Given the vitriolic speech surrounding the current presidential campaign, the “Anti-Semitism 1919-1939” exhibit at The New York Historical Society that opened April 11, seems ominously well timed.
“You can’t accept this as a fringe area,” said Kenneth Rendell, the founder and director of The Museum of World War II in Boston, who curated the exhibit, of hate speech. “We’re all listening to hate stuff these days. If we start accepting this kind of stuff, people who are very evil will end up getting involved and that’s usually dangerous.”
Rendell, who is 72, grew up during World War II in a tight-knit Irish Catholic neighborhood in Boston. His family lived in a 3-Decker home set eight feet apart from the two houses on either side. He attended a Catholic school as a boy and said the nuns were anti-Semitic. He often heard the phrase “Jews killed Jesus” while studying there.
Rendell became fascinated with World War II, and not just the anti-Semitic or Holocaust portion of it, but the ideas of socialism associated with those years. He started collecting historical objects from flea markets in Germany, Russia and the United States fifty years ago after he traded his coin collection for a friend’s Presidential letters. He founded The World War II Museum in Boston in 1999 as a private collection. Over the years, Rendell appraised works, like the Random House archives and Franklin D. Roosevelt papers. He represented the IRS in an appraisal to set market values for historical letters. Bill Gates bought printed works from him. Three years ago, he opened up the museum to the public.
The exhibit showcases propaganda only in the years leading up to the war, because as Rendell says, “Anti-Semitism stopped when the Holocaust started,” meaning the rhetoric and propaganda spurred the war and then changed when Germany shut its doors in 1939.
The propaganda made its way to the Historical Society after Rendell had a conversation with Roger Hertog, the former CEO of Sanford Bernstein, an investment-management firm, who was a part owner of The New Republic, and a board member of several of the arts in the city, including the society. The two pitched the idea to Louise Mirrer, the president and CEO of The Historical Society.
“I instantly recognized an opportunity to talk about something that’s on people’s minds,” said Mirrer. “We do hope that people will think about the present moment after they see this exhibit.”
On the second floor, 61 objects like pamphlets, signs, newspapers, books, and postcards are displayed in a glass case wrapping around a small, rectangular room painted black.
The exhibition begins with some of Hitler’s handwritten remarks from 1919 and an inscribed copy of “Mein Kampf,” from 1925, but these papers don’t have the same shock-factor as later objects. And that’s the point. It was a slow build-up to the day Jews were forced to wear signs asking Aryans to beat them and spit on them because, as the sign explains, “I deserve it.”
According to the exhibit, during the early 20s, many Jews living in Germany were well-to-do doctors, lawyers and intellectuals. It was then that Hitler began his rise to power, but anti-Semitism existed decades before, as illustrated in a 1909 black-and-white postcard of Bahnofhotel Kolnerhot and a sign saying “Jewish visitors prohibited.” Rendell explained Jews accepted this more subtle anti-Semitism. It was seen as a way of life, not something to become alarmed over.
Hitler however tapped into the consciousness of the country’s fears over rising inflation and capitalized on the already existing prejudice against Jews, according to Rendell. Bank notes were issued in the 1930s featuring caricatures of stooped Jews with long beards, frowns, and hooked noses that created anxiety and panic in the Germans about the economic status held by Jews, fearing they were entering their country poor and quickly becoming rich.
It isn’t until later in the exhibit, and in history, that the propaganda becomes even more sinister. The Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer printed the slogan “The Jews are our misfortune” along with frightening illustrations of Jews, one of whom has blackened, evil eyes and sneers down at a globe, as if he’s plotting to take over the world.
Some of the objects possess an alluring beauty of craft however. A children’s book about how a poisonous mushroom might look harmless at first, much like a Jew, is illustrated with an enchanting scene of a blond milkmaid and an Aryan boy together in the forest. A cane and several ashtrays in the shape of Jewish caricatures have smooth woodworking and detailed carvings.
“The Nazis were very good at using design,” said Rendell, adding that Hugo Boss designed their uniforms. “THE Hugo Boss,” he said. “It’s really shocking.”
The exhibit ends with the passports of a family who made it out of Germany just before the war starts, to add a personal touch to the show.
Rendell recounted a recent local news story about a basketball game between two high schools, Newton North, predominantly Jewish, and Catholic Memorial. Newton students began chanting, “Where are the girls?” an allusion to the all-boys student body. Catholic responded, “You killed Jesus!” It was an echo from his own days as a Catholic student.
“That’s pretty serious because where does it come from? This isn’t one student pissed off. This is a whole school,” he said. “These kids did not spontaneously come up with that.”
When asked whether the exhibit could speak to today’s election and what’s being said in political rhetoric, he responded, “Just the fact that you asked the question is your answer.”
Britta Lokting is the Forward’s culture fellow.