The jewing of America, rendered via a story about a street in Brooklyn

Brooklyn’s Hitler Street

In the neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, just one block from
the Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Mall, a street sign reads: Corbin Place. The
street is named after Austin Corbin, a 19th-century industrialist who built the
area’s railroads and some of its major hotels – and who also publicly
campaigned to “exterminate the Jews.”

As president of the Long Island Railroad during the late
1800’s, Corbin built the first railroads to Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach,
and Coney Island. He also built the luxurious 358-room Manhattan Beach Hotel, a
favorite summer spot for that era’s rich and famous, as well as another area
hotel, the Oriental.

But there was another side to Austin Corbin. He was a close
associate of Judge Henry Hilton, a figure of some prominence in the history of
American anti-Semitism. In 1877, Hilton became owner of the Grand Union Hotel
in upstate Saratoga Springs, one of America’s most famous resorts. He promptly
instituted a policy that “no Israelites shall be permitted in the future
to stop at this hotel.”

One of the first to be excluded was Joseph Seligman, a
prominent German Jewish banker and friend of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant
.
Seligman had played a major role in financing the Union side in the civil war,
and was later offered the position of secretary of the treasury in the Grant
administration.

Seligman’s fame, and his public protest against Hilton,
turned the episode into a national controversy. Mark Twain, future Supreme
Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, one
of the most famous preachers of the era, spoke out on Seligman’s behalf
. The
author and poet Bret Harte skewered Judge Hilton:

You’ll allow Miss McFlimsey her diamonds to wear,

You’ll permit the Van Dams at the waiters to swear,

You’ll allow Miss Decollette to flirt on the stair,

But, as to an Israelite, pray have a care.

It was no doubt comforting for Jews to have supporters of
such distinction, but the harsh reality

of the Gilded Age was that America’s old upper crust deeply
resented the newly-wealthy businessmen, some of them Jews, who were entering
the strata of the social elite. Many hotels, social clubs, and similar
institutions excluded Jews.

One way that some well-to-do Jews responded to this
exclusion was by building their own clubs and hotels. The famous Harmonie Club
in Manhattan, for example, was established because Jews were kept out of other
elite clubs. Nathan Straus, Jr., the managing partner of Macy’s Department
Store, built the Lakewood Hotel, in Lakewood, New Jersey, after the hotel next
door refused his reservation.

In 1879, Austin Corbin announced that he would not permit
Jews to stay in the Manhattan Beach Hotel.

“Personally, I am opposed to Jews,” he declared in
a newspaper interview. “They are a pretentious class who expect three
times as much for their money as other people. They give us more trouble on our
[rail]road and in our hotel than I can stand. Another thing is that they are
driving away the class of people who are beginning to make Coney Island the
most fashionable and magnificent watering place in the world.”

“We do not like Jews as a class,” he continued.
“There are some well-behaved people among them, but as a rule they make
themselves offensive to the kind of people who principally patronize our road
and hotel .… They are a detestable and vulgar people.”

Corbin and Hilton established the American Society for the
Suppression of the Jews, and held one of its first meetings at the Grand Union
Hotel in Saratoga Springs. The resolutions adopted at the meeting urged that
“Jews must be excluded from all first class society.”

The attendees pledged to refrain from voting for Jewish
political candidates, attending theater performances involving Jewish composers
or actors, buying books by Jewish authors, riding Jewish-owned railroads, or
doing business with Jewish-owned insurance firms.

“We pledge ourselves to spare no effort to remand [the
Jews] to the condition that they were in the Middle Ages, or to exterminate
them utterly,” Corbin and his supporters proclaimed.

At another of the Society’s meetings – this one held in the
Manhattan Beach Hotel – Corbin asked the audience: “If this is a free
country, why can’t we be free of the Jews?”

That phrase, “free of Jews,” bears more than a
passing resemblance to the language that the Nazis would use six decades later
as they carried out the mass murder of European Jewry. Interestingly, Corbin
Place intersects with Babi Yar Square, named to commemorate the massacre of
33,000 Jews in German-occupied Kiev in September 1941.

Some may say that history had the last laugh on Austin
Corbin. After all, the street named in his honor now lies in the heart of a
heavily Jewish neighborhood. Jewish life thrives on the street named after the
man who wanted to stamp out Jewish life.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Naming a street after someone is a well-established means of
paying tribute to that person. Three years ago, the Chicago City Council,
acting in response to a request from the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust
Studies, named a street after native son and Jewish activist Ben Hecht, to
honor his efforts to promote the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust.

A street in Ridgewood, New Jersey, was recently renamed in
honor of Ridgewood native Varian Fry, the American journalist who organized the
rescue of more than 2,000 refugees from Vichy France in 1940-1941.

Honoring more recent champions of freedom, then-New York
City mayor Ed Koch responded to the Chinese government’s massacre of student
protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by asking the New York City Council to
rename the corner in front of the Chinese Mission to the UN “Tiananmen
Square.”

“I placed the sign there myself with great
pleasure,” Koch told me. Some time later, the sign was mysteriously
removed – no surprise, perhaps, since there was a building full of Chinese
diplomats twenty feet away.

“I personally replaced it,” Koch recalled.

It was a small but striking gesture. Every morning, when the
Chinese ambassador arrived for work, he was reminded that to Americans, the
students who lost their lives protesting for democracy are heroes.

Americans are not the only ones for whom street naming bears
symbolic significance. For many years, Egypt refused to normalize relations
with Iran because a Tehran street was named in honor of Khaled Islambouli, one
of the assassins of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Eventually the Iranians
gave in and changed the name (to “Intifada Street”).

The Palestinian Authority has named many streets or schools
after terrorists, some of whom were involved in killing American citizens, and
as a result the U.S. Agency for International Development has on several
occasions threatened to withhold American aid from those schools.

What will be done about Corbin Place? New York State Senator
Carl Kruger and New York City Councilman Mike Nelson, who represent the
Manhattan Beach neighborhood, are proposing to change the street’s name.

Two prominent longtime Manhattan Beach residents whose names
have been mentioned as possible replacements for Corbin are Rabbi Sholom Klass,
zt”l, founding publisher of The Jewish Press, and the late New York State
Senator Donald Halperin, who represented the district from 1970 until 1993.

Another name that should be considered: “Celler
Place.” The late U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler was a proud Jew, an
extraordinary humanitarian, and a devoted fighter for civil rights.

Celler was a Brooklynite through and through – in fact, he
titled his autobiography You Never Leave Brooklyn. He grew up on Sumner Avenue
and Floyd Street, at the very same time that Austin Corbin was leading his
public campaign against the Jews. He graduated from Brooklyn Boys’ High School
(Class of 1906) and then Columbia Law School, built a successful local law
practice and, in 1922, was elected to what would be the first of twenty-five
consecutive terms in Congress, representing Brooklyn’s Tenth District.

During the Holocaust, Celler repeatedly challenged the
Roosevelt administration’s failure to rescue Jews from Hitler. Celler did so
even though he was a staunch New Dealer and represented voters who
overwhelmingly supported FDR. Moreover, Celler chaired the House Judiciary
Committee – a position he knew might be jeopardized if he angered the
president.

Celler charged that the administration’s refugee conference
in Bermuda, in April 1943, was just “more diplomatic tight-rope
walking” at a time when “thousands of Jews are being killed
daily.”

When the Bermuda meetings ended, he said in a radio address:
“The Bermuda Conference has adjourned, but the problem has not adjourned.”

On another occasion, he characterized Bermuda as “a
bloomin’ fiasco” – a shot at another Jewish congressman, Sol Bloom (D-NY),
who supported the State Department and served on the U.S. delegation to
Bermuda.

Celler called FDR’s immigration policy “cold and
cruel,” and accused the State Department of having “a glacier-like
attitude” and “a heartbeat muffled in protocol.”

Challenging Roosevelt’s claim that nothing could be done to
aid the Jews except to win the war, Celler declared in one speech: “Victory,
the spokesmen say, is the only solution…After victory, the disembodied
spirits will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food,
drink and asylum.”

Celler took particular aim at Assistant Secretary of State
Breckinridge Long, who was in charge of refugee matters.

“If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long
continue in control of immigration admission,” Celler said, “we might
as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty…” Celler said
Long’s professions of sympathy for the refugees were nothing more than
“crocodile tears,” since he was the one blocking their admission.

Celler also tried to encourage American Jews to take a more
active approach. At a convention of the Jewish War Veterans, he urged them to
“speak out, spur on those in high places and low places so that the word
may go to those in authority to help to the hilt.”

Celler’s many accomplishments during his years on Capitol
Hill included spearheading three Constitutional amendments to strengthen or expand
voting rights, authoring the legislation that created the U.S. Civil Rights
Commission, and playing a key role in passing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights
Act.

But there was one legislative battle that took Celler more
than forty years to win.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, Austin Corbin and his ilk had
agitated to put an end to the American tradition of welcoming “the huddled
masses yearning to be free.” As fear and hatred of foreigners spread, the
American public’s mood turned sharply against immigration.

After numerous battles in Congress stretching over many
years, legislation was finally enacted, in 1921, which for the first time
established immigration quotas based on national origins. Countries from
southern and eastern European – from which “undesirables” such as
Jews and Italians had been coming in large numbers – were allotted some of the
smallest quotas. Those quotas ultimately played an important role in shutting
America’s doors to Jews fleeing Hitler.

Throughout nearly his entire professional life, Celler
fought to abolish the use of national origins as the basis for immigration
policy. He opposed it when the legislation was first enacted in the 1920’s, but
to no avail. He battled it unsuccessfully during the Hitler years, when public
opposition to immigration was still too strong to overcome.

Finally, in 1965, Celler’s efforts were crowned with success
as the national-origins quotas were at long last eliminated. It was Celler’s
victory over everything that Austin Corbin represented.

“The very name ‘Corbin’ on a street sign in Manhattan
Beach should be deemed hate symbolism akin to a swastika,” according to
Denis Hamill of the New York Daily News, whose recent column ignited the
current controversy over Corbin Place.

Is Hamill’s analogy correct? A swastika is an instantly and
universally recognized symbol of Nazi hate.
It would be like having a
“Hitler Street” in Brooklyn.

Everyone knows who Hitler was and what he did. The name
Austin Corbin, on the other hand, was – until the publication of Hamill’s
article – recognized only by a relative handful of Brooklyn folklorists and
historians of 19th-century America. And Corbin’s anti-Semitism was not
necessarily known even to all of them.

But now the cat is out of the bag. Eight hundred thousand
readers of the New York Daily News know the truth about Corbin, as do millions
of Internet users around the world who have read about the growing dispute over
Corbin Place.

To leave Corbin’s name on the street, in these
circumstances, would be tantamount to saying that his anti-Jewish incitement
didn’t matter. To change it to Celler Place would bring the Corbin saga to a
fitting end: the Brooklyn street named in honor of a bigot would instead pay
tribute to a Brooklynite who devoted his life to fighting bigotry.

 

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