The Christie Pits Riot

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On Aug. 16, 1933,  half a world away from Nazi Germany, two Toronto baseball teams, hit the diamond for the second game of their quarter-finals series.

The Harbord Playground consisted predominantly of Jewish and Italian players, and St. Peter’s, a baseball team sponsored by St. Peter’s Church, a Catholic church at Bathurst and Bloor. The players on each team had only one thing on their mind, winning the game, and eventually the series. As fans cheered on from the stands they hoped the warm summer evening would help them I forget at least for the moment,the troubles of The Great Depression. 

Among the fans there was a group of men with a white blanket over their laps. It was an odd sight considering the warm late summer air but by all accounts it seems that the group went unnoticedWith one final out, the game was over and as  the winning team’s fans cheered, the young men, who were members of the Pit Gang stood up and unfurled their blanket. 

Emblazoned on it was a homemade swastika  the symbol of Nazi Germany,as they rose the young men then yelled “Heil Hitler”. 

That moment ignited one of the worst riots in Canadian history. 

Over 10,000 people took to the streets, many of whom wielded baseball bats, lead pipes and other improvised weapons. Dozens were injured and it laid bare underlying anti semitism and xenophobia , among Anglo-Canadians. Yet  the Christie Pits Riot is mostly a forgotten memory….that is… until today…

To understand what happened that mid August day in Toronto in 1933 I have to take you across the pond to Germany in January 1919. That’s when Anton Drexler founded the German Workers’ Party to discuss political matters at a beer hall in Munich. After World War One the city was politically unstable and people were inclined to support new ideas that advocated extreme change, which included nationalism,  and extreme antisemitism.

A year later that party became he National Socialist German Workers’ Party, more commonly referred to as the Nazi Party. By the early 1930s, the Nazi Party was on the rise thanks in part to propaganda aimed to exploit people’s fear of uncertainty and instability. Jews and Communists were featured heavily in Nazi propaganda as enemies of the German people. Then in the 1932 elections the party won the popular vote s, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler formed a coalition government with the German National People’s Party. 

On Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor of Germany. A month later, the Reichstag, the home of the German government, burned to the ground and Hitler proclaimed the fire was the start of a Communist uprising.

Just a day later on Feb. 28, most civil liberties were suspended and through the next six months, the party consolidated its stranglehold over the German people. By July 14, 1933, the Nazi Party passed a law making itself the sole legal party in the entire country. 

Meanwhile, the world mostly ignored the changing political landscape in Germany. That’s because  6,472 kilometres away in Toronto, Canadians were focused on their own struggles… namely The Great Depression. Unemployment was at a record high, wages were low and, possibly worst of all for some, the Maple Leafs had lost in the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers in April of that year. Nazi Germany was not top of minds of most Toronto residents, except  for the Jewish residents, who were worried by troublesome news stories. 

The Toronto Telegram and Toronto Daily Star reported that  Jewish people were losing their jobs in Germany and that they were becoming targets for violence. Some Jewish residents had only just arrived in Toronto… fleeing Germany a year or two earlier, sometimes leaving family behind. At the time, Jewish residents were the largest minority in Toronto, which made them a target because antisemitism was part of their everyday  lives in Canada. 

Fueled by xenophobia some hotels wouldn’t allow Jewish residents to stay in their establishments, Bell Canada wouldn’t hire Jewish individuals and Eatons would only hire them to be tailors. Only one Jewish man, Henry Nathan Jr., had been elected to Parliament between 1867 and 1933. Toronto itself wouldn’t see its first Jewish mayor, Nathan Phillips, for another two decades.

The Jewish community in Toronto was mostly working-class, and during the hot summers families enjoyed visiting the Beaches area, which was predominantly Anglo. 

Some of these residents did not look favourably upon the Jewish visitors to The Beaches. That’s because during the Great Depression, some Canadians looked for scapegoats to blame for the economic hardships and along with antisemitism, anti-immigrant sentiment intensified. With that in mind and considering what was happening in Germany, a Swastika Club was formed in late July 1933. 

Its symbol was, of course, the swastika. 

Today, the swastika is almost exclusively associated in the Western World with the Nazis, but it is a symbol that is almost as old as civilization itself. The earliest known swastika dates to 10,000 BCE, found in Mezine, Ukraine. The symbol has been found across the Eastern Hemisphere, often associated with deities. In Buddhism, it symbolizes eternal cycling, while in China it has been seen as a source of good fortune. 

But in Toronto the Swastika Club openly displayed the symbol along with the phrase “Heil Hitler” to make Jewish families feel unwanted.  Instead of underscoring the seriousness of the situation, newspapers simply called the perpetrators ‘Jokers’. The club received city-wide coverage when the Toronto Jewish Standard wrote an editorial on Aug. 1 about the club and its actions. In response 100 youths protested outside the club’s headquarters that night. The Swastika Club responded by insisting their use of the symbol had nothing to do with Hitler and instead it was their goal to just keep the Beaches clean because visitors walked on public property and left debris in the area.

On Aug. 7, the Club marched on the boardwalk, with the swastika prominently displayed, while a group of Jewish youths paraded nearby. One of the groups, it is not stated which one, staged an “imitation riot”, which was responded to by police at the boardwalk. For the next two weeks, city officials and Jewish leaders tried to have the Swastika Club disbanded, while the leadership of the club pursued legal action against the action. 

Mayor James Stewart gave a statement insisting that the police department would not tolerate the existence of any group seeking to take the law into its own hands.

The Swastika Club, or at least versions of it, began to spread elsewhere. One was started in Kitchener, which led to the Chief of Police, William Hodgson, to declare that there would be no such meetings allowed of what he called, steel helmets. 

Members of the Swastika Club in Toronto gave their support to this new club and even expressed their commitment to attend a rally on Aug. 14. The program for the club stated, in bold black type,

“Jews, no admittance. Any gentile, heartily welcome.”

Amid the rising tensions, two baseball teams in Toronto prepared for their quarterfinal’s series. The Jewish Harbord Playground baseball team had a long-standing local rivalry with the St. Peter’s Catholic Church team. Both teams were made up of players from immigrant families and despite their rivalry, they had one thing in common… they both faced discrimination  which is why many were friends, at least when they weren’t facing each other on the field.

Most of the players grew up in the area of Willowvale Park, which was  a place of happy memories.

Willowvale Park as it was known until 1983 is  a 21.9 acre recreational site consisting of baseball diamonds, football field, picnic sites and basketball courts, located on Bloor St in Toronto’s west end near the Christie subway station. This was the set for the first act of the drama that was about to unfold on Aug. 14, when the two baseball teams met for the first game of their series. By this point, the story of the Swastika Club had spread throughout the city and many xenophobic residents sympathized with the club. 

During the game, a few people in the stands waved a five-foot wide swastika banner. While tensions were high, the game finished without incident, with The Jewish Harbord Playground baseball team coming out the victor. That evening, a group of individuals returned and painted the words Hail Hitler on the roof of the clubhouse. 

A letter was then sent to the Toronto Daily Star, stating they wanted the “Jews out of the park.” Two days later, the teams met for the second game of their series. Neither side could have known when the first pitch was thrown that the day would end in infamy. 

Last out of the game was registered,  the winning team’s fans cheered,  a group of young men, who were members of the Pit Gang unfurled a banner with a swastika front and centre, Amid cries of Heil Hitler, violence broke out. 

The Jewish baseball players were likely aware of the rise of Nazism. Some may even have family in Germany. They might have not been able to oppose oppression in  Europe, but they would fight at Christie Pits against Nazism. 

Joining them were over 100 Jewish youths who were there to cheer on their team, and possibly to prevent what had happened in the first game. The players on the Jewish team fought for control of the swastika banner against The Pit Gang, who were attacking the Jewish baseball players. This  ignited the ire of the Italian players who joined the melee to defend  the Jewish players. 

Before long, the Pit Gang was vastly outnumbered.

Murray Krugell, an 18-year-old youth member of the gang, fought for control of the banner and held it up for the crowd  in defiance to the crowd. Two police officers soon arrived and took him to their patrol car and had to stand guard to prevent him from being pulled out of the vehicle by the growing crowd. The players then tore the banner to shreds.

As the brawl  spread outside of the ballpark, youths wielding clubs, pipes, baseball bats, or just their fists, joined the fight. The Toronto Daily Star later reported the crowd grew into a rioting mob to the size of over 10,000 people, where quote

“Scores were injured, many requiring medical and hospital attention. Heads were opened, eyes blackened, and bodies thumped and battered as literally dozens of persons, young and old, many of them non-combatant spectators, were injured more or less seriously by a variety of ugly weapons in the hands of wild-eyed and irresponsible young hoodlums.” end quote

Police were overwhelmed by the scale of the riot, and reinforcements were called in on horseback and motorcycles. To disperse the crowd, officers used Billie clubs and even exhaust pipes from their motorcycles  But it was to now avail as the riot raged through the evening and into the night thankfully  by morning, the violence had stopped and quiet had returned to the streets. 

No one was killed in the melee but for the next 24 hours, the walking wounded arrived at Toronto hospitals to receive medical attention. 15-year-old Joseph Goldstein, had only just finished playing a lacrosse game. He was trying to get to his brother’s home and was making his way through the crowd when he was hit in the head with a baseball bat. The 22-year-old man, Joe Brown,, had not been at the park and had not taken part in the baseball game… According to his account of events as he walked he heard someone yell ‘There’s one of them!’ 

The next thing he knew, someone hit him over the head, possibly with brass knuckles and then a group began to jump on him and kick him as he lost consciousness. He didn’t know why they had attacked him. He had nothing to do with the riot… the only motive he could think of was that the group was looking Jewish people. He was Jewish, so he was attacked.

Al Eckler was walking with a friend near the park when a car drove up to them. Seven men got out and attacked him with a bat, leaving him with a scalp wound that required stitches. David Fischer, another Jewish resident, heard someone challenge him to a fight, and he accepted. The next thing he knew, four youths surrounded him, and he was hit with a lead pipe. Dizzy and bleeding heavily, he ran away as they yelled antisemitic slurs.

An emergency session of the Toronto Police Commission was held in the evening of the riot out of worry there would be further riots in other parks in the city, but thankfully there were none. Despite the size of the riot, there were  few arrests and there are reports that Toronto Police Chief Dennis Draper knew about the potential for a riot, and did nothing to stop it. Looking back, you might wonder why that would be the case…. remember that  during The Great Depression, police were more concerned with socialism and communism, than fascism. 

Unions were on the rise, and the government labeled many of these groups as agitators, bent on bringing down the established order. As I mentioned there weren’t many arrests, only two were charged, and Jack Roxborough was the only conviction.. He was sentenced to two months in prison, or $50 in fines, for standing over a prone man with a raised club. Mayor James Stewart banned the display of the swastika in public. This became one of the first policies in Canadian history to prohibit hate speech. 

He also asked those who saw a swastikas to restrain themselves, and not resort to violence. and he told the press, the trouble was greatly exaggerated. In the aftermath of the riot, there was an increased police presence around Christie Pits for several days. Police on motorcycles and horses patrolled the streets to prevent any further conflict. The Radical Squad, which was created to deal with any groups deemed radical or revolutionary, was also deployed to the park for several days. 

A one point crowds did begin to gather, but police reserves quickly dispersed them but not before a young man yelled Heil Hitler as he drove past a girl. Within days of the riot, a new Swastika Club had formed in East Toronto from former members of the Beaches Swastika Club. 

Members stated their aim was to campaign against Jewish residents, whom they felt used deceit in business dealings to hinder the advancements of Anglo residents.  On the East end across the city from Christie Pitts, eight swastikas were painted on a fence at Conboy Park and a baseball game, which included a Jewish team, was postponed as a result and no more troubles were reported. To this day, the Christie Pits riot remains the largest antisemitic riot in North American history.

And when Canada joined  the Second World War , there is documentation that shows people on opposing sides of the riot fought side by side against the Nazis and the attrocities being committed across EuropeThat’s the end of the Christie Pits riot story but stick around for two more fun facts that you may not know about this moment in Canadian History.

Willowvale Park or as it became known – Christie Pits – is named honour of William Mellis Christie, co-founder of the Christie and Brown Cookie Company, who you might simply know as  Mr. Christie.

The park and the riot is also featured in one of the signature songs by The Tragically Hip.

The song Bobcaygeon, was released on the band’s 1999 album Phantom Power and won the Juno Award for Single of the Year

There is a town with the same name in Kawartha Lakes region and it has become a mythical place in Canada’s collective imagination as a symbol of the cottage country paradise. 

But when you listen to the lyrics, the song tells the tale of a police officer who is stressed at his job and ponders quitting and he unwinds on the weekends by spending time in the cottage oasis of Bobcaygeon. Next time you listen, pay close attention to the song’s bridge, when Gord Downie sings

That night in Toronto,
With its checkerboard floors
Riding on horseback,
And keeping order restored
‘til The Men They Couldn’t Hang,
Stepped to the mic and sang,
And their voices rang with that Aryan twang

Those lyrics deal relate to racism and anti-Semitism. The Men They Couldn’t Hang were a British folk band whose song, Ghosts of Cable Street, is about the Battle of Cable Street Riot in London in 1936. Like the Christie Riots,  it was a battle was between fascist and anti-fascist supporters. 

Information: Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada’s History, Macleans, Wikipedia, CBC, Myseum of Toronto, Hogtown Collective, Toronto Star, Montreal Star, Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, Sault Star, 

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