During the 1930s, the FBI and the mob recruited boxers to fight Nazis on American soil. The scenario sounds like far-fetched fiction featuring a cast of strange bedfellows. Except, it really happened.
Tiburon author Leslie K. Barry based her new novel, Newark Minutemen, on the true story of her uncle, Harry Levine, one of a group of Jewish boxers enlisted by the FBI and the Jewish Mafia to brawl with American Nazis and interrupt their fascist pursuits in Newark, New Jersey.
Prior to World War II, the German American Bund, a Nazi organization, operated in America. The Nazi alliance held rallies, marches and children’s summer camps across the country to propagate its pro-Hitler position, often flying swastikas and American flags side by side.
The largest rally drew a crowd of 20,000 Nazi supporters at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. Thousands of protestors gathered in the streets outside the arena to demonstrate against the fascists.
In Newark, New Jersey, a smaller group worked behind the scenes to fight the American Nazis: the Newark Minutemen.
Barry, 58, already knew many stories about her late uncle, the 1936 Golden Glove champ. However, at her mother’s 90th birthday party, she overheard a relative ask her mother an intriguing question: “Esther, do you remember when your brother would beat up the Nazis and come home bloody?”
For the next two years, Barry spoke with her mother, Esther Levine Kaplan, every day to learn more about her uncle and his involvement in battling the Nazis. At the same time, Barry and her cousin researched the history of the Newark Minutemen and the German American Bund.
Barry gathered anecdotes from her family and others, FBI reports and newspaper articles. Clearly, the FBI collaborated with the Jewish Mafia to disrupt the activities of the American Nazis. In Newark, mob boss Abner “Longie” Zwillman recruited the Jewish boxers, including Barry’s uncle, to do the work.
As Barry began weaving the true story together, she decided to write a novel, rather than a strict historical account, which allowed her to introduce a fictional love story. Her main character, Yael Newman, a Jewish boxer, falls in love with Krista Brecht, the daughter of the Nazi group’s leader. The situation grows more complicated when Newman infiltrates the German American Bund.
“I loved the idea of the Titanic,” Barry said. “I wanted to add drama over this with a love story. I wanted to appeal to a younger audience and I thought this was the way to do it.”
Before Barry wrote the novel, she penned and sold the screenplay of Newark Minutemen. Usually the novel comes first.
After talking to Steven Spielberg and Robert Redford’s production company, Barry chose to sign with Fulwell 73 Productions, where late-night TV host James Corden is a partner. The company has already attached screenwriters to the project and is in talks with a director to bring the drama to life on the big screen.
“The story is part of my legacy,” Barry said. “I’m so lucky that I have my mom at 95. We were always close, but I got to know her on such a different level when we were talking about the story. I understand now how they lived and why. It’s an incredible takeaway.”
Barry considers the story of the Newark Minutemen and the German American Bund applicable to what is happening in America today.
“I try to understand why it happened,” Barry said. “People lose faith in the government and look for other solutions. Half our country doesn’t trust the government right now and the other half won’t trust the new government. I saw the mini documentary A Night at the Garden, which has the footage from the Madison Square Garden rally. It was chilling. What the German American Bund did was brilliant. ‘We need to get back to Americanism.’ It’s all about positioning and if you don’t think too much about it, people start nodding their heads.”