The Night of the Ninth Plague

The massive power failure which blacked out New York City and Westchester County Wednesday and continued into late Thursday afternoon for almost 25 hours before power was completely restored also blacked out Jewish communal organizations as well as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Under the cover of darkness looters and arsonists destroyed an estimated 2000 stores, many owned by Jewish merchants, and wreaked financial havoc in dozens of neighborhoods, in neighborhoods invariably marked by a high rate of poverty, unemployment, and crime; neighborhoods where many of the residents are Blacks and Hispanics; neighborhoods which are characterized by blight and depression; neighborhoods which, in the jargon of sociologists, have been termed “inner city” inhabited by the “underprivileged” and given short shrift by city, state and federal agencies; neighborhoods where despair runs rampant and hostility is barely contained. On the night of July 14 all these elements were fused into explosive acts of violence, looting, pillaging, arson and total havoc.

As the power failure continued the following day, Jewish organizations were closed. Their staffs, like those of other organizations and businesses, could not get to work because public transportation, with the exception of buses, were idled by the power failure. In addition, thousands of workers did not report to work after Mayor Abraham Beame urged those not engaged in emergency services and law enforcement to stay home.

Motorists who tried to wend their way through the streets were faced with driving hazards as traffic lights failed to operate. Some who did report for work found the buildings darkened and elevators inoperative. Communication was disrupted, traffic was snarled and thousands of persons were stranded.

JTA BLACKED OUT

At the JTA, the power failure idled the transmission services and stories that had been prepared for transmission before the blackout hit could not be sent. A skeleton staff showed up for work Thursday, walking or stumbling up five flights in total darkness to the office. They prepared articles in semi-darkness, working only by the light which streamed in from windows, in the hope of publishing a Daily News Bulletin and getting the news out to its subscribers domestically and abroad. But the blackout continued too late into the afternoon.

The bulk of the Jewish communal organizations and the JTA are located in midtown Manhattan, one of the last areas were power was restored. One of the press operators was in the office Wednesday night when the blackout struck and was forced to spend the night in the office.

Most of the city took on the appearance of a ghost town, with few people and vehicles on the streets in areas normally congested by traffic and pedestrians, or a bombed-out city; with thousands of stores looted and striped of all merchandise, including fixtures. An estimated 3000 persons were arrested for looting. Incidents were reported of police and looters wounded in shootouts. Many stores were set on fire by looters after they had emptied them of their contents.

MANY JEWISH MERCHANTS WIPED OUT

Damages ran into the billions of dollars. In some neighborhoods many of the stores destroyed were owned by Jewish merchants. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, hundreds of Jewish families were literally wiped out financially by the looting and arson. He said the Council will hold a meeting Tuesday with its various member agencies to try to assess the effect and plan steps on how, along with various agencies in the city, to provide relief.

The looting and vandalism, however, was not directed against Jewish-owned stores as such but in the very nature of the city’s mercantile economy, many of the estimated 2000 stores hit–those containing electrical appliances, televisions and radios, clothing, jewelry and furniture–were owned by Jews. But the looters did not spare stores owned by members of their own ethnic groups. Almost all the looting in the city was confined to poverty areas where Black and Hispanic unemployment is higher than in other sections of the city. The looters, for the most part, struck swiftly and remorselessly under the cover of darkness and rampaged within their own neighborhoods.

REMINDERS OF A DREAD PAST

For many of the Jewish merchants whose stores were ravaged, the night of terror meant more than financial loss or even bankruptcy. For some it evoked memories of a dread past. One merchant on the upper West Side of Manhattan, whose clothing store had been cleaned out, stood in front of his demolished establishment and bit his lips. He said the fear that seized him went beyond that of being wiped out financially.

“It’s the feeling of utter helplessness, total vulnerability,” he said. “A bunch of punks destroyed everything, a lifetime of work, and not even the cops could do anything to stop them. When I got here this morning and saw what had happened to me and to other store owners the first thought to cross my mind was: that’s how it began in Germany.”

One Upper West Side resident, Sol Pepper, a concentration camp survivor, surveyed the shards of glass that littered the street and said it reminded him of the events in Austria and Germany in 1983 which became known as Kristallnacht.

The blackout was blamed on a the freak series of powerful lightning strikes to high tension lines feeding the city from the north. The lighting cut off sources of power to some portions of the metropolitan area at a time when the system was heavily drained by air conditioners and other electrical appliances. Other sources of power were not available soon enough to stop the blackout. Federal, state and city investigations are now being conducted into the cause of the power failure which affected some 10 million persons.

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