Born in Odessa David “Davie” Berman (1903-1957) was one of the pioneers of the casino business. “Odessa gentlemen” were able to impress and conquer Las Vegas. This article is based on materials prepared by Eugene Schneider, journalist, traveller and photographer, Editor-in-chief of U-Jew magazine!
In American courts, the names of Meer Lansky, Dutch Schultz (real name Arthur Flegenheimer), Big Jack Zelig (Zelig Lefkowitz), Bugsy Siegel (Benjamin Siegelbaum), Mickey Coen, Arnold Rothstein, Doc (Joseph) Stetcher and many others have sounded to no avail. Almost all gangsters of that time, except for criminal activity, were united by one thing: the subsequent end from the bullet of the “competitor”.
But it is interesting that among the famous Jewish mafiosi the percentage of those who died in internecine showdowns was significantly lower than in other “families”. Lansky, the true legend of the crininal world escaped this fate; Coen, who, however, has served his sentence in prison in full; Stetcher, who became famous for the fact that he later won a trial in Israel against an Orthodox rabbi for misappropriating money that the former gangster generously donated to charity. There was also another representative of the Jewish clan who left this world naturally. But David Berman distinguished himself from most of his fellow not only by this fact.
The beginning of the career
David was born in 1903 in Odessa. His father graduated from a yeshiva, earned a living by playing the violin and did not differ from the thousands of the same Odessa citizens. But after another surge of anti-Semitic sentiments in the Russian Empire, Berman Sr. makes a difficult and bold decision: to emigrate overseas. In 1891, the renowned philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirche founded the Jewish Colonization Society, which provided assistance to Jews who fled from oppression and discrimination from Europe to North and South America. One of the plots of land for these purposes was acquired by the Society in the USA, in the State of North Dakota. This is where the Odessa violinist went with all his mishpukha, including little David.
In Dakota, the Bermans did not work out, and the family moved to Sioux City, Iowa. And the matured David, who became Davie in the English manner, remembered that his native Odessa was not only a city of violinists. He met his bar mitzvah already in the status of the leader of a gang, which a former citizen of Odessa had put together from local peers. The gang was engaged in petty robbery and racketeering, gradually mastering new gangster specialties. Bootlegging and gambling were especially popular and profitable.
Minneapolis gangster revolution
The turn in Berman’s criminal career came after he met the leader of one of the Italian “families” Vito Genovese.
In the early 1930s, one of the most famous gangsters Charlie “Lucky” Luciano seized almost complete control over New York organized crime with the help of Meer Lansky. Luciano created a kind of gangster parliament that controlled all mafia activities. It consisted of the so-called. “Five families”, among which was the Genovese clan. Don Vito himself was appointed by the boss as his first deputy.
At this time, David Berman and moved to the city of Minneapolis, where he launched an extensive activity to equip underground casinos, bookmakers and trade in alcoholic beverages. Having made a bet on gambling rather than bootlegging, David was right: when Prohibition was canceled in 1933, his business was practically not affected.
Local crime bosses in Minneapolis, naturally, were not happy with the cocky newcomer. At that time, the city was controlled by the representative of the Jewish clan Isador Blumenfeld, better known in the underworld as Kid Cann, Irish mafiosi Eddie Morgan and Tommy Banks tried to compete with Cannes. But with his compatriot Berman managed to come to an agreement, and soon, using the support of Genovese and the patronage of Lansky, dealt with the Irish. Some time later, after a short stay in prison, Kid Cannes moved to Miami, closer to Lansky, and David Berman remained the sole shadow owner of the city. By the way, Isador “Kid Cannes” Blumenfeld also happily survived to old age and died in 1981 during a visit to relatives in Minneapolis, where he became a real legend in criminal circles.
Berman established a relationship of trust with Minneapolis Mayor Marvin Kline, and became one of the most successful mafiosi of his time. Among his colleagues in the shop, he was known by the name “Davie the Jew.” His closest assistant was the younger brother of “Chiki” Berman, and the second assistant, Israel Alderman, with the speaking nickname “Ice pick Willie”, successfully and demonstratively eliminated the competitors. The authorities made several attempts to initiate criminal cases against David, but they were not successful.
Gangster vs Nazism
After eliminating competitors, Berman’s life was measured and calm. Meanwhile, in distant Germany, after Hitler came to power, the ideas of Nazism began to be cultivated, which were widespread in many countries. They did not bypass the United States either. In 1933, William Pelly in North Carolina formed the pro-Nazi Silver Legion of America. In 1938, the Nazis staged massive anti-Semitic demonstrations in Minneapolis. The Silver Shirts were so at ease in the city that journalist Keri McWilliams called Minneapolis “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.” In many urban areas, Jews were denied housing, were not hired, and excluded from membership in various organisations.embers became known as the Silver Shirts.
It is not customary in criminal gangs to get involved in politics if there is no benefit for the “organisation”, and even more so the mafia bosses did not care about the problems of any social or ethnic groups. There are no nationalities in the criminal business, the killing of fellow tribesmen was the daily practice of all “clans”, not excluding the Jewish one. However, internal family squabbles are one thing, and an external threat is another. The genetic memory of the “Davie the Jew” turned out to be stronger than the interests of the “family.”
During a mass meeting of “silver shirts” Berman burst into the hall with a dozen accomplices. The assembled Nazis were vastly outnumbered, but the mobsters had baseball bats and extensive experience in misusing them. Several dozen “shirts” were injured of varying severity, the rest fled.
It took several more of these raids by David and company for Pelly’s supporters to understand that hating Jews is much healthier away from Minneapolis. Gradually, the “silver shirts” moved to safer regions, and after the United States entered World War II, their activity ceased altogether.
Jewish gangster in the Canadian Army
Probably David Berman knew about what was happening to the Jews in his historical homeland occupied by the Germans. It is difficult to imagine other reasons that would have forced a successful and respected authority in criminal circles to voluntarily go to war. Berman was not even stopped by the fact that they refused to take him into the US Army because of his past involvement in criminal cases. David went to Canada and volunteers for the 12th Manitoba Dragoons. In July 1944, a reconnaissance battalion of the Manitobian Dragoons, as part of the 18th Armoured Car Regiment, landed in Normandy. “Dragoons” took part in hostilities in France and Germany until the end of the war.
Unlike most of his colleagues, David Berman was accustomed to bloodshed. In the battalion, he earned great respect among his comrades, who did not even suspect about his mafia “merits”.
Many other Jewish gangsters were also partial to the manifestations of Nazism. Berman’s future partner Bugsy Siegel planned the assassination of Goering and Goebbels, whom he accidentally ran into at the villa of Count Carlo Di Frasso in Rome, where they stopped in anticipation of meeting with Mussolini. The idea was not allowed to come true by a spicy detail: Siegel was not at the villa by accident, as he had amorous ties with the wife of the Count Dorothy. The mistress tearfully dissuaded Bugsy from the assassination attempt, since suspicion immediately fell on the Di Frasso spouse. Subsequently, the gangster repeatedly regretted the missed opportunity. During the 1947-1949 war of independence of Israel, Bugsy Siegel supplied weapons to the Israel Defense Forces.
Chicago gangster Samuel “Neils” Morton (real name Markowitz), a former officer and participant of the First World War, created a Jewish self-defense in Chicago and unconstitutionally cleared the West Side area of anti-Semites. The funeral of Morton, who died in the accident, was attended by about 5,000 Jews, including famous rabbis.
Meer Lansky convinced his partner “Lucky” Luciano, who had a huge influence in his native Sicily, to help the American troops for the invasion in 1943. As a result, General Patton’s soldiers received significant support from local residents during the landing on the island, and Operation Husky at that time became the first largest and successful amphibious operation in WWII.
Nevertheless, Berman became the only one of the leaders of the American mafia, whom hatred of Nazism forced to give up everything and take up arms. For this he had to pay a certain price. When Davie returned to Minneapolis after demobilization, he was no longer expected here. Instead of the “tame” Mayor Kline, the new mayor was Hubert Humphrey, who declared a total war on the mafia. During Berman’s absence, Humphrey managed to almost completely liquidate his underground empire. Realising that this battle was lost, the former military scout went to Las Vegas.
Berman married a German-American dancer named Gladys “Grace” Ewald after he returned to Minneapolis. Susan, their only child, was born in 1945 just as Humphrey became mayor.
Berman did not sit idle for a long time. The Genovese clan has invested heavily in the construction of the first Flamingo hotel and casino in Nevada. The project was led by Bugsy Siegel, whom investors reasonably suspected of wasting some of the money. Genovese insisted that Siegel take Berman as a partner. Siegel’s senior partner, Meer Lansky, also sent his representative, Mo Sidway.
The gangsters opened the casino only in March 1947, albeit with great difficulty and on the second attempt. Nevertheless, the heads of the “families” decided to eliminate the stealing Bugsy, despite Lansky’s objections. In June of the same year, Bugsy Siegel was shot and killed, and Berman became the sole leader of the Flamingo. It was rumoured that Davie had a hand in the murder of a partner, but this information is hardly true.
Berman family fatality
In the 1950s, David Berman, with his brother and partners, continued to develop the gambling industry in Las Vegas. Several of the largest casinos of that time are associated with his name – “Riviera”, “El Cortez”, “El Dorado”.
On Father’s day June 16, 1957, David Berman died in the hospital during surgery to remove polyps from his colon, not a very dificult operation, which also gave rise to many rumours and speculation.
The fate of members of the Berman family was more tragic. His wife Gladys died 2 years after her husband from an overdose of barbiturates. Persistent rumours linked her death to the refusal to sell shares in Flamingo, which belonged to David.
The Berman’s daughter Susan became a famous journalist and wrote a memoir “Easy Street. The True Story of a Gangster Family”. Susan Berman was found fatally shot in her Beverly Hills home in 2000.