TORONTO — From his vantage point in his father’s confectionary store on Bloor Street at Montrose, near Christie, Joe Black had a front row seat to the mayhem that unfolded in front of him 80 years ago this week.
There, playing out like a 3D movie on the widest of wide screens, young men battled each other with fists, wooden clubs, iron rods, knives – pretty much anything they could lay their hands on.
Remarkably, no one died, but the six-hour set-to has gone down in history as the Christie Pits riot. It pitted Jews, and their Italian allies, against anti-Semites and immigrant bashers who had unfurled a swastika banner at the tail end of a baseball game at the Christie Pits field in Willowvale Park.
The event took place in the summer of 1933 when Black was 7-1/2 years old. But the memory of what he saw has stayed with him all these years.
The riot is a little-known aspect of Toronto history, and this past weekend, a commemorative softball game featuring Toronto sports celebrities, was held at the same field. The event was co-sponsored by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
Black was present, as he was 80 years ago at the game that sparked the imbroglio. Back then, in the midst of the Depression, sports was a favourite pastime. Going to a game was free and it could provide an evening’s entertainment.
On that occasion, the game pitted a largely Jewish team, Harbord Playground, versus St. Peter’s, a church-sponsored one. Plenty of Jewish supporters flocked to the game to back their side; the other team likewise had its own cheering section.
At the time, Toronto was a city that was openly anti-Semitic, Black recalled. Sunnyside Pool, which he would frequent with his gentile friends, was restricted. No Jews were allowed. The department store Eaton’s would not permit its Jewish employees to interact with customers. A pool in the High Park area was notorious for a sign that “No Jews.”
Hitler had come to power in Germany earlier in the year and in Toronto, you could find local “swastika clubs.”
That summer, non-Jews clashed with Jews in the Beach, Jewish women were harassed and youths would drive by Jewish homes, throw garbage at them and shout Nazi slogans, according to Stephen Speisman in his book, The Jews of Toronto, A History to 1937.
In August of that year, Jews were attacked in Kew Beach by a group wearing swastikas, and the week before the infamous Christie Pits game, at the same park, spectators displayed a swastika sign.
So the table was set for what would take place on Aug. 16.
As a youngster, Black had faced gangs of toughs who’d beat him up because he was a Jew. Usually they’d attack Jews when they outnumbered their victims, but when a bunch of fans at the game, sitting on a knoll at the edge of the field, unfurled a sheet with a swastika on it, the substantial number of Jewish fans in the stands reacted quickly, he said.
Caught up in the excitement, Black marched over to the knoll with the fans. He saw clearly as the Jewish spectators confronted the anti-Semites, ripped the banner from their hands and tore it to shreds.
A brawl ensued in which the people in the park were joined by reinforcements from around the city.
A contemporary news report claimed 10,000 people were present and the phrase “heil Hitler” could be heard.
At the same time, a false rumour circulated that a Jewish child had been killed. The rumour got down to the heart of the Jewish community in the Spadina and College area, and soon trucks were filled with fighters taken to the Bloor Street area, Black said.
Police, including some on horseback intervened, but they found it difficult to get control of the situation, said Black, who would go on to become official photographer of the NHL.
Meanwhile, he had gone back to his father Ben’s store, where the family lived in some rooms in the back. As he watched the riot play out, the fight came to him.
The store, he said, had a pay phone, and one of the Nazi sympathizers came in to call for help. The guy was carrying a metal bar in one hand and as he held the received in the other, his father came up behind him, grabbed the bar as he held it and quickly pushed it up. “My dad went over and dislocated the guy’s shoulder completely, and he fainted,” Black said.
His father, “who was a placid man,” grabbed the guy and dumped him outside, he recalled.
Howard English, senior vice-president of CIJA, called the riot “a pivotal point in the history of the Jewish community of Toronto.”
Jews faced widespread anti-Semitism at the time, but Toronto has come “light years,” since then.
“There is no doubt that today it is one of the most welcoming places for Jews and other minorities,” English said.
Last weekend’s softball game recalls the event of 80 year ago and served as a history lesson. “We’ve come a long way since then, but we have the obligation to remember where we came from,” English added.
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A postscript: that summer, Jews began to form self-defence groups. The League for the Defence of Jewish Rights was solidified and, wrote Speisman, it eventually evolved into Canadian Jewish Congress.
As for the anti-Semitic hooligans, a judge dismissed charges against them, saying the provocation of the Jews had been intended as a joke.