The year is 1933, Sammy and Yiddel are Jewish brothers living in West Toronto.
Sammy, a boxer, is tough as nails and protector of his younger sibling, a paper boy with a fiery personality.
During a doubleheader baseball game when a local swastika club, called the Pit Gang, unrolls a banner bearing a swastika they became brothers in arms.
Their stories, along with others like Sofia, a God fearing Italian Catholic Marxist, are a work of fiction, but their struggles tell of an important moment in the city’s history.
Jamie Michaels created these characters in a graphic novel called Christie Pits, wherein the incredible true story of the riot between Jewish and Italian immigrants on one side, against Nazi sympathizers on the other is recounted.
“Every story has an ideal format, Empire Strikes Back is intuitively a film and Catcher In The Rye is intuitively a novel,” says Michaels, on video call with The Toronto Observer. “I think Christie Pits is naturally a graphic novel.”
Michaels has meticulously researched archived newspapers, documents, and testimonies to ensure the story, though fictional, is rooted in the factual history and circumstances leading up to, and surrounding, the Christie Pits riot.
The novel follows characters from both sides, chronicling the circumstances that brought them to the Pits on that terrible night.
Swastika gangs were common in the Toronto of 1933. Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany only six months prior and Canadians knew about him well as the Toronto Daily Star had some of the best foreign correspondents of the time.
“Pierre van Paassen (of the Toronto Daily Star) wrote some of the first articles to break the news of the Nazi atrocities,” says Michaels. “People really had an understanding of what the swastika stood for and it is seen in the advent of swastika clubs.”
Animosity was brewing in the Jewish communities who were increasingly hearing anti-Semitic sentiment in public spaces including Nazi rhetoric that was spouted on the radio and in the papers.
The riot was an eruption of this cold war, says Ellin Bessner, a journalist, author, podcaster, and expert on the experiences of Canadian Jews during this period.
“Jews couldn’t own property, hotels wouldn’t take Jews up North, Bell Canada wouldn’t hire Jews,” says Bessner, on a video call. “Eaton’s would only hire Jews as tailors.”
The Pits was located close to two cultural centres. Divided by Harbord St. the Jewish community resided south of the street while the Anglo-Saxon/Protestant group occupied the north blocks.
It made for easy reinforcement on that summer night.
They arrived by truckloads. The proximity of these two neighbourhoods is why the crowd was reported to be around the 10,000 mark.
“There were guys that didn’t want to sit back and take it because they couldn’t fight Hitler, there wasn’t a war yet,” says Bessner. “(At Christie Pits) they fought their first battle against Nazism, later they did it for real in planes, on ships and on the battlefield.”
As Bessner writes in her book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II. 17,000 Jewish Canadians enlisted across all branches and services. But history is a funny thing.
“It has been documented that some people who served on opposing sides in the Christie Pits riots served together in the Second World War,” says Michaels.
The riots put on display a unique relationship that the Jewish and Italian communities had for one another. The two distinct cultures had formed a bond of subordination in their new homeland.
Before the riots battle lines had been drawn the wars cultural alliances were already aligned. A topic Michaels highlights in his novel.
“It’s a game of being the other in a society,” says Michaels. “Jewish and Italian neighbours would swap Yiddish and Italian accordingly … they formed a collective community and I think this is a really deep root and a nice beauty in the story seeing these communities stand together.”
When the dust had settled and, miraculously, no one died, only a single person was arrested. It was reported that Police Chief Dennis Draper knew about the potential for riots but did not do anything about it.
“The police … (were more) concerned with stamping socialist or union organizations that they turned a blind eye towards the racial animosity of the city,” says Michaels. “Secondly, I think the city hoped to brush the events under the carpet.”
From all this malice some good did come. Then Toronto Mayor, William James Stewart, banned the use of the swastika in public, one of Canada’s first policies prohibiting hate speech.
Even before the 1933 riot, Toronto had a history of forcing newcomers out of certain areas.
In 1918, a few kilometres east of Christie Pits, Greek immigrants carved a space on Yonge Street for themselves until they were forced across Don Valley to the Danforth, by what was then Canada’s largest race riot.
“This is a general cultural trend that societies are unkind to those they demarcate as unlike,” says Michaels. “ I don’t think there is direct lineage from one riot to another so much as there is a general pattern of xenophobia towards newcomers.”
This idea is still extremely pertinent in 2021 and the lessons of Christie Pits cannot be forgotten. This is why Michaels’ novel, and others like it, are so important. As issues become more complex with the internet and social media, we, as a society, need to stay vigilant towards racism and xenophobia.
“It starts with words,” says Bessner. “The Canadian government has been trying to figure out how to regulate and make legislation that will stop hate speech online, and they have not been doing a very good job of it.”
Bessner and Michaels both agree that the best way to combat anti-Semitism or discrimination of any kind is education.
“I think that we are part of a tradition that is really taking root in Canada that is going to be a dominant force in teaching Canadian history,” says Michaels. “(With graphic novels) we are able to incorporate historical persona and illustrate it into the text in a way that is natural and organic but still gives you an actual feel for the time.
Micheals, in partnership with historical Canada, produced a small documentary on the riot based on the graphic novel, and there is an animated film currently in production.