May 25, 2020
Dr. Steven J. Ross, professor of history at USC, presents a map of Nazi & Facist groups found in Los Angeles. Ross gave a history lecture in the Henry Madden Library on April 12, 2018. (William Ramirez/The Collegian)

How the ‘most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles’ fought the Nazis

A Barnes & Noble employee believed it to be “fiction.” An audience member described it as an “untold story.” But Leon Lewis’ battle against the Nazi Party in Los Angeles was real.

Dr. Steven J. Ross, a University of Southern California history professor, came to Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library last Thursday to share Lewis’ story and the manner in which he combated Nazi ideologies in America. Ross’ presentation was directly tied to his book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.”

“There was nobody in America in the 1920s following Hitler’s rise to power more carefully than Leon Lewis,” Ross said.

Lewis was a Jewish lawyer and a World War I veteran born in Wisconsin. He joined the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as the founding executive secretary. The group monitored anti-Semitism in America and overseas.

Ross said Lewis’ familiarity with Hitler and the Nazi Party’s tactics allowed him to understand their goal to target the underlying hatred that some American World War I veterans had for communists and Jewish people.

“[Lewis] immediately knew what was going on, because [the Nazis] said they were going to recruit an army to fight the communists,” Ross said. “The Nazis understood that there were a lot of Americans who didn’t like Jews and didn’t like communists, but weren’t going to follow the Germans, but they would follow their fellow Americans.”

Lewis played into the Nazis’ desire and planted spies within Nazi groups. The lawyer sent a husband and wife set of spies into each fascist and Nazi group in Los Angeles.

The spies quickly rose in the ranks in their respective groups. Within weeks, the wife of John Schmidt, one of the spies, was asked to become the head of the women’s auxiliary of the “Friends of New Germany.”

“The spies succeeded in uncovering a series of plots,” Ross said.

The apparent plots included driving through a Jewish neighborhood and murdering everyone in sight, pumping cyanide into Jewish homes and plans to sabotage military installations in aircraft factories.

Ross took extra time to focus on the two murder plots that Lewis and his spies ruined.

One involved a plot called the “final solution of the Jewish problem” by a proclamation snuck into the Los Angeles Times in 1935. The plan was to kidnap 20 leading Jewish figures in the city.  

The second plot – to murder 24 actors, 22 of them Jewish – came in 1937. That was one concocted by English fascist Leopold McLaglan, Ross said.

McLaglan was sentenced to five years in prison because of the evidence that Lewis and his spies presented.

“[The Nazis] referred to Leon Lewis as the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles, but they didn’t know who his spies were,” Ross said.

Dr. Jill Fields, founding coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program at Fresno State, said her grandparents were involved in the same fight that Lewis was in. Her grandparents were a part of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, she said.

Fields said stories like those of her grandparents and Lewis help keep the values they represented alive.

“My grandparents always had a clear understanding of the importance of democratic participation. It is a value that I was raised with,” Fields said. “The idea is giving back to the community and making sure those values stay strong.”

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