Phoned-in bomb threats at Jewish community centers in the Twin Cities and across the country have made news in early 2017. But episodes from the last century show that anti-Semitism is nothing new here.
In 1936, a 23-year-old cub reporter infiltrated a secretive Nazi-like group known as the Silver Shirts, boasting 800 Minneapolis members among 6,000 statewide set on driving Jews from America.
After his five-part exposé in the Minneapolis Journal, reporter and University of Minnesota grad Arnold Eric Sevareid dropped his first name and became a famed World War II correspondent at CBS.
“This was one of the worst Jew-hating communities in the world through the Thirties and into the Forties,” the late Edward Schwartz, a Minneapolis publicist, had recalled in a 1976 oral history. “ ... [I]f it weren’t for the finger of publicity — fellows like Eric Sevareid and his remarkable series on the Silver Shirts — no attention would have been called to it.’’
Despite the raised awareness, many country clubs barred Jews, and the Auto Club of Minneapolis shunned Jewish members until 1948. Jewish medical students and doctors were still routinely blocked from residency programs and hospital jobs across the Twin Cities into the 1940s.
In response, Jewish community leaders raised funds to build Mount Sinai Hospital in 1951 on Chicago Avenue at E. 23rd Street in south Minneapolis. In its 40-year run, Mount Sinai opened doors long bolted for Jewish doctors, while serving patients from all backgrounds. To wit: Prince was born there in 1958.
Anti-Semitism in Minnesota, though heightened in the mid-20th century, can be traced back far earlier.
“Jews seldom got a fair verdict from a jury here,” a Jewish settler said in 1883. Nearly 40 years later, Rabbi Maurice Lefkovits settled in Minneapolis after World War I and described his community’s status in 1922: “Minneapolis Jewry enjoys the painful distinction of being the lowest esteemed community in the land so far as the non-Jewish population of the city is concerned.”
Minnesota’s Jewish population more than doubled from 6,000 in 1900 to 13,000 in 1910 as immigrants fled persecution in Russia. By 1978, those numbers grew to roughly 35,000 statewide — with nearly one-third living in Hennepin County. Today, Minnesota’s nearly 60,000 Jews are up tenfold from 1899 but still make up less than 1.5 percent of the state population.
Sevareid, who died in 1992, was born in Velva, N.D., and moved to Minneapolis as a teenager with his family — graduating from Minneapolis Central High School in 1930 and the University of Minnesota in 1935.
In his 1946 autobiography, “Not So Wild a Dream,” Sevareid said a couple “Communist acquaintances” tipped him off the to Silver Shirts — a group formed in North Carolina the day after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933 and modeled after his brown-shirted street fighters.
“Anti-Semitism is the outstanding feature of the Silver Shirts,” wrote Sevareid, who spent many “hair-raising evenings in the parlors of middle-class citizens.
“It was an unbelievably weird experience,” Sevareid said. “It was like Alice going down the rabbit hole into the world of the Mad Hatter.”
Sevareid said Jewish leaders urged editors to withhold his stories because it would “merely drag out into the open and abet a virulent form of anti-Semitism.”
After the stories ran, threatening letters and phone calls hounded Sevareid “to such a point that my family was alarmed for my safety and my brothers wanted to sleep, armed, in my apartment.”
While Sevareid outed the Silver Shirts, a Russian-born doctor named Moses Barron played a pivotal role in founding Mount Sinai Hospital 15 years later. Barron was born in 1883; his father was a scholar in the old country who tried farming near Eldorado in western Minnesota’s Stevens County in the late-1800s.
Barron graduated with a medical degree in 1911 and served in France during World War I. He became renowned for his research into diabetes and the pancreas — helping lay the groundwork for insulin treatment.
He and his wife, Leah, purchased a large house at 2101 Pillsbury Avenue in Minneapolis to “do the type of work that we were so interested in. Contacts with the outside world,” he said in a 1970 oral history. Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, was among the scientists and Jewish leaders who visited the house.
Barron and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey both conducted studies in the ’40s, documenting the obstacles for Jewish doctors in Minnesota. That prompted Barron and other Jewish leaders to build a private hospital and name it after the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus.
With liquor dealing philanthropist Jay Phillips raising more than $1 million, Mount Sinai opened in 1951 — a seven-story, 192-bed facility with two research labs. In 1964, Barron retired and moved to Beverly Hills. He died in 1974 at 91 and is buried at Adath Yeshurun Cemetery in Edina.
His hospital outlasted him by 17 years. Although the Phillips Eye Institute still operates on the site, market forces led to Mount Sinai’s demise in 1991. By then, Jewish doctors didn’t need their own hospital anymore.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.