How much power can an object have? Kenneth Rendell, a collector of World War II memorabilia and the founder of the Museum of World War II in Natick, Massachusetts, knows how intensely people can react to artifacts of the Nazi regime. In fact, one particular type of Nazi artifact—anti-Semitic propaganda from the years leading up to the Holocaust—was considered so dangerous that most of it was intentionally destroyed by German citizens shortly after the Allied victory. Though done for understandable reasons—shame, or a wish to repudiate and even erase Nazi crimes against humanity—this destruction has made the historical record of this dark time in history very difficult to piece back together and to learn from.
Over the course of decades, Rendell has painstakingly combed flea markets in the United States and Europe in search of surviving artifacts that testify to the insidious growth of anti-Semitism in Germany between the World Wars. These exceedingly rare items, which include newspapers, metal and wooden signs, pamphlets, and books, tell a story that Rendell believes is absolutely crucial but often overlooked: how, exactly, anti-Semitism went from a fringe belief in post-World War I Germany to being the driving force behind one of history's greatest tragedies.
Starting on Tuesday, April 12, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to see this story told through 61 objects collected by Rendell at an exhibition titled Anti-Semitism 1919-1939 at the New-York Historical Society. The stories told by the objects are crucial for understanding Nazism because, rather than focusing on the horror of the Holocaust (something done well by Holocaust memorial museums around the world), they spotlight the hundreds of thousands of individual decisions that made the Holocaust possible in the first place.
Easiest to blame are the people who dreamed up anti-Semitic propaganda, including Hitler, whose handwritten notes open and conclude the exhibit. On another level are the anonymous Germans who produced and distributed it as part of their jobs, such as the craftsman who carved an ornate wooden sign on display warning Aryans not to conduct business with Jewish people. The carver may have seen the racist propaganda simply as a much-needed paycheck, but he nevertheless contributed to the machinery of racism. And on another level still are the bystanders—the people who recognized anti-Semitism as something wrong but who did nothing to stop the movement in its early stages.
At a media preview for the exhibition, the New-York Historical Society's President and CEO Louise Mirrer emphasized the unique value of showing these objects in New York City. European anti-Semitism, she explained, is in fact a crucial aspect of New York City history—and one that the 200,000 New York City schoolchildren who visit the New-York Historical Society each year don't often have an opportunity to engage with. Among the many Europeans Jews who fled to the United States were scientists, artists, and scholars—people who helped usher the city, and the US as a whole, into modernity.
It's impossible not to draw connections between the German artifacts and other expressions of racial segregation both past and present. The several enameled signs forbidding Jews from entering certain stores and public spaces are shockingly reminiscent of signs from the Jim Crow-era America United States. Though historians have written much about the connections between American racial segregation and the Nazi agenda, the scarcity of surviving German signage means that it's rare to have the opportunity to come face to face with such a clear point of comparison.
While none of the images on display are explicitly violent, children and adults alike will be unsettled by the exhibition—and that's a good thing. In the American educational system and in Holocaust museums, our exposure to Nazi anti-Semitism generally focuses on its ultimate outcome, the Holocaust. Upon entering the United States Holocaust Museum, for example, visitors are shown a video of Hitler's January 30, 1939 Reichstag speech, in which he made his first call for the annihilation of the Jewish race. Anti-Semitism 1919-1939, however, ends with Hitler's handwritten notes for that same speech.
The message is clear, and worth taking to heart: the worst tragedies of history don't come out of nowhere, but are the result of long—and, in their early stages, preventable—processes.
Anti-Semitism 1919-1939 opens at the New-York Historical Society on April 12, and will run through July 31, 2016. The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West.
Featured image: Unknown artist, Mander s’ischt Zeit! (It’s Time Folks!), 1938. Postcard. The Museum of World War II, Boston. An earlier version of this article referred to the exhibition by the name of its companion publication, “The Power of Anti-Semitism; The March to the Holocaust, 1919-1939”; the exhibition itself is titled Anti-Semitism 1919-1939.