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April 13, 2021 12:52 pm
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How the Holocaust Survivor Community Fought 1961’s ‘Battle of New Orleans’

avatar by Harold Brackman

Opinion

New Orleans. Photo: Reuters//Carlos Barria.

The conventional view is that Holocaust survivors came to the US as a relatively young immigrant community, uncertain about how to “fit in” to their new country, and fearful that pathological antisemitism might follow them from Europe.

In New Orleans, there was truth to this picture — until 1961, when everything changed.

Around 1940, there were reportedly some 8,000 New Orleans Jews — a tiny minority in a city with a 40 percent African-American population. Calling the Jewish newcomers “New Americans,” many wanted them to say little — and assimilate as quickly as possible.

Rabbi Julian Feibelman was a racial liberal — he opened his synagogue in 1949 to an integrated lecture by Ralph Bunche — but criticized Rabbi Stephen Wise’s activism during World War II, and was a stalwart of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism.

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Then the “American Fuhrer,” George Lincoln Rockwell, burst onto the New Orleans scene. He told the police department that he planned to arrive in a segregationist “hate bus.” This was the same day that Alabama KKK members had assaulted Freedom Riders in the Montgomery Bus Terminal.

The long-dormant Holocaust survivor community exploded in outrage, led by young people like Anne Skorecki Levy, who had arrived with her sister and parents in the 1940s as a pig-tailed teenager. The Skoreckis survived the Warsaw Ghetto, and many other horrors.

Coincidentally, the film, “Exodus,” based on Leon Uris’ novel, was opening in 1961 in a New Orleans movie theater. A third ring in 1961’s New Orleans circus were the reverberations from the Eichmann trial, then occurring in Jerusalem. Local antisemites adorned their cars with bumper stickers reading: “I like Eich.”

The established Jewish community, backed by local law enforcement and the US Justice Department, favored “a quarantine policy” to freeze out Rockwell by depriving him of publicity. But the New Orleans “Survivor” community would have none of it.

Shocked by the Nazis seemingly making a comeback on American soil, survivors decided to counter-picket when Rockwell announced his followers would protest the opening of “Exodus.” David Radasky flung down the gauntlet for survivors: “Well, if you and the ADL cannot do nothing [sic], we gonna do it, because it’s not 1939 or ’40 or ’44.”

The New Orleans police intervened, arresting Nazi demonstrators under a local “criminal mischief” statute. Ironically, the Freedom Riders were being arrested elsewhere under similar statutes. Later, the courts struck down such legislation as infringements on free speech and assembly.

Turbulent 1961 in New Orleans passed into history. But it imprinted itself in the minds and hearts of the New Orleans survivor community. As Lawrence N. Powell, biographer of Anne Skorecki Levy, writes, the survivors who rose up against Rockwell’s American Nazis “learned the lesson of collective action.” 1961 also provided the community with a lesson in standing up to future antisemitism.

Anne Skorecki Levy grew up to lead the Stop Duke movement when David Duke ran and lost for governor in 1991. She helped ensure that he never won another election. And she helped keep the memory — and lessons — of the Holocaust alive at home and abroad.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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