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“Dark Days” In Toronto’s History: Remembering The Christie Pits Riot 80 Years Later
August 16, 2013
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The only known photograph from the night of the riot (Photo: City of Toronto Archives)

"When they raised the Nazi flag, all hell broke loose."

That's 87-year-old Joe Black (pictured below), talking to the Associated Press about the night of August 16, 1933, when Toronto's Christie Pits park was transformed into a battleground by one of the worst riots in the city's history.

christie-pits-riot-joe.gifThe six-hour riot started after a baseball game between the predominantly Jewish Harbord Playground team and the mostly Protestant St. Peter's Church team.

After the final out of the game, a group of men, members of an anti-Semitic group called the Pit Gang, unfurled a bedsheet with a black swastika painted on it. Some rushed the stands and tried to destroy it.

From there, the number of people involved in the fighting grew, with supporters of both sides surging in from the surrounding area.

According to a report in the Toronto Daily Star, "a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens, excited by cries of 'Heil Hitler' became suddenly a disorderly mob." Many young Italian men from the neighbourhood fought alongside their Jewish friends.

People used whatever weapons they could find - including the players' baseball bats, clubs, chunks of wood, and knives - to attack each other. Nobody was killed in the riot, and no victor was declared.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had taken power in Germany about eight months earlier.

According to Cyril Levitt, who co-authored a book about the riot, Torontonians at the time would have been very well-informed about Hitler's rise to power and the significance of the swastika as a symbol of hatred toward the Jews.

Black, then a child whose father owned a candy shop nearby, remembers "as soon as some of the Jewish players on the youth team saw that swastika, they went after those guys and tore that flag apart."

The display of the Nazi-affiliated symbol, and the prejudice that led to it, were not unusual in the city at the time.

"Moving beyond ties to Hitler and the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, there was Ku Klux Klan activity in Southern Ontario also around that time, and, basically, they hated everyone that wasn't of British, white and Protestant stock," Wayne Reeves, chief curator for City of Toronto Museums told the AP.

"Catholics were attacked, Jews were hated, blacks were hated, Chinese were hated... and in 1933 the notion was (that) non-gentiles are not welcome in some of Toronto's key public spaces," Reeves continued.

christie-pits-riot-game.gifThis past Sunday, a baseball game took place at Christie Pits to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the riot. The event was hosted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto.

In a news release, the groups said the game was held to "show just how far this city has come since the dark days of 1933; not only for the Jewish community but as a leading multicultural city in the world."


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