Hollywood's Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles. By Laura B. Rosenzweig. New York: New York University Press, 2017. xiii + 283 pp.
Hollywood's role in confronting anti-Semitism and the Nazi menace in the 1930s has been fraught with controversy. Despite Jewish prominence in the movie industry, the major studios mostly evaded these issues on the screen. Warner Brothers' Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released in 1939, was the first dramatic feature devoted to Nazism. As Groucho Marx famously said, Warners was "the only studio with any guts." Ben Urwand in The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler (2013) even charges movie moguls were complicit with Hitler's Germany. Thomas Doherty counters in Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (2013) that Hollywood displayed resistance.
Laura B. Rosenzweig makes an important intervention in this controversy. She contends that anti-Nazi work by American Jews was not absent, merely hidden. Jews in nine cities "took the bold step to combat Nazism in their communities by going undercover" (199). Many Jews believed caution and discretion were essential in the anti-Semitic 1930s and believed treating Jewish issues on the screen invited retaliation. Rosenzweig contends that, in this context, Jews acted not with fear but with courage.
Relying heavily on the extensive archives of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee (LAJCC), Rosenzweig presents the LAJCC as Exhibit A. Leon Lewis, a Los Angeles attorney, spearheaded LAJCC's anti-Nazi activities from 1934 until 1947. He masterminded a sensational lawsuit that brought the Friends of New Germany, which promoted support for the Nazis, to public attention in 1934. Awakened to the Nazi menace, prominent Los Angeles Jews, including many movie moguls, clandestinely supported LAJCC. Lewis fed information to the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, whose 1935 report presciently outlined the Nazi menace. LAJCC planted secret informants in Southern California organizations that were sympathetic to Nazi ideology and documented how the German government supported these activities. LAJCC provided an invaluable source on activities sympathetic to Nazism from 1939 to 1942 with its News Letter, a widely circulated weekly sheet edited by Joe Roos, a former screenwriter.
Lewis found a surprisingly receptive audience with the House Committee on Un-American Activities chaired by Congressman Martin Dies of Texas. The committee's 1940 report blasted groups such as the...