by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Believe it or not, there is a street in Brooklyn named in honor of the founder of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews.
In the neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, just one block from the Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Mall, a street sign reads: Corbin Place. The street is named after Austin Corbin, a 19th-century industrialist who built the area’s railroads and some of its major hotels–and who also publicly campaigned to “exterminate the Jews.”
AUSTIN CORBIN: A BUILDER–AND A HATER
As president of the Long Island Railroad during the late 1800s, Corbin built the first railroads to Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and Coney Island. He also built the luxurious 358-room Manhattan Beach Hotel, a favorite summer spot for that era’s rich and famous, as well as another area hotel, the Oriental.
But there was another side to Austin Corbin. He was a close associate of Judge Henry Hilton, a figure of some prominence in the history of American antisemitism. In 1877, Hilton became owner of the Grand Union Hotel in upstate Saratoga Springs, one of America’s most famous resorts. He promptly instituted a policy that “no Israelites shall be permitted in the future to stop at this hotel.”
One of the first to be excluded was Joseph Seligman, a prominent German Jewish banker and friend of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. Seligman had played a major role in financing the Union side in the civil war, and was later offered the postion of Secretary of the Treasury in the Grant administration.
Seligman’s fame, and his public protest against Hilton, turned the episode into a national controversy. Mark Twain, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous preachers of the era, spoke out on Seligman’s behalf. The author and poet Bret Harte skewered Judge Hilton:
You’ll allow Miss McFlimsey her diamonds to wear,
You’ll permit the Van Dams at the waiters to swear,
You’ll allow Miss Decollette to flirt on the stair,
But, as to an Israelite, pray have a care.
It was no doubt comforting for Jews to have supporters of such distinction, but the harsh reality of the Gilded Age was that America’s old upper crust deeply resented the newly-wealthy businessmen, some of them Jews, who were entering the strata of the social elite. Many hotels, social clubs, and similar institutions excluded Jews.
One way that some well-to-do Jews responded to this exclusion was by building their own clubs and hotels. The famous Harmonie Club in Manhattan, for example, was established because Jews were kept out of other elite clubs. Nathan Straus, Jr., the managing partner of Macy’s Department Store, built the Lakewood Hotel, in Lakewood, New Jersey, after the hotel next door refused his reservation.
“EXTERMINATE THE JEWS”
In 1879, Austin Corbin announced that he would not permit Jews to stay in the Manhattan Beach Hotel. “Personally, I am opposed to Jews,” he declared in a newspaper interview. “They are a pretentious class who expect three times as much for their money as other people. They give us more trouble on our [rail]road and in our hotel than I can stand. Another thing is that they are driving away the class of people who are beginning to make Coney Island the most fashionable and magnificent watering place in the world.”
“We do not like Jews as a class,” Corbin continued. “There are some well-behaved people among them, but as a rule they make themselves offensive to the kind of people who principally patronize our road and hotel … They are a detestable and vulgar people.”
Corbin and Hilton established the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, and held one of its first meetings at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs. The resolutions adopted at the meeting urged that “Jews must be excluded from all first class society.” The attendees pledged to refrain from voting for Jewish political candidates, attending theater performances involving Jewish composers or actors, buying books by Jewish authors, riding Jewish-owned railroads, or doing business with Jewish-owned insurance firms. “We pledge ourselves to spare no effort to remand [the Jews] to the condition that they were in the Middle Ages, or to exterminate them utterly,” Corbin and his supporters proclaimed.
At another of the Society’s meetings –this one held in the Manhattan Beach Hotel– Corbin asked the audience: “If this is a free country, why can’t we be free of the Jews?”
That phrase, “free of Jews,” bears more than a passing resemblance to the language that the Nazis would use six decades later as they carried out the mass murder of European Jewry. Interestingly enough, Corbin Place intersects with Babi Yar Square, named to commemorate the massacre of 33,000 Jews in German-occupied Kiev in September 1941.
Some may say that history had the last laugh on Austin Corbin. After all, the street named in his honor now lies in the heart of a heavily-Jewish neighborhood. Jewish life thrives on the street named after the man who wanted to stamp out Jewish life.
But that’s not the end of the story.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Naming a street after someone is a well-established means of paying tribute to that person. Three years ago, the Chicago City Council, acting in response to a request from the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, named a street after native son and Jewish activist Ben Hecht, to honor his efforts to promote the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. A street in Ridgewood, New Jersey was recently renamed in honor of Ridgewood native Varian Fry, the American journalist who organized the rescue of more than 2,000 refugees from Vichy France in 1940-1941.
Honoring more recent champions of freedom, then-New York City mayor Ed Koch responded to the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by asking the New York City Council to rename the corner in front of the Chinese Mission to the U.N. “Tiananmen Square.” “I placed the sign there myself with great pleasure,” Koch told me. Some time later, the sign was mysteriously removed–no surprise, perhaps, since there was a building full of Chinese diplomats twenty feet away. “I personally replaced it,” Koch recalled. It was a small but striking gesture. Every morning, when the Chinese ambassador arrived for work, he was reminded that to Americans, the students who lost their lives protesting for democracy are heroes.
Americans are not the only ones for whom street naming bears symbolic significance. For many years, Egypt refused to normalize relations with Iran because a Tehran street was named in honor of Khaled Islambouli, one of the assassins of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Eventually the Iranians gave in and changed the name (to “Intifada Street”). The Palestinian Authority has named many streets or schools after terrorists, some of whom were involved in killing American citizens, and as a result the U.S. Agency for International Development has on several occasions threatened to withhold American aid from those schools.
EMANUEL CELLER PLACE?
What will be done about Corbin Place? New York State Senator Carl Kruger and New York City Councilman Mike Nelson, who represent the Manhattan Beach neighborhood, are proposing to change the street’s name.
Two Manhattan Beach residents whose names have been mentioned as possible replacements for Corbin are Rabbi Sholom Klass z”l, founder and longtime publisher of The Jewish Press, and the late New York State Senator Donald Halperin, who represented the district from 1970 until 1993.
Another name that should be considered: “Celler Place.” The late U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler was a proud Jew, an extraordinary humanitarian, and a devoted fighter for the civil rights.
Celler was a Brooklynite through and through–in fact, he titled his autobiography “You Never Leave Brooklyn.” He grew up on Sumner Avenue and Floyd Street, at the very same time that Austin Corbin was leading his public campaign against the Jews. He graduated from Brooklyn Boys’ High School (Class of 1906) and then Columbia Law School, built a successful local law practice and, in 1922, was elected to what would be the first of twenty-five consecutive terms in Congress, representing Brooklyn’s Tenth District.
During the Holocaust, Celler repeatedly challenged the Roosevelt administration’s failure to rescue Jews from Hitler. Celler did so even though he was a staunch New Dealer and represented voters who overwhelmingly supported FDR. Moreover, Celler chaired the House Judiciary Committee–a position he knew might be jeopardized if he angered the president.
Celler charged that the administration’s refugee conference in Bermuda, in April 1943, was just “more diplomatic tight-rope walking” at a time when “thousands of Jews are being killed daily.” When the Bermuda meetings ended, he said in a radio address: “The Bermuda Conference has adjourned, but the problem has not adjourned.” On another occasion, he characterized Bermuda as “a bloomin’ fiasco” –a shot at another Jewish Congressman, Sol Bloom (D-NY), who supported the State Department and served on the U.S. delegation to Bermuda.
Celler called FDR’s immigration policy “cold and cruel,” and accused the State Department of having “a glacier-like attitude” and “a heartbeat muffled in protocol.”
Challenging Roosevelt’s claim that nothing could be done to aid the Jews except to win the war, Celler declared in one speech: “Victory, the spokesmen say, is the only solution…After victory, the disembodied spirites will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food, drink and asylum.”
Celler took particular aim at Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who was in charge of refugee matters. “If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration admission,” Celler said, “we might as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty…” Celler said Long’s professions of sympathy for the refugees were nothing more than “crocodile tears,” since he was the one blocking their admission.
Celler also tried to encourage American Jews to take a more active approach. At a convention of the Jewish War Veterans, he urged them to “speak out, spur on those in high places and low places so that the word may go to those in authority to help to the hilt.”
Celler’s many accomplishments during his years on Capitol Hill included spearheading three Constitutional amendments to strengthen or expand voting rights, authoring the legislation that created the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, playing a key role in passing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But there was one legislative battle that took Celler more than forty years to win.
Beginning in the late 1800s, Austin Corbin and his ilk had agitated to put an end to the American tradition of welcoming “the huddled masses yearning to be free.” As fear and hatred of foreigners spread, the American public’s mood turned sharply against immigration. After numerous battles in Congress stretching over many years, legislation was finally enacted, in 1921, which for the first time established immigration quotas based on national origins. Countries from southern and eastern European –from which “undesirables” such as Jews and Italians had been coming in large numbers– were allotted some of the smallest quotas. Those quotas ultimately played an important role in shutting America’s doors to Jews fleeing Hitler.
Throughout nearly his entire professional life, Celler fought to abolish the use of national origins as the basis for immigration policy. He opposed it when the legislation was first enacted in the 1920s, but to no avail. He battled it unsuccessfully during the Hitler years, when public opposition to immigration was still too strong to overcome. Finally, in 1965, Celler’s efforts were crowned with success as the national-origins quotas were at long last eliminated. It was Celler’s victory over everything that Austin Corbin represented.
“The very name ‘Corbin’ on a street sign in Manhattan Beach should be deemed hate symbolism akin to a swastika,” according to Denis Hamill of the New York Daily News, whose recent column ignited the current controversy over Corbin Place.
Is Hamill’s analogy correct? A swastika is an instantly and universally recognized symbol of Nazi hate. It would be like having a “Hitler Street” in Brooklyn. Everyone knows who Hitler was and what he did. The name Austin Corbin, on the other hand, was –until the publication of Hamill’s article– recognized only by a relative handful of Brooklyn folklorists and historians of 19th-century America. And Corbin’s antisemitism was not necessarily known even to all of them.
But now the cat is out of the bag. Eight hundred thousand readers of the New York Daily News know the truth about Corbin, as do millions of internet users around the world who have read about the growing dispute over Corbin Place. To leave Corbin’s name on the street, in these circumstances, would be tantamount to saying that his anti-Jewish incitement didn’t matter. To change it to Celler Place would bring the Corbin saga to a fitting end: the Brooklyn street named in honor of a bigot would instead pay tribute to a Brooklynite who devoted his life to fighting bigotry.
(As published in The Jewish Press – March 9, 2007)