The following is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Ryan previously wrote a post for In Custodia Legis on a scholarly panel the Library hosted, Rights and Resistance: Civil Liberties during World War I.
On March 25, 1933, the Baltimore branch of the American Jewish Congress under the leadership of its president, the United States Attorney for Maryland, Simon Sobeloff, called a meeting “to protest against the mistreatment of Jews in Germany.” Held at one of the city’s most established synagogues, Chizuk Amuno, the conference drew 59 Jewish organizations from around the city.
Sobeloff would later achieve judicial fame, first as a respected judge in the Maryland court system, then in the mid-1950s as Solicitor General under President Eisenhower, and from 1955 until his retirement in 1973, as an Associate and later Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. From his perch atop the Fourth Circuit, the Baltimore native enforced desegregation across the mid-Atlantic and upper and lower South.
Sobeloff’s papers are housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. While the collection has long served as a window into the juridical history of American law, a new addition to the collection expands its insights into the world of Jewish Baltimore and the political and cultural debates that unfolded within it well past 1945.
In many respects, Sobeloff embodies the arc of America’s Jewish communities but especially concerning “Charm City” and its Jewish residents. During the 1920 and 30s, the city’s Jewish community transformed in numerous ways: spatially, economically, and culturally. While East Baltimore had long served as an area for European and notably Jewish settlement, the post-World War I annexation of Northwest Baltimore offered new housing opportunities.
By 1937, Jewish residents accounted for nearly 10 percent of the city’s growing population. Admittedly, restriction laws of the early 1920s halted Jewish immigration to the city, yet 73,000 resided in the city and the limitation of new arrivals also enabled the community to develop a distinct American identity. By 1925, half of the city’s Jewish population resided in Northwest Baltimore which featured “kosher butcher shops and bakeries” but also “modern gathering places including drug stores, movie theaters, and bowling alleys,” note historians Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in late-19th century East Baltimore, Sobeloff later attended Baltimore City College and earned his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1915. By 1933, Sobeloff had risen to President of the Baltimore Branch of the American Jewish Congress, the combative rival to the more “patrician” American Jewish Council. The bulletin published by the Baltimore branch of the American Jewish Congress reached 6,500 readers, gentile and Jewish alike, Sobeloff asserted. “We have been and are using every means in our power to awaken our community, non-Jewish as well as Jewish, to an understanding of our problem and an earnest interest in dealing with it,” he wrote to one of the organization’s most recognizable leaders, Rabbi Stephen Wise, in November 1933.
Sobeloff was not alone in articulating such concerns; others shared his fear that events in Europe were seeping into America. “I have always been interested in the welfare of our people but nothing in my lifetime has given me more concern or stirred within me a greater desire to be of service to my fellow countrymen than the present situation confronting Jewry today, not only in Germany but in this country as well,” Emanuel Gorfine wrote. Gorfine, a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly from Baltimore’s Fourth District added darkly: “The Jews in Germany are doomed, and, while everything possible is being done to alleviate their distress, it is realized that so far as saving them is concerned that is practically a forlorn hope.” To their collective credit, between 1933 and 1937, Baltimore’s refugee aid groups settled 3,000 persons fleeing Nazi Germany.
Anti-Semitic provocations intensified as the decade progressed. In 1936, only seven months after the passage of Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, the German warship Emden docked in the city as part of a larger “goodwill tour” by the Nazis. Thousands of Baltimoreans streamed to Recreation Pier to get a look at the vessel. “City and state officials drank a toast to Hitler at an officer’s reception sponsored by local German societies” note Goldstein and Weiner, while 450 Marylanders “enjoyed a shipboard luncheon” that celebrated “sea life’s gay side.” When it finally departed, 2,000 spectators bid it farewell, “as its swastika flag fluttered” in the harbor wind.
In the wake of the Emden affair, Sobeloff soon confronted another cultural provocation when the film, Hans Westmar: One of Many reached American theaters. The movie put forth a sympathetic portrait of the Nazi Horst Wessel and functioned as the final installment in a trilogy of Nazi- produced films meant to memorialize the Nazi party’s time in opposition. Wise described Wessell as an “eminence of leadership in the world of pimpdom and of incitement to mass murder.”
Sobeloff knew one of the film’s distributors, Amos J. Peaslee, and reached out to him in a letter. Peaslee reacted coldly to Sobeloff’s critique of the film and decried Jewish American attempts to protest the movie: “In any event, any concerted effort to suppress the free play of thought, speech or press upon political, racial or religious grounds seems to me un-American.” He also asserted that the Nazi government had nothing to do with the film’s production, a statement that Wise and Sobeloff correctly repudiated.
Peaslee further wrote to Sobeloff: “I count among some of my best friends members of your religious sect and I have found many fine characters and have a number of friends who are members of the Nazi Party in Germany. My political and religious viewpoints doubtless differ widely from those friends, both in your religious sect and in the Nazi party, in a number of respects, and certainly all of my own religious background has taught the virtues of tolerance.”
Despite such obstacles, Sobeloff refused to relent. In 1939, he served as the Baltimore Jewish Council’s (BJC) first president. The BJC became the first “communal organization to engage in the ‘fight’ strategy” even if it initially “went about its business quietly,” Goldstein and Weiner observe.
Indeed, in ensuing years, the BJC would be an active presence in the city, promoting desegregation while also criticizing Jewish and gentile realtors it believed acted unscrupulously regarding blockbusting. It allied with the NAACP and Urban League in the mid-1950s to combat racism by pushing for fair employment laws. While it took nearly two decades for the BJC to adopt an aggressive approach, it proved effective. The fair employment ordinance that passed in 1956 had been drafted in BJC headquarters and became the first of its kind below the Mason-Dixon Line. By then Sobeloff had moved to the Fourth Circuit where he enforced desegregation across the upper and lower South. Yet he remained active in the BJC and as demonstrated, Sobeloff’s experiences during the 1930s informed his actions decades later. A witness to history, Sobeloff chose also to be an actor within it. The addition to the Sobeloff papers tells this story and many, many, more from Jewish Baltimore.
- Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner, On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews in Baltimore (2018).
- Simon Ernest Sobeloff papers, 1882-2005.