former mayor of New York City
As a young man, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch was drafted into the Army, where in basic training he encountered antisemitism for the first time. Many years later, that encounter continues to resonate.
Welcome to Voices on Antisemitism, a podcast series from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, made possible by generous support from the Elizabeth and Oliver Stanton Foundation. I'm Aleisa Fishman. Every month, we invite a guest to reflect about the many ways that antisemitism and hatred influence our world today.
This month, we hear from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, speaking at The Moth, a group that hosts storytelling events before a live audience. As a young man, Koch was drafted into the Army, where in basic training he encountered antisemitism for the first time. Many years later, that encounter continues to resonate with Koch, as he tells us in an interview. But first, live at The Moth, here's Mayor Ed Koch.
When I was nineteen, I was drafted—it was WWII—and I was sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina. And I was not a particularly physical kid. In fact, I had a tough time getting over the obstacle course, but I practiced, I'd go back at night at five o'clock and practice, so I could get over the obstacle course.
And the members of the platoon and company that I was a part of were from New York City, and about twenty-five percent of them were Jewish kids, and they weren't very physical. And seventy-five percent were kids from Hell's Kitchen and Clinton. I mean, it was a totally different divisive environment for us. And when we had the day planned—they planned it for us, of course—there would be seminars in addition to the physical aspects of it. And with respect to the obstacle course, the seventy-five percent of us were much better than the twenty-five percent that I referred to. But when they came to map reading and a whole host of subjects that the Army wanted you to be proficient in, it was the Jewish kids who would either raise their hands and ask questions or get up and provide the answers. And the others were very unhappy.
And there came a point, when every time a Jewish kid would get up and raise his hand, one of the others—his name peculiarly, I mean it sounds so crazy because it's so Hollywood, his name was actually Jack LaRue—and when a Jewish kid would raise his hand, LaRue would say, "Who's the next Yid that's going to raise his hand?" And that went on, and it seared my soul. I thought to myself, what can I do? I mean, I'm not very strong; this kid would beat the shit out of me. But I said I'm going to train myself. And I did. I tried to put myself into shape, and when the fifteenth week came, there were two left, and the same thing happened. A Jewish kid raised his hand and Jack said, "Who's the next Yid?" And when the lecture was over I went over to him and I grabbed him by the neck and I said, "When we get back to the battalion, we're going to have this out." And he didn't know what it was all about, because I could get over the obstacle course. He said, "What's wrong? What's wrong?" And I couldn't tell him what was wrong. I said, "You know! You know!" And then I could hear yelling around me, and somebody yelling, "What's happening?" And somebody else yelled, "Come on over, they're going to kill the Jews."
And we went back to the battalion. And it was really very gentlemanly—they had gloves, and we had three rounds, and he knocked me down in each of the rounds. And I got up in each of the rounds. And there's no question that he won the fight. But the moral of the story is, there were two further weeks of basic training, and there was never in the course of those two weeks an antisemitic slur. And I felt I had done something. Thank you.
That was former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, telling his story at The Moth, a non-profit dedicated to the art and craft of personal storytelling. This story can also be heard in The Moth Radio Hour, airing on public radio stations nationwide.
We caught up with Mayor Koch in his Manhattan office, and asked him to reflect on that fistfight from nearly seven decades ago.
I had never been a subject to antisemitism before that I could recall. I mean, I grew up in New York City. And at one time, I'm sure I thought that everybody was Jewish, certainly in the Bronx where I grew up. So it was something, even though I wasn't the object of it, I felt violated at the time when others were the subject of it. And there was another lesson too, one of the Jewish kids who couldn't get over the obstacle course, came over to me just before the fight was to start and he said, "Can I help?" And I said to him, "Get away! You're why I'm going to be beaten up." And in effect, I was blaming the victim. I never really got over that. I feel remorse today that I felt so distressed with him, when it wasn't his fault. But you cannot stand by, when antisemitism is occurring in different forms without protecting the victim or defending yourself.
Of course, people don't have to get involved in an actual fight. They can denounce what's taking place. That's very important. I stood up here knowing I was going to be involved in a physical fight, and knowing that I was going to lose. But I'm proud that I did it. I would do it again. Not at age 87, which I am now, but if I were to relive the moment, at age 19. It certainly was well worth doing.
Voices on Antisemitism is a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Join us every month to hear a new perspective on the continuing threat of antisemitism in our world today.
We would appreciate your feedback on this series. Please visit our Web site, www.ushmm.org, and follow the prompts to the Voices on Antisemitism survey. At our Web site, you can also listen to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcast series on contemporary genocide.