Pittsburgh's Response to the Rise of Hitler

While many expressed concern when Hitler assumed power, few realized that the Nazis’ hateful rhetoric would become policy. Reporters from The Jewish Criterion, a Pittsburgh newspaper, originally believed that the men around Hitler would “make sure that the famous anti-Semite’s impetuosity would not undermine the country….that Hitler, as a responsible official, guided by seasoned statesmen, may not be as rash and intolerant as his anti-Semitic campaign has made him appear.”

Nevertheless, Pittsburghers recognized the immediate need, raising the sixth highest contribution per capita in the country for relief for Jews in Germany in 1933. 

From The Pittsburgh Press, March 27, 1933

Joseph “Ziggy” Kahn was the Irene Kaufmann Settlement’s athletic director, and was one of the first Americans to lead protests against Nazis on the national scene. Kahn was the son of immigrants from Latvia who had immigrated to Pittsburgh in the mid-1890s. Starting in 1933, he was a leading force working against American participation in the 1936 Olympics in Germany in protest of Nazi treatment of Jews. He was part of a committee that visited Franklin Roosevelt to voice its concern; according to Kahn, Roosevelt laughed and said “don’t believe all that stuff about persecutions” and gave the committee about three minutes of his time. 

Ziggy Kahn
Photo © Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives

In 1935, The Friendship Club began as a casual gathering with five young men who were refugees from Nazi Germany. By 1936, the group was meeting at the local Y so older immigrants and new arrivals could meet, providing each other with much needed support, camaraderie, and learning. A deliberate decision was made to host these meetings in English. The Friendship Club helped new immigrants find jobs and housing, taught English, and offered free activities.

Members of the Friendship Club packing items for soldiers
Photo © Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives

 Throughout the 1930s, NCJW’s Service for the Foreign Born Committee reached out to new arrivals, meeting trains and aiding refugees with resettlement. They also fielded the frantic appeals of immigrants whose loved ones were still in Germany, helping them to make contact and track their progress as they attempted to escape.

In spite of near-universal criticism of the Nazi regime, the United States had its own problems with antisemitism. The existing antisemitism in Western Pennsylvania meant that it was ripe for hate groups. There were large Ku Klux Klan units in Pittsburgh, New Kensington, Homestead, Mount Pleasant, and Johnstown.

As the Nazis rose to power in Europe, Pittsburgh had its own “flourishing German-American bund of about 105 members,” one of 62 chapters around the country. These bunds were financed and supplied with propaganda by Joseph Goebbels. One person referred to it as the “nest of anti-Semites on the North Side and in Wilkinsburg.” Jews and older German-Americans did their best to denounce these groups and persuade them to change their ways.

“We accepted anti-Semitism as a way of life…we grew up knowing that in many places doors would be closed to us and that we had to be better than the next fellow…my father always said you have to be twice as good as anyone else.”

-Frieda Shapira, influential Jewish community member