There is a misconception that most people were appalled about Hitler coming to power in 1933, and that it was only the Germans who endorsed the Nazi policies. But that would be far from the truth.
Hitler’s rise to power was celebrated in many parts of the world, even in Canada.
It’s not hard to imagine Toronto was far removed from the violence of antisemitism and Hitler’s rise, but on an August evening in 1933, the hostility that troubled the streets of Berlin reared its ugly head in Toronto during a baseball game at Christie Pits.
In 1933, Jews and other minorities were subjected to social and institutional bigotry in Canada. Quotas put a limit to the number of Jews who could sign up for university programs. Social clubs and several corporations banned Jews.
At that time, the Jewish community in Toronto was mainly poor and working-class. During the hot summer months, Jewish families and youths in particular would cool off by going to the predominantly Anglo-Canadian Beaches area to swim. The local residents were not too pleased about that.
At those Beaches , there weref young men walking down the boardwalk wearing swastika symbols on their bathing suits and shirts, patrolling for what they called “undesirables,” these groups were called swastika clubs.On August 1, 1933, the “Swastika Club” were reported in the editions of Toronto’s Jewish Standard, which triggered multiple protest from local Jewish residents.
On August 16, 1933, a gang who called themselves the Pit Gang unfolded a banner with a swastika at a baseball game between St. Peter’s and the Harbord Playground team at Christie Pits Park in Toronto. They were targeting the Harbord Playground team, a group of mostly Jewish, and some Italian men, who were playing a game that evening.
(The Harbord Playground baseball team in 1931. ‘City of Toronto Archives’)
The night of the riot was the second game between Harbord and St. Peter’s. Two nights previously, at the first game of the series, another swastika had been displayed. The Police had been warned in writing that there could be trouble at the second game, but the police did not heed those warnings. As the game ended, a St. Peter’s supporter opened up a large swastika flag as others chanted “Heil Hitler!”. This angered the Jewish supporters who rushed to the flag bearer.Supporters of both sides (including Italians who supported the Jews) from the surrounding area joined in, and a fight started.
A violent five-hour brawl broke out with each side wielding any weapon they could find, including bats, lead pipes, and bottles.
The following day The Toronto Daily Star reported on the riot.
“While groups of Jewish and Gentile youths wielded fists and clubs in a series of violent scraps for possession of a white flag bearing a swastika symbol at Willowvale Park last night, a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens, excited by cries of ‘Heil Hitler’ became suddenly a disorderly mob and surged wildly about the park and surrounding streets, trying to gain a view of the actual combatants, which soon developed in violence and intensity of racial feeling into one of the worst free-for-all’s ever seen in the city.
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 or 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, both Jewish and Gentile”
Although people were using baseball bats and knives to attack each other, no one died during the riot.
Mayor Stewart criticized the inadequate response of the Chief of Police to warnings of impending violence, and warned against displaying the swastika.
The riot did reveal the xenophobic attitudes toward Jews and other immigrants (such as Italian immigrants) among some Anglo Canadians.
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