Toronto marks anniversary of anti-Jewish violence
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Toronto marks anniversary of anti-Jewish violence

Eighty years later, city remembers the Christie Pits Riot, an hours-long melee started by the display of a massive swastika at a baseball game

Joe Black, 87, still vividly remembers the pandemonium that broke out at Toronto's Christie Pits Park after a huge swastika was unfurled during a baseball game. (Samara Bernstein-Hendry)
Joe Black, 87, still vividly remembers the pandemonium that broke out at Toronto's Christie Pits Park after a huge swastika was unfurled during a baseball game. (Samara Bernstein-Hendry)

Ask Toronto baseball fans to name the most important game ever played in their beloved city, and 99 percent will proudly declare it Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, when hometown hero Joe Carter hit a three-run homerun in front of 50,000 euphoric spectators to seal the Major League championship for the Blue Jays.

But it was a game 60 years earlier that may have left an even more indelible imprint on Toronto history.

It was August 16, 1933, less than seven months after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and a Protestant youth team from St. Peter’s Church was playing against Harbord Collegiate, a mostly Jewish squad that included some players of Italian background.

Toronto, at that time, was dominated by its white, Protestant majority, and both Jews and Italian immigrants faced discrimination by the establishment. Like their American and European counterparts, Canadian Jews were restricted from certain professions and social clubs, and faced quotas at academic institutions. Signs in store windows and in the city’s Beaches neighborhood read “No Dogs or Jews Allowed,” and a “swastika club,” inspired by the new regime in Germany, was even parading its hatred on the shores of Lake Ontario, proudly bearing the symbol of Hitler’s aggressive new Reich.

The site of the fateful game was Christie Pits Park, located at an unofficial borderline between Protestant and minority-filled areas of the city.

More than 10,000 people were drawn into the battle, and dozens were hurt

Near the end of the game, a group of male spectators known as the “Pit Gang” unfurled a large white bed sheet bearing a black swastika. Jewish bystanders, refusing to be intimidated, charged their antagonists, attempting to destroy the offensive image. Despite pre-game warnings to Police Chief Dennis Draper, only three law-enforcement officers had been assigned to the area, and were ill-equipped to handle the violence that ensued.

The riot, which lasted six hours, was arguably the largest disturbance in Toronto‘s history. More than 10,000 people were drawn into the battle, including truckloads of Jewish youth who rushed to the scene after a false rumor spread that a Jewish resident had been killed. Members of the Italian community supported their Jewish counterparts, with combatants wielding baseball bats, broken bottles and iron bars. Perhaps owing to the absence of guns, no one was killed, although dozens were hurt.

Almost exactly eighty years after the melee, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and its advocacy arm, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, organized a commemorative softball game Sunday at Christie Pits. Of the dozens of spectators in attendance, one stood out.

Joe Black, 87, still vividly recalls the night of insanity that took place in the park across the street from his childhood home.

“I lived above a confectionary shop my family owned, with Christie Pits just across the street, and my friends and I practically lived there,” recalled Black, watching a team representing Toronto sports media take on a squad of Jewish players in the commemorative game. “There was a Christie Pits gang that always hung out in the park and caused trouble . . . It was the exact kind of behavior that caused so many Jews to leave Europe, and why they came to Toronto.

‘At a time when Jews were being persecuted worldwide, the Jewish community in Toronto stood up and defended its honor’

“The Toronto Beaches, at the time, was home to predominantly British Protestants,” says Black, a retired photographer who served in the Canadian army and air force during World War II, and faced housing discrimination after his return to Toronto. “They simply did not want Jews around them.”

While the riot marked a dangerous nadir in Toronto‘s Jewish history, it also may have represented a turning point.

“In retrospect, the Christie Pits Riot actually helped to signify the strength of the Jewish spirit and the resolve of Toronto’s Jewish community not to back down in the face of virulent anti-Semitism,” says Howard English, the vice president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “At a time when Jews were being persecuted worldwide, the Jewish community in Toronto stood up and defended its honor.”

Today, the city’s Jewish population numbers roughly 200,000, with English calling the city “far and away one of the world’s safest and most welcoming cities for Jews and many other minorities.”

At last weekend’s anniversary game, no one cared who won or lost — both teams were celebrating Toronto’s thriving Jewish presence. For those on hand, the 1993 World Series was just an afterthought.

“This game is important because it allows us all to celebrate Toronto, and the fact that today, we can all live the Jewish lives that we want, full of pride and joy,” Black says. “To see the Jewish ballplayers on the field today, cheered on by so many spectators, is wonderful to see. It warms my heart.”

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