Who knows what combination of traits and surroundings, of nature and nurture, make someone a historian? That would be a hard study for a social scientist to contrive. Too many unknowable variables. No way to set up a control group.
But sometimes when someone is born into a time and place where history is so present, where the stories are so close to the surface that they practically tell themselves, then that person — that imaginative child, that impressionable teen, that ambitious young adult — will tell the story he or she was born to tell.
Warren Grover of Short Hills was born in Newark.
That’s not a place that most people from anywhere except the city and its diaspora — its galut — think of as holding stories. They think grime and crime. If they think of stories, they think of the Sopranos.
But when Mr. Grover was born, in 1938, the stories that filled his imagination were unfolding. When he was born, there were Nazis in Newark, and there also were Jewish thugs, gangsters, ex-boxers, who fought them. Those Nazi fighters — the Minutemen — found that their war ended when Pearl Harbor forced the country’s entry into World War II, but until the Japanese attack in Hawaii, their stereotype-defying actions, and the conundrums they caused — when is an immoral thug no longer an immoral thug? When does a freedom fighter revert to thugdom? — brought change and fired the imagination.
That’s the reason Mr. Grover — who until he began his book was a successful retired businessman— wrote the densely researched, critically acclaimed “Nazis in Newark.” The book was published in 2007 and remains relevant, and Mr. Grover talks about it; its lessons, about truth and manipulation and assumptions and antisemitism, among other things, have much to offer today. Mr. Grover’s next discussion on the subject, for the West Morris section of the National Conference of Jewish Women, is set for March 22. (See below.)
History can start at home, and Mr. Grover can trace at least the outlines of his own family story. His maternal grandfather, Simon Glazer, was “a famous Orthodox rabbi from Lithuania”; he was ordained in Kovno and came to North America at the end of the nineteenth century. His work took him across the continent; his first pulpit was in Montreal and the next in Seattle.
His wife, Mr. Grover’s grandmother, Ida Cantor, was born in the United States; her brother Bernard Cohen, another of their parents’ seven children, was ordained a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, worked first at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan (but it was not called that then because Stephen Wise still was its rabbi) and then at the Free Synagogue of Queens, and became “the first martyr of the Joint Distribution Committee” when he and a colleague, Israel Friedlaender, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “were killed by the Soviets as they were distributing aid on behalf of the shtetl near Odessa.” (That’s because some things never change, even when it seems as if they must have.)
Rabbi Cantor was 28 when he went to Ukraine as a volunteer; he was murdered in Poland, on his way back there. Photographs on the internet show a young, handsome man with a small mustache, rimless glasses, and an open face. Mr. Grover’s middle name, Bernard, is in memory of his lost uncle.
Mr. Grover’s father, Sidney, was born in Newark. He was a lawyer, trained at Rutgers, and became a politician. As a Republican, in office from 1932 to 1936 — the period his son studied — he represented the Jewish neighborhood, when that was the Third Ward, his son said. “There were 122 assemblymen in Trenton and he was one of them, but he represented the Jews.”
Sidney Grover and Edith Glazer Grover had two sons, Warren and his brother Stuart, who is seven years younger.
Like just about every Jew who talks about being from Newark, the Grover boys went to Weequahic High School. He’s a historian, so of course he reported that “I was in high school during the Korean War.”
“I did zero in high school,” he continued. “I did not stand out.” He graduated and went to NYU uptown, in the Bronx, and majored, of course, in history.
“I’d always been interested in history,” he said. “The earliest story I remember hearing is how Longie Zwillman beat up Nazis in Newark.” Abner Zwillman — that was his legal name — controlled organized crime in in the city for the syndicate run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. He was a powerful, ruthless man, a Prohibition-era bootlegger who also controlled the widespread local gambling industry. He also was tall — hence Longie.
Zwillman was born in Newark, and his life was larger, more glamorous, and nastier than most people’s. “He often was in the tabloids, partly because his girlfriend was Jean Harlow” — the platinum blonde early movie star, who died young — “and he kept a lock of her pubic hair in his wallet,” Mr. Grover said.
Zwillman died mysteriously. He was found hanged at home in West Orange, and it looked like suicide. And that wouldn’t have been surprising — he was deeply in debt, and subpoenaed to testify to a Senate committee investigating organized crime, a subject about which he knew a great deal, possibly too much — but when he was found, his hands showed signs of having been bound. How do you tie yourself up first, before you hang yourself, and then take the cords off? Yes, he was talented, but there are limits….
“Everybody knew about Longie Zwillman,” Mr. Grover said. “He started out peddling numbers from a vegetable cart” — for a long time his ostensible career was in fruits and vegetables — and during Prohibition he controlled the Northeast. He was one of the six men who ran organized crime; three Italians, and three Jews. (The third Jew was Bugsy Siegel; the Italians were Luciano, Frank Costello, and Johnny Torrio.)
What did the Jewish community feel about him? “They had very mixed feelings,” Mr. Grover reported. “A lot of Jews felt some pride in him. Some felt a lot of pride. Others, not so much. But everybody knew about him.”
Why did this criminal go after the Nazis? He did, savagely, creatively, and effectively.
“Nobody knows why,” Mr. Grover said. Are gangsters ever motivated by the need for justice? Or to avenge others, for reasons other than money, advancement, or betrayal? “Nobody has the answer to that.
“But his bailiwick was the Third Ward, where the Jews lived. Jews had pushcarts there, and from his earliest years he remembered that gangs would attack the Jewish pushcart peddlers. He identified with poor Jewish people, and he had a pushcart.
“Plus, there’s the fact that from the beginning, the Nazis were both an actual and an existential threat to the Jews. The neighborhoods were intermingled. The Jews and the Germans came to Newark at the same time.”
The stories of how Longie Zwillman, his lieutenants, including the boxer Nat Arno and the group they called the Newark Minutemen, vanquished the Germans at home in Newark fill Mr. Grover’s book, “Nazis in Newark.” (You can learn more about what happened by reading “Minute Men document discovered after 80 years,” a story by Mr. Grover that we published on December 15, 2021.) But if everyone at Weequahic with him knew these stories, at least in outline, why was it Mr. Grover who was compelled to research and write about them? “I don’t know why,” he said. “But it was second nature to me. It came to me naturally.”
After college, Mr. Grover began graduate school at NYU, this time at its downtown campus. He earned a master’s degree in history and began to work on his doctorate, supporting himself by teaching at the Newark College of Engineering. He got married in 1964 — Warren and Andrea Peck Grover still are happily married, all these many years later — and Ms. Grover became pregnant. “And my father-in-law, Louis Peck, offered me a job, and a station wagon,” Mr. Grover said.
Real life took over. The Pecks owned a mailing service, printing and mailing flyers, coupons, and all the other kinds of material that once filled mailboxes before the world went online, for local department stores, and for newspapers, including the Village Voice and Variety. Mr. Grover started as a production manager in the firm’s Newark factory; the family, which grew to include two sons, lived in West Orange for 40 years.
Mr. Grover put his dream of becoming a historian aside for the 30 years that he worked for the family business, but he became politically active in the struggle for civil rights.
“I might be the only person still alive who was active in the Congress for Racial Equality,” better known as CORE. “I picketed,” he said, the pride in his voice clear.
He inherited his passion for civil rights from his father, who he remembers as having given a job to a Black Rutgers law school graduate “who couldn’t get a clerkship until my father gave him one. I remember how proud my father was of that.”
He also was involved with a program that SDS — Students for a Democratic Society, for all our post-Boomer readers — ran in Newark. “SDS started a summer project in Newark; it was an umbrella group of Blacks and whites,” he said. “It was called the Newark Community Union Project, and the greatest single group I ever was in.” It was a project of SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project, and its focus was on building a movement by helping poor people understand what was keeping them poor. Mr. Grover was the group’s executive director in 1964.
In 1967, Newark exploded. He’d already moved to West Orange, but “I was working in Newark then; my mother lived on Hansbury Avenue in Weequahic, and I was there during the riots.
“I always considered them riots, rather than an insurrection; I’ve been in debates on the subject,” he said. “It happened spontaneously — I’m being impolitic, but it was a riot; you have the housing projects adjoining Springfield Avenue, where all the stores were.
“People said later that SDS was involved. I was never a member of SDS,” he stressed; old passions lie deep, and old fissures often don’t heal. “I went to one of their conventions, but it was too far left for me. I would never have joined.
“By the end of the summer, the umbrella organization that I was part of disassociated from the SDS project.”
As for the project itself, “I liked the idea of what we were supposed to do,” he said. “I didn’t know the kids who came here; a lot of them were red-diaper babies who were not interested in small-d democracy. Some of them were revolutionary to the core.”
He still feels both affection and affinity toward the project he worked on; he doesn’t like the direction some of the people affiliated with it went. “It was revolutionary and it ended up as the Weatherman,” he said. (The Weathermen, or the Weather Underground, formed in opposition to the war in Vietnam, was responsible for a number of bombings, some of which killed people.)
He didn’t feel physical fear during the riots, Mr. Grover said; Newark is a big city, and the riots were confined to other parts of the city, mostly in the Central Ward.. But in their aftermath, his mother, who was long widowed by then, moved to Elizabeth; in that move out of the city, she was joining the exodus of Jews, many of whom settled in nearby towns in Essex and Union counties. The family business stayed put in Newark until it closed, a victim of the internet; “my son just sold the building six months ago,” Mr. Grover said.
Mr. Grover retired from the family business, which had made him and his family quite comfortable, in 1997. “I was in my 50s,” he said. “I retired on a Friday and started working on my book the next Monday.” He hadn’t stayed in NYU’s doctoral program long enough to graduate, but he had learned how to research.
“I did research at the Newark Public Library, I went to many other archives, and I did a lot of interviews,” he said. “I read the Newark News, every day of it, from 1933 through Pearl Harbor.” The newspaper was on microfilm, and the task took three years.
Libraries are romantic places for Mr. Grover, in part, because the archives hold the stories he unearths and tells; in part, it’s because it’s where he met his wife.
And not at any old library — they met at the New Jersey room in the Newark Public Library. “I was in the New Jersey room, working on books and microfilm machines, and a young woman who was a student at Rutgers came in with her boyfriend to use the microfilm.
“She didn’t know how to thread it, and she asked this young man for help.”
Reader, he was that young man.
“Now, we are very connected to the library,” he understated.
Andrea Grover is a historian too. As an adjunct associate professor of humanities at NYU’s Center for Applied Liberal Arts, she focuses on the history and particularly the art of Italian Jews. She frequently lectures on those subjects to Jewish groups, and those talks are popular. She also translates from Italian to English.
Mr. Grover’s been involved in local historical societies for decades. He’s on the boards of the New Jersey Historical Society and the Jewish Historical Society — he’s a past president of that one — and he’s a founder of the Newark History Society.
Mr. Grover doesn’t know if he’ll write another book. “This was the one I really wanted to write for 40 years,” he said. And, he added, “my publisher,” Transaction, “said that this one will have legs.
“It’s the first study of the interactions between the Nazis and the German-American Bund and the Jews in this country.”
Newark was the perfect laboratory for that interaction because it had so very many Germans and Jews. Most of their families had come to the New World at around the same time, driven by more or less the same forces, working toward similar versions of the American dream.
The interactions between the two groups caused the sorts of frictions of which higher-minded Jews disapproved. “Stephen Wise, for example, didn’t like the idea of Jewish thugs beating up Nazis,” Mr. Grover said. There are layers of irony to this — those thugs came from the very real, very dangerous underworld, which did a lot of serious damage and killed many people. Also, his uncle, Rabbi Bernard Cohen, had worked for the high-minded Stephen Wise, before he went off to rescue people in Ukraine and was murdered in Poland. “Rabbi Wise thought it was too low-class,” according to Mr. Grover.
But Mr. Grover celebrates the actions of those Jews, those thugs and lowlifes who managed to rise above their very real sins to become the Minutemen; whose instincts, at least at that time and in that place, were good, and who did much that was evil but also some real good.
Who: Warren Grover of Short Hills, the historian and author of “Nazis in Newark.”
What: Will talk to Steve Arno, the son of gangster-boxer Nat Arno, a leader of the anti-Nazi Newark Minutemen, in a program called “Minutemen versus Newark’s Nazis.”
When: On Tuesday, March 22, at 7 p.m.
Where: Relax! It’s on Zoom.
For whom: The West Morris section of the National Council of Jewish Women.
What else: It’s part of the NCJW’s “Unlikely Jewish Heroes” series
How much: It’s free and open to the community.
How to register: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.