Growing up, my mom told my sisters and I stories about living through the Depression, pandemics, and war years in Newark, NJ, but there was one story in particular that still shakes me. At her 90th birthday party, she regaled us with the tale of her older brother Harry, a prize-fighting boxer. I had long ago read the newspaper article about my Uncle winning the Golden Glove in Madison Square Garden in 1936. But, that night, my mother and her family reminisced about Uncle Harry and the other boxers working for Mob boss Longie Zwillman, all of them on a mission to help stop the rising German-American Nazi party at the request of the US government. They called Zwillman’s team the Newark Minutemen.
German Nazis in America? Before World War II? Why had I never learned about this in school? After hearing my mother’s story, I became devoted to filling this hole in American history and capturing my Uncle Harry’s legacy.
During the Great Depression, in 1933, America was facing a precarious future. With Hitler rapidly gaining traction abroad, the transition to the FDR presidency, and the dusk of prohibition on the horizon, America was fertile ground for fanatics to breed fascism out of the confusion and uncertainty. Throughout the 1930s, Hitler was gaining support in America for his Nazi empire, well before he had fired a single bullet in Europe.
Led by Fuhrer Fritz Kuhn, a German immigrant living in New York, the Reich created a multi-million dollar national presence called the German-American Bund. Kuhn unified tens of thousands of American-Nazi Bund members in every city and managed twenty-five Nazi youth camps across the US. His six-company corporation generated millions. He exploited US resources like the NRA and National Guard to equip his army with guns and training. After the war, the FBI traced millions of dollars from leading banks all across America back to Germany, proving ties between the American Bund and German Nazis.
Average American citizens, however, ignored him. Even though there were tens of thousands of soldiers, dressed in smuggled Nazi uniforms, marching down American streets — Sieg Heiling and waving Swastika and American flags side by side — we ignored them. Even though the Bund sent their youth to Nazi training camps in the Catskills, Long Island, and bucolic country sides all across America to study Mein Kampf and perfect the goosestep — we ignored them. And — even after Fritz Kuhn and his faction incited a Nuremberg-like rally at the iconic Madison Square Garden on President’s Day in 1939 — we turned the other way.
Why? Firstly, they were protected by the first amendment, which awards freedom of speech and assembly, and, secondly, many Americans did not want to enter another war. Because the public turned a blind eye, the Bund had free rein to spread their hateful message all across the nation.
Discovering this history pulled me into forgotten time. It was shocking to think that — if not for an underground band of boxers who were recruited by the government in conjunction with Jewish mafia to fight as a resistance group against the violent hatred of German-American Nazis — we may not be having this conversation today. The boxers were called the Newark Minutemen, and they fought against the Nazi protesters by going on undercover spy missions, ultimately using their intelligence to foil the Bund’s plans and gather proof about the Nazi youth camps.
The boxers were called the Newark Minutemen, and they fought against the Nazi protesters by going on undercover spy missions, ultimately using their intelligence to foil the Bund’s plans and gather proof about the Nazi youth camps.
Newark Minutemen, my novel, and soon to be a film optioned by Fulwell73, is not another World War II Nazi story. It’s based on first-hand sources including FBI and Senate hearing documents, interviews, diaries, newsreels, radio announcements, and articles. However, there were challenges in finding these sources, including the death of many key characters, the secretive nature of the mob and the government, and the fact that by the time the story was captured, many had begun overshadowing the horrors of the second World War. I constructed scenes and dialogue where missing pieces arose and compressed and dramatized some events to best work for the novel, but at its core, Newark Minutemen is a real-life, forgotten American story about waking up to the enemy sitting on our doorstep.
Yael, the protagonist of the novel, is based on John C. Metcalfe, a Chicago Times reporter who went undercover in 1937, becoming a Nazi Stormtrooper with his FBI brother Jim to uncover the threat of Hitler in America. He ultimately testified for the Un-American Activities Senate hearings and consulted on the movie Confessions of a Nazi Spy. I had the pleasure of speaking with his son and reading his undercover diaries in my research for Newark Minutemen. The heroine, Krista, is also based on a real person; Helen Vooros, who was a teenage camper at the American Hitler Youth camps and bravely testified for the Senate hearings and FBI about the horrifying eugenics practices that went on at the camps, including the repeated sexual assault of the female campers in order to increase the Aryan population in America.
All of the mobsters and Newark Minutemen featured in the novel are based on real people, including Mob king, Longie Zwillman, and the leader of the Minutemen, Nat Arno. In addition to my historical research, my mom and I visited her family to develop the story further. Her four brothers all worked with the real Longie Zwillman, a man known as the “Gatsby of Gangsters.” He was part of a national crime syndicate called Murder Inc. and an associate of well-known mobsters, including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. His power earned him the additional title “The Al Capone of New Jersey,” but he also took care of his own, contributed to charities, and cleaned up Newark. One cousin, Pauline Levine, and her brother, Seymour, lived next door to the Mob’s hideout, behind the candy shop. Pauline’s father Irving was Longie Zwillman’s barber. She told me how Longie helped relatives and other fleeing Jews escape from Europe during the war. My cousin Bruce reached out on the alumnae site of his and my mother’s former highschool to gather stories about the Newark Minutemen. We received anecdotes and photos from many, all of which can be viewed on Newarkminutmen.com.
Through the use of different voices, I ultimately intended Newark Minutemen to offer diverse perspectives and introduce empathy into uncomfortable places. The novel explores the convulsive collision of history and romance, inviting readers to take a frank look at the devastating events that have occurred in America, including the most devastating and pervasive of all — complacency.
Leslie K. Barry is most recently a screenwriter, author, and executive producer. Her previous professional work includes executive positions with major entertainment companies including Turner Broadcasting, Hasbro/Parker Brothers, and Mattel Mindscape Video Games. She has spent the last twenty-five years with her husband in Tiburon, CA raising their four kids and dog. On the side, she’s devoted to genealogy, which she has used to uncover many ideas for her developing stories and create family storybooks.