When the gang of young men revealed the dark symbol on that warm summer evening in the park, they surely knew it would incite rage.
It was Aug. 16, 1933, and the St. Peter’s baseball team was beating Harbord Playground, a predominantly Jewish team, in a semi-final game for the junior city championships at Willowvale Park in Toronto, what’s now known as Christie Pits.
When the game ended with a St. Peter’s win, the Pit Gang, a group of trouble-making young men, went up onto a knoll at the southwest edge of park and unveiled a white sheet. In the middle: a large, black swastika. The supporters of the Harbord Playground team – mostly young Jewish men – ran straight for them.
What ensued was a massive melee – arguably the largest in Toronto’s history – which saw both the Jewish men and the Nazi sympathizers call in hundreds of reinforcements. For nearly six hours, hundreds fought in and around the park, picking up whatever they could find to use as a weapon. At the time, the media reported that thousands had descended on the park that night. It was the culmination of racial tensions that had been building over several weeks that summer.
“This represented, in terms of the people we spoke to, a very significant change,” said Cyril Levitt, who co-authored the book The Riot at Christie Pits, interviewing dozens of people who participated. “Basically the message was ‘you don’t have the impunity you had before’ … people felt a sense of pride that they fought back.”
This Friday marks the 80th anniversary of what became known as the Christie Pits Riot. On Sunday, the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto will host a baseball game at the park to mark the anniversary, featuring local Toronto celebrities and members of the Jewish community.
To be a Jew in Toronto in 1933 was to be a second-class citizen, says Joe Black, an 87-year-old Toronto native who was seven at the time of the riot.
“Anti-Semitism was acceptable …You’d hear ‘dirty Jew’ all the time,” he said, adding that it wasn’t uncommon for neighbourhood boys to beat him up on the way home from school, simply because he was Jewish.
He was there that night and recalls as he watched the game the exact moment that the Pit Gang unveiled the symbol. “As soon as someone saw the swastika raised, they [Jewish men] just started running towards it and that’s when the whole thing broke out,” he said.
Less than a year before the riot, Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany. In the predominantly Protestant city of Toronto, his message resonated.
“Everything that happened for Jews in Toronto happened in the backdrop of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was rife, whether it happened to do with housing, whether it had to do with employment or whether it happened to do with education. Jews were restricted,” said William Shaffir, a McMaster University sociology professor who co-authored the book about the riot with Mr. Levitt. In the summer of 1933, anti-Semitism was beginning to take on a much more confrontational and visual nature. In the Beaches neighbourhood, there were stories of young men walking down the boardwalk wearing swastika symbols on their bathing suits and shirts, patrolling for what they called “undesirables,” part of new groups called swastika clubs.
“Jews in Toronto in 1933 were being fed daily reports of what was happening to their fellow Jews in Germany. So the swastika took on a very specific meaning,” Prof. Shaffir said.
With tensions rising, mayor William James Stewart was forced to intervene to prevent further conflict, negotiating with the clubs to abandon the symbol. But four days later, as the game between the two teams finished in Christie Pits, the swastika would become a flashpoint.
“When the Nazi [sympathizers] started to lose the fight, they gravitated toward Bloor Street,” said Mr. Black, whose parents owned a small store at the corner of Bloor Street and Montrose Avenue. “The fighting spread out, it happened everywhere … I was watching it right through the store window.”
Mr. Black says at one point a Nazi sympathizer came into his parents’ store to use the payphone to call for backup. Mr. Black says his father quickly grabbed the young man’s arm, pulling it aggressively behind his back. He says the man passed out from the pain and his father dragged him out to the street.
The Globe ran an enormous story off the front page the following day, giving vivid details of the “wild riot.”
“Boys on bicycles carried the news of the Christian-Jewish pitched battle down into the Brunswick-Spadina Avenue district, largely occupied by Jews … truckloads of Jews and Italians raced up to Bloor Street to participate in the fight … Jewish lads hanging onto the running-boards of vehicles, however, were pulled off by Christian lads, and some of them reportedly injured.”
The event sent a clear message to politicians at the time, said Prof. Levitt.
“It … frightened the city fathers back then, because the one thing they wanted, and of course this is a slogan that resonated throughout our history, is peace, order and good government. And one thing you had was disorder on the streets,” he said.
Howard English, the senior vice-president of the greater Toronto Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a wing of the UJA, says remembering the riot is vital to understanding how far the city has come.
“The Toronto of today is light years away from the Toronto of 1933,” he said, adding that Toronto has now become one of the most welcoming places in the world for both Jews and other ethnic groups. “We really want to celebrate this remarkable city and how far we’ve travelled from the days when the riot took place.”
An earlier online version of this story and a photo caption in the print version of this story incorrectly referred to the newspaper as "The Globe and Mail" and not "The Globe." This online version has been corrected.