On the night of August 16,1933, a six-hour, violent street brawl took place on the streets of Toronto between swastika-brandishing Anglo Protestants and Jewish and Italian Catholic immigrants. The Christie Pits riots were dramatic, but with the passage of time, the memory of the anti-Semitism-fueled rampage has faded.
“When I teach about the riot today, there are a few students who have a small recognition of the event, but most don’t have any real knowledge of it at all,” said teacher Rachel Urowitz of The Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. She said that twenty years ago, many of her Jewish history students had heard of the Christie Pits riots; some had even had grandparents who had witnessed or taken part in them. Those grandparents are now gone and their history has been forgotten.
“Students are typically very surprised that this happened in their own city, and they want to understand how this could have happened in Toronto,” said Urowitz.
A new graphic novel on the Christie Pits riots published this month will help answer Urowitz’s students’ questions. The book, written by Jamie Michaels and illustrated by Doug Fedrau, brings to life a largely overlooked period of overt anti-Semitism in Canada. The book is a stark reminder for those who have lived their entire lives in an extremely multicultural Toronto that the city was not always so tolerant.
“Christie Pits” covers the four months leading up to the riot, as Depression-era resentment toward Jews and other “undesirable” minority immigrant groups grew among some of Toronto’s then-majority Anglo Protestant population. “Swastika clubs” formed to intimidate Jews and keep them from visiting the city’s public beaches on the shore of Lake Ontario. In turf wars, Protestant gangs tried to keep Jews and others from entering certain neighborhoods or playing sports in particular parks.
At the same time, reports in the Toronto Star filed by foreign correspondent Pierre Van Paassen alerted Canadians to the discrimination and violence against Jews in Germany by the newly governing Nazi party and their domestic supporters.
Yet, the Canadian government decided to implement a “none is too many” immigration policy, letting in no more that 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945. Many Canadian Jews, while facing anti-Semitism at home, were also trying to bring their persecuted loved ones over from Europe.
The lens Michaels uses in “Christie Pits” is not the Holocaust (which would not begin for another six years), but rather the lead-up period of global uncertainty for Jews. There is terror in Europe, a virtual halt to Jewish immigration, and unease among Canadian Jews in a country still somewhat hostile toward them.
Michaels tell this history through character-driven narrative, with each chapter focusing on a different main (fictional) character as the plot leads up to the riot itself. The riot broke out at a baseball game at Christie Pits (Willowvale Park) on August 16, 1933, when a local Protestant gang held up a large Nazi banner to taunt the Jewish players and fans.
All hell broke loose among those present, and soon also among thousands more citizens who heard what was going on and ran or drove in as reinforcements. Fists, clubs and pipes were wielded as the fighting spilled out of the park and into the streets of adjacent neighborhoods. Fortunately no one was killed.
In the graphic novel, fictional young adult brothers Areyeh and Yiddel have come to Canada with their traumatized, pogrom-surviving (and axe-wielding) Uncle Fievel and Aunt Rochelle. Rochelle does everything she can to try to bring her sister and brother-in-law (her nephews’ parents) to Canada from Germany, to where they escaped after their Eastern European village was pillaged.
Meanwhile, the brothers take different approaches in dealing with the anti-Semitism they face in their daily life. Areyeh, a boxer, likes to use his fists to solve problems. Yiddel, the intellectual, prefers to talk (though he often needs Areyeh or fellow Jewish boxer Sammy to protect him).
The young men’s friend Tev is a University of Toronto literature student who isn’t afraid to speak up against institutionalized anti-Semitism on campus, or to throw a punch when necessary. Tev, who falls for Sofia, a young Italian labor organizer, is also the one who reaches out to some local Italian baseball players, forming a Jewish-Catholic alliance that bodes well for resisting the Protestant gangs on the night of the riot.
The level of violence in these young Jewish men’s lives seems jarring by today’s standards, but it was a reality of the time in which the characters lived.
“The veneer of non-violence in Canada now was not the case at the time. This was the reality. You may not have wanted to fight, but if trouble came looking for you, you would defend yourself,” said Michaels.
The 30-year-old author himself knows a thing or two about fighting. A mixed martial arts practitioner, he has engaged in one professional and three amateur cage fighting bouts. Otherwise, he is a writer and runs his own publishing house, Dirty Water Comics, in Winnipeg. (His first graphic novel, “Canoe Boys,” was about time he took off from his studies in political science and creative writing at the University of Alberta to canoe all the way from Winnipeg to Mexico. “It’s faster if you fly,” he noted.)
Michaels was “horrified” he had never heard of the Christie Pits riot when a stranger in a pub mentioned it a few years ago. He knew of individual cases of anti-Semitism — he himself had been called a “dirty Jew’ at a baseball game while growing up in Winnipeg — but had no idea that there had been an anti-Semitic riot in the streets of Canada’s largest city. Michaels started to research the topic, and decided in 2016 to begin work on “Christie Pits.”
“For many people, this is unknown history. I wanted to bring it to people’s attention through fresh storytelling,” Michaels said.
There was no question to Michaels that a graphic novel was the way to go. “Every story has its best medium. ‘Star Wars’ had to be a film, ‘Catcher in the Rye’ had to be a book, and ‘Christie Pits’ had to be a comic,” he said.
As Michaels read newspapers from the era, combed archives, and interviewed several people who could provide first-hand accounts of the riot, illustrator Fedrau, 40, began formulating a visual style for the book. Michaels said he hired Fedrau for his clear, simple illustrations with strong detail and line work.
“I love how Doug worked small, historically accurate details into the backgrounds. The book’s overall style is similar to what you might see in a Tintin comic, with its youthfulness and sense of adventure. The juxtaposition of this style with such serious subject matter produced an emotionally surprising result,” Michaels said.
Prior to this month’s publication of “Christie Pits,” the only other book written entirely on the riot was “The Riot at Christie Pits” by Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir.
According to Levitt, a professor of sociology at McMaster University, the riot had previously only been mentioned in books on anti-Semitism in Canada. After seeing a newspaper article on the riot at Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, Levitt originally planned to co-write an article with his academic colleague Shaffir. However, after conducting more than 50 interviews with people who were at the scene, they realized they had a book on their hands.
“The riot is part of the mythology of the city. It gave expression to the general atmosphere in Toronto at the time,” Levitt said.
Levitt, who was contacted by Michaels and who has seen some of the pages of “Christie Pits” online, expressed concern that the graphic novel lacks nuance.
“He seems to think that these were all Nazis,” Levitt said of Michaels’ portrayal of the thuggish youths who attacked Jews.
“These were not Hitlerites or members of Nazi cells. They weren’t pro-German fascist ideologues. In fact, they were anti-Germany after Canada fought Germany in World War I. They did, however, know that the swastika would incite the Jews and let them know, ‘You are not wanted here,'” Levitt said.
According to Michaels, Levitt declined his offer to read the entire graphic novel, but nonetheless took issue with Michael’s terming the anti-Semitism at Christie Pits as “Nazi-inspired” in promotional material about the book.
“I wish he had spent more time reading the book — instead of literally judging it by the cover,” said Michaels, who garnered positive feedback from other scholars, including Irving Abella, co-author of the groundbreaking “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948.”
Michaels said that he did not equate anti-Semitism prevalent in 1930s Toronto with Nazism, and that he went to great lengths in the novel to explore these differences, in part by conveying them through dialogue among the characters.
“That being said, the Christie Pits riot was not ignited by the flying of a maple leaf banner, but rather a swastika. Semitics and semantics aside, it seems incongruous to me that flying the swastika at a public ballpark to antagonize Jews does not come across as Nazi-inspired,” Michaels said.
Levitt additionally warned against projecting the present onto the past, or of superimposing one era over another. To this point, Michaels mentioned that a scene in the graphic novel is inspired directly by a visual from the August 2017 white nationalist and supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Charlottesville is not the same as Christie Pits. In 1933 regular, ordinary people poured out of their houses to attack Jews. In Charlottesville the [white nationalist] outsiders who came in were condemned by the locals. We’re talking about different universes,” Levitt said.
Toronto of 2019 is not Toronto of 1933. However one could argue that “Christie Pits” does speak to the current times in important ways. A recent study funded by the Azrieli Foundation found that 22% of Canadians under age 34 had not heard of or were unsure of what happened in the Holocaust. The same study found that few Canadians knew that Canada has roughly as many neo-Nazis per capita as the US.
In addition, police-reported hate crimes in Canada targeting religion were up by 80% in 2017 from the previous year. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against the Jewish population increased for the second consecutive year, rising from 221 in 2016 to 360 in 2017. Hate crimes targeting Jews (who are just 1% of the population) accounted for 18% of all hate crimes in Canada. Over half of hate crimes against Jews took place in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, and where Toronto is located.
Urowitz’s students are coming of age at this time, and she sees benefit in using “Christie Pits” as part of her curriculum.
“The benefit is that [the graphic novel] is a form students are very familiar and comfortable with, and so it is not difficult to encourage them to read a section or even a full novel. I always combine learning from a graphic novel with other forms of research so the students have a better grasp of the topic,” Urowitz said.
Michaels asserted that all Canadians — Jews and non-Jews alike — can benefit from reading this graphic novel about a painful moment in their country’s past.
“Jewish history is Canadian history,” he said.