In 1933 the FBI was on the hunt for a would-be assassin reputed to have ties to the country’s most notorious criminals.The objective: to take out the Nazi chancellor of Germany.
Dutch said the contract was simple. And Dutch, I discovered, should know. “Find the target and shoot him. Collect the fee.” That was all there was to it, he said. Yet carrying out the task was somewhere between very difficult and impossible. The intended victim was not a loose-cannon gangster or an everyday hood. You couldn’t just “take him for a ride.” This target was a political figure—a world leader, in fact. He surrounded himself with an elite corps of ever-alert and merciless bodyguards. And he had uncanny luck. He’d survived several assassination attempts unscathed.
The contracted gunman had to travel far and he needed friendly contacts in a foreign country to assist in carrying out his job. After that, if at all possible, he must arrange for his own means of escape. Precisely because of the difficulties the hit entailed, along with its importance, the shooter was promised the extraordinary sum of $2,500, plus expenses.
That was how Abe “Dutch” Goldberg remembered a 1933 plot to kill Adolf Hitler.
At our first and only face-to-face meeting, in August 1988, Goldberg said: “My friends call me Dutch. You seem OK. So you call me Dutch, too.” As far as I know, I was the last person he spoke to about the event. He died in 1993.
When we met, Dutch was living in Israel in Herzlia Pituah, an affluent seaside suburb of Herzlia, 15 miles north of Tel Aviv. He was about 5 feet 7, stocky in build, with thinning gray hair and narrow brown eyes. In his youth, I surmised, he must have had movie star good looks. But time took its toll. Dutch was 83. His skin showed age spots, and his left hand shook slightly when he lifted his coffee cup to his lips.
Dutch asked me to tell him about my work and my background. I said that I’d grown up in Detroit and one of the organizations I was writing about was that city’s Purple Gang, a group of mostly Jewish mobsters that came together during Prohibition. The Purple Gang was still legendary in my neighborhood when I was a kid, and Dutch nodded as I listed some of the members— as if each had been a friend of his.
We discussed some other underworld figures. Then Dutch looked at me for a long time. “Gangsters! Gangsters!” he said. “Why is a nice Jewish professor like you writing about that stuff? There are a lot of things I can think of that need to be written…but gangsters…that is not one of them.”
For 10 minutes we went back and forth about my research and topics Dutch thought I should pursue. Finally, I said: “I once heard a rumor about a contract…on Hitler. Could this be true? Do you know anything about that?”
Dutch thought about my question for a moment. Then he said: “I’ve got one condition: Don’t use my name while I’m still breathing.”
“I can agree to that.”
“Then we can talk. I don’t want to be bothered. I want to sleep at night. It might disturb my sleep if my name was in it.”
“I won’t use your name while you’re still around.”
Dutch said he’d been an “associate” of Jewish gangsters in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. He described growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade and turned to petty crime to make some money. Then, because he was a good fighter, he worked as a shtarker (muscleman) and for the right price would beat up someone who owed money. He sometimes worked as a strikebreaker and for bootleggers, guarding their illegal shipments of liquor. From there he became a hired gun. He was arrested more than 40 times, he recalled, and said he had killed “more than one man.” In the early 1930s he became a soldier in the Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel crime organization in New York.
In the early spring of 1933, he said, “someone respectable,” someone outside the organization, approached him about killing Hitler. When he said no, he was asked to take the request to Lansky and to any other associates who might show interest in the undertaking. When he asked for more details, Dutch was told, “There are people in Germany who are ready to assist us.” Dutch “talked to some of the boys about it. They hated the Nazis and knew what was happening to the Jews. And they were willing to go to Germany and do the job.”
They spoke Yiddish, he said, and so believed that they could get around any language problems in Germany. But before the contract could be formalized, “that mamzer [bastard] J. Edgar Hoover and his Feds started snooping around and asking questions.” So Lansky and “the boys” thought it was wise to drop the matter. It was bad for business. Reflecting on the plot, Dutch concluded: “It was really a shame. Really. I wish we’d done it and killed the son of a bitch. Can you imagine? They woulda given us all medals.”
I’d heard that the hit man’s name was Daniel Stern, and I asked Dutch what he knew about him.
“Not a lot,” Dutch said. “I never met him. They said he had a lot of enthusiasm. Not a lot of brains or seykhl [judgment], but a lot of enthusiasm. He had no experience in this kind of thing. Of course, who does? More important is that he was clean. He had no record. Nobody thought he’d get away with it. I mean he’d be right in the middle of it all when he pulled the trigger. He’d go down, too. But he didn’t seem to mind. He was determined to kill Hitler, and somebody thought he was expendable.
“The down payment was travel expenses only,” Dutch said. “One ticket, second class, to Belgium, they gave him. One way, mind you. Now you figure, if they advance a guy enough for a one-way ticket, they don’t expect him to come back, right? But this Stern, he didn’t seem to mind that. He was a true believer—may he rest in peace. He was not afraid to go into the lion’s den. Call him meshuge [crazy] if you want. Maybe he was. But also maybe he wasn’t. Given what happened later, maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all.”
I asked Dutch if he had hard evidence on this plot. “Documents,” I said. “Letters. I’m a historian after all. I like documents.”
“You gotta be kiddin’,” he said. “There’s no paper trail.”
A moment later though, Dutch told me that Hoover probably wrote something about it and that maybe I should check in Washington.
I wrote down what he said. But I remained skeptical. Other former Jewish mobsters I had interviewed told me how they helped Jews and how they had taken action against Nazi Bundists in the States during the ’30s. Maybe they were trying to impress me. Maybe in their old age they wanted to erase some of the more nefarious deeds of their youth. The same, I thought, might be true with Dutch. Maybe he made the stories up, or was just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.
A few years after interviewing Dutch, I found out that he had told me the truth. I was seated at a desk in the archives of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., when a file lying on an adjacent table caught my eye. It was labeled “Adolf Hitler.” Why, I wondered, would the FBI have a file on Hitler? I opened it—and found a paper trail documenting an alleged attempt by American Jews to assassinate Hitler in 1933.
The file, No. 65-53615, details a plot involving one man with a gun. The plot passed an initial planning stage but may have been foiled by an investigation mounted by the U.S. Justice Department. In an effort to prevent an international incident—an American citizen assassinating a German leader— American law enforcement officials may have helped save Hitler’s life.
The tale of the conspiracy to kill the German chancellor came to the attention of the American government by way of a letter. Dated March 23, 1933, typed on plain white paper and addressed to “The German Ambassador, Washington, D.C.,” the letter was passed to U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings late on the morning of March 29, 1933. It read:
I have asked President Roosevelt to publicly remonstrate with your government [about] the outrages upon the Jews in Germany, and to demand an immediate and complete end of this persecution.
In the event that he does not make such a statement, I notify you that I shall go to Germany and assassinate Hitler.
German diplomats demanded an immediate and full investigation of the threat.
Franklin Roosevelt had been in office only two weeks. The capital was awash in the heady excitement of the first 100 days of the New Deal. Events in Germany— including the recent accession to power of a new Nazi chancellor on January 30— concerned most of the American public and the government hardly at all.
Within the Justice Department the primary mission of Attorney General Cummings was the ongoing crusade against domestic crime. Opinion polls indicated that Americans were more worried about crime than they were about the Depression. Much of that crime was associated with Prohibition, the 13-year-long campaign to rid the country of booze. Organized gangs, like that of Al Capone in Chicago, financed themselves through the international smuggling of illegal liquor as well as through producing and retailing their own stuff. But in the spring of 1933, the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition was making its way through the state legislatures, and one of the first things the new president did was to legalize beer. The public cheered and imbibed, legally at last.
While Prohibition-based crime was undercut, the Depression produced a wave of colorful bank robbers like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and John Dillinger. There was a surge in kidnappings—from the infant son of Charles Lindbergh to Theodore Hamm, president of the Hamm Brewing Company. The Lindbergh baby was murdered, but Hamm was released after payment of a $100,000 ransom.
The Justice Department’s front man in the war on crime was Director of the Division of Investigation J. Edgar Hoover. He was a veteran, having headed the division (which became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935) since his appointment by President Calvin Coolidge in May 1924. Cummings turned to Hoover to locate Daniel Stern and stop him. Through the spring, summer and into the fall of 1933, Hoover’s “G-men” searched for Stern. Among their primary contacts were figures in the Jewish-American underworld, where Lansky, Siegel, Dutch Schultz and Lepke Buchalter—all associated with the notorious Murder, Inc. syndicate—had well-earned reputations for using violence to protect their business interests or to defend their communities.
Stern’s letter indicated that his objection to Hitler was the German leader’s anti-Semitic policy. Ethnic cleansing, which had obsessed Hitler and his cohorts, began within hours of his assumption of power in January. Germany’s Jews became scapegoats for all that had gone wrong in the past in Central Europe. Albert Einstein, who was already a refugee from German anti-Semitism, appealed for the moral intervention of the world against Hitlerism. More militant members of the American Jewish community reacted to Hitler’s policies by taking to the streets. Hundreds picketed German consulates, businesses and stores selling German products. Thousands attended protest rallies and parades in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities.
In this atmosphere, Stern’s personal declaration of war against Hitler was taken seriously. Hoover assigned one of his top agents, Dwight Brantley, to coordinate the national investigation. An early lead from Detroit went nowhere. Agents were sent to interview “a young Jewish boy, 19 years of age, with the appearance of a clean living and moral individual,” who claimed to have overheard his dentist discuss an assassination plot. The dentist, who was also Jewish, had boycotted all German products and made the statement that someone “should bump Hitler off.” The dentist was interviewed. The trail went cold.
Another lead came from a special agent in charge of the division’s Chicago office. He’d heard about a Daniel Stern who was rumored to have mob associations and who had moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, where the letter to the embassy had been postmarked. Agents in Philadelphia searched local records but found no listings for Stern. They then turned to Jewish gang contacts for information. Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, who dominated Philadelphia’s criminal enterprises at the time, offered to cooperate. He talked to Agent R.G. Harvey for several hours but could not recall meeting Stern or knowing anyone else who had met the man. Harvey also interviewed several of Hoff ’s lieutenants and associates; all claimed they’d never heard of Stern or of the plot to kill Hitler or any other Nazi. But almost all of them, Harvey reported, were impressed by the plot and thought it was “a great idea.”
Undeterred, Harvey’s G-men continued to dig for information. Their perseverance bore meager fruit. One source remembered a Daniel Stern who had rented an apartment in Philadelphia. G-men contacted the building’s supervisor and gained entrance to the flat, but they were too late. Stern was gone. According to the super, Stern was “a very high type of person” who got along well with the other tenants. But the super had no idea where he had gone. Further investigation yielded nothing. After mailing his letter, Stern had vanished without a trace.
Federal agents also interviewed the German consul in Philadelphia, who said that, in all probability, the letter to the embassy was written by “some crank, who is a sympathizer of the Jewish element.” Harvey reported that the consul was often “besieged by individuals who make threats upon him, but that they are all of the crank type and he dismisses them and pays no attention to them as he does not consider their threats serious.”
In April the Justice Department received a promising lead from the German Embassy—a letter dated April 21 and postmarked Highbridge Station, N.Y., that stated: “In listening to a conversation between several New York Jews, I learned that a plan is under way to murder Reich Chancellor Adloph [sic] Hitler, and that a young American Jew Has [sic] already been chosen to perform the act. The Jews present were jubilant over the plan. I am informing you of the above in order to prevent a possible misfortune.” The letter was signed, “Very respectfully, C. Portugall.” It was forwarded to the Justice Department along with a note stating that the embassy “would be grateful if the proper steps could be taken in the matter.”
Hoover contacted the special agent in charge in Washington, and the SAC passed the information along to the division’s New York office. From July 18 to July 23, agents scoured city directories, telephone books and postal records. They tapped their covert sources in the underworld in search of Stern or the “jubilant” Jews. Every clue led to a dead end.
Meanwhile, the embassy had received a letter from Phoenix dated April 24, and agents from Los Angeles were dispatched to interview the writer. The man, whose name has been blacked out of FBI records, reported that he was visiting a friend at the San Carlos Hotel when he overheard a loud conversation in Yiddish coming from the room next door. The men initially talked about conditions in Germany and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Then, “one of the speakers told the others that Hitler would not last long; that a number of Jews in New York were sending a man to Germany to assassinate Hitler.” The speaker said that “a young American Jew has already been chosen to perform the act,” and named the ship on which he would sail to Germany. The assassination was to occur “between May and September 1933. Hitler was either to be poisoned or shot.” Upon hearing this, the informant said, “The Jews present became jubilant.”
Later, the informant saw two “stout men in their fifties” in the hotel lobby. When he asked the bellboy who the men were, he was given their names and told that one was a rabbi. He immediately sent a letter reporting what he’d heard to the German embassy, giving the names of the men as well as the name of the ship. But, he told the agents, he had since forgotten them all.
The informant was a mining engineer who had spent 25 years in Mexico. He had been a colonel in the Mexican army when General Porfirio Diaz was in power and held dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico. The agents reported that the informant seemed upset during their conversation since “he had asked the German Embassy never to mention his name.” Then he launched into an anti-Semitic tirade, stating that America “will have to take the same action against them within 10 years that Germany has taken.” He told agents that he was attempting to patent and market an alloy of lead and copper to be used in bearings, “but that the Jews in this country have prevented his financing of same.”
When agents checked his story against his letter to the German embassy, they found a serious divergence: He had not named the men or the ship. They then interrogated everyone on the hotel’s staff. No one remembered anything of the alleged meeting or recalled anything unusual—not even a gathering of stout men that included a rabbi. Agents examined the hotel’s registry and wrote down every “Jewish sounding” name. They transmitted the names and the results of their inquiry to division headquarters in Washington.
The trail went cold again.
In New York, Meyer Lansky never betrayed any knowledge of Daniel Stern, but he made no secret of his personal hatred for the Nazis. “I was a Jew and I felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering,” he said. “They were my brothers.” Later in the 1930s Lansky acted on his sympathies, sending armed thugs to attack German Bund meetings.
Bugsy Siegel shared Lansky’s hatred for Nazis, but the division’s investigation of Siegel in 1933 provided no indication of his knowledge of a plot to kill Hitler. In 1938 Siegel was visiting Rome and was a guest in the Villa Madama, the home of Count Carlo Difrasso and his wife, Dorothy, with whom the gangster was having an affair. When Siegel learned that Nazi officials Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring were also staying at the villa, according to one account, “he became apoplectic,” and announced his intention to kill them both. To the countess’ protests that he couldn’t, Siegel responded: “Sure I can. It’s an easy set-up!” It took a good deal of persuasion to talk Siegel out of whacking two Nazis, but for the rest of his life (he was gunned down in 1947) he insisted that at one critical moment he had the power to alter history— and didn’t.
On August 19, 1933, Special Agent J.M. Keith sent a progress report, “Daniel Stern and the Threat to Assassinate German Chancellor Hitler,” to Hoover. Keith summarized the investigations in Philadelphia, Chicago, Phoenix, Detroit and New York, and conceded that the division had failed to locate Stern or to uncover any assassination plot. Although Keith stated that “this case has been reassigned and in the future will receive appropriate attention,” nothing more was done.
On September 2, Special Agent Brantley submitted a final report to Hoover. All outstanding leads regarding the threat to assassinate Hitler, he wrote, “have been completed without any definite information having been obtained.” Accordingly, “This case is being closed at the Washington field office.” Brantley assured the director that the case would be reopened if the German embassy received any additional information.
Every lead investigated by Hoover’s G-men apparently led to a dead end. However, the Division of Investigation file on the threat against Hitler is not complete. A number of reports and memos referred to in some of the documents are missing, but it seems doubtful that they would shed any more light on the existence or whereabouts of Stern.
Upon my return to Israel, I called Dutch Goldberg and told him what I’d found in the FBI files.
“The timing was all wrong,” Dutch said. “And maybe somebody backed the wrong horse. Nobody knew that much about Stern. That was supposed to be good at first. But you never know. You never know.
“That summer, 1933, we learned that just about everybody and his brother thought about taking a whack at the Führer. When you got to Germany, I mean, you had to take a ticket and get in line for your shot. Later someone said that there were more than a dozen attempts to get Hitler that year; one of them even involved a soldier. Public figures are well guarded, but Hitler, he was somethin’ else. I mean someone even [tried to kill] Roosevelt in 1933. That was close. But Hitler? He was bulletproof. Who knew? I swear to God, the devil was his bodyguard. And you gotta remember, that in the end, the only guy who could whack Hitler was Hitler himself.”
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.