.” And champion he was, both inside the ring for his winning performance at that May 15th title fight, and outside for his defiant stance against the mob at the cost of his own lifelong dream.
Despite suffering a great deal of survivor’s guilt, Rabbi Prinz continued to fight passionately for a second front and, after the war, worked tirelessly in behalf of the displaced survivors of the Holocaust, the establishment of a Jewish homeland and, years later, as an unflagging champion of the civil rights movement.
If there was any solace for my family and the Jews of Newark during that long damn summer of ‘42, it must have been the pride they felt for those two Clinton Hill heroes, Allie Stolz and Joachim Prinz. Through their actions, both inspired flickers of hope in the face of long odds and unimaginable brutality. Both exhibited great courage and integrity in the face of physical and political goliaths. And both fought heroically for their people, one with fists and one with words.
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It was the summer of ’61. My family belonged to a ramshackle of a swim club and day camp in West Orange, New Jersey called Mountain Crest. The tennis and handball courts were full of potholes and alligator cracks, and the basketball court and softball field were built on a hillside. Hitting an uphill home run was next to impossible and incredibly frustrating for a thirteen-year old who had dreams of becoming the next Mickey Mantle. When our family decided to renew its membership for the next season, I announced that I would be joining the more appealing Cabana Club set on level ground, and pay its steep membership fees with my recently acquired Bar Mitzvah money. Aunt Jeanie, my grandfather’s eldest daughter and my godmother, sat me down on a dilapidated park bench overlooking an algae-infested lake. She pointed to the unkempt “Grove” and to the decrepit structure that once housed a make-shift boxing ring and said, “I’m going to tell you a story and if you still want to join the Cabana Club next season, membership fees are on me.” That’s when I first learned about my grandfather’s dream and the long damn summer of ‘42. The following summer I won the camp-wide decathlon at Mountain Crest. It was my small way, on the twentieth anniversary of the long damn summer of ’42, of honoring my family’s stolen dreams — my grandfather’s, Allie’s, and, most of all, those of my lost relatives in Europe.