It was a hot mid-August evening in 1933. Toronto was steaming not only with heat, but political unrest, and economic tension was also at an apex.
Earlier that day, a gathering at Allan Gardens sponsored by the “Worker’s ex-Service Men’s League” protesting the dismal treatment suffered by war veterans almost turned into a riot.
Indeed, according to the Toronto Daily Star, “Charging mounted policemen, motorcycle exhausts belching oily fumes and scores of constables on foot put a stop to speech making, but failed to disperse thousands of persons gathered in Allan Gardens.”
This was perhaps simply the forerunner of much more to come that evening.
Toronto, like much of the rest of the world, was knee-deep in the Depression. Money was scarce, jobs at a minimum, tempers frayed and anti-Semitism a sad and normal part of Toronto life.
However, it was also a dangerous time for Jews in Europe, who were facing more than just the crude anti-Semitism seen in Toronto to this point.
Ten months earlier, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was democratically elected to lead Germany, and in January 1933, president Paul von Hindenburg appointed him chancellor. Hitler had already made known his vicious hatred of Jews to a world that seemed largely uncaring.
In Toronto, where the fledgling Jewish community consisted of garment workers, vegetable merchants or, like many others, the unemployed, life was a constant struggle. Discrimination was rampant.
Many summer resorts banned Jews even if they were able to afford them, so the only escape from the hot summer days and evenings were Toronto’s beaches, but even there, Jews found it tough going.
Many Torontonians wanted little to do with Jews. Attempts to keep them off public beaches failed, but had the resultant effect of the establishment of anti-Jewish gangs, including the notorious “Swastika Club.”
Many Swastika Club members would prowl the beaches and parks of downtown Toronto boldly displaying the Hitlerite symbol as a way to intimidate Jewish patrons. Thankfully, meetings between Canadian Jewish Congress and city officials forced the Swastika Club members to abandon their fearsome intimidation tactics of parading the ugly symbol, but it did little to quell the hostility.
Monday evening, Aug. 14, 1933, at Christie Pits Park saw the first of two baseball games with the predominantly Jewish Harbord Playground team facing St. Peters, sponsored by the Bathurst-Bloor Church.
Christie Pits was a bowl-shaped park carved into what was originally the Christie Sand Pits. Also known as Willowvale Park, it was located on a street named after William Mellis Christie, of “Mr. Christie” cookie fame. In a bold and disquieting move, a gang of punks, despite earlier agreements not to do so, waved a white T-shirt during the game with a black swastika sewn into it.
That night, though tense, ended with some cat-calling and a bit of pushing and shoving, but little else.
Many understood that this was but a precursor of things to come. Two evenings later, on Aug. 16, all hell broke loose.
It was the second game of the semifinals between the two same teams. The St. Peters outfielder caught the ball for the final out when a gang of anti-Semitic thugs known as the Pit Gang unfurled a large white bedsheet with a black swastika painted across it.
As predicted, young Jewish men, who had heard of the incident two days earlier, were ready. They rushed the Pit Gang. Not to be outdone, the Pit Gang had brought along a host of its own supporters, and the fight was on.
Interestingly, young Italian boys from the neighbourhood joined their Jewish friends for what turned out to be Toronto’s first and largest ethnically based riot.
At this point, legend mixes uneasily with fact. It seems as though anyone I have spoken with from the Toronto Jewish community over the age of 70 was there that fateful evening, even if they weren’t yet born. We are told that the fights were bare-fisted, though some people had bats, iron bars and pokers.
The Toronto Daily Star reported: “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 disorderly mob and surged wildly about the park… [it] soon developed in violence and intensity of racial feeling into one of the worst free-for-alls ever seen in the city.”
Thankfully, no one lost their lives though there were injuries, some serious.
In the end, the Christie Pits riot stood as the first time Jews took a stand.
Today, without anyone wanting to glorify violence, the myths and stories of that hot summer night are told and re-told at family gatherings with pride of people and place.
Bernie Farber is a human rights advocate and former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress. He’s currently senior vice-president for Gemini Power, where he works with First Nations helping to build sustainable industries.