NEW YORK — In 1938 Helga Fränkel carefully filled out a detailed questionnaire, requesting permission to marry the father of her children. Her request was denied: She was Jewish and he was not, and in Nazi Germany that violated the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, which forbade marriages and extramarital relations between Jews and non-Jews.
Today that questionnaire sits under glass, one of 50 objects on display in “Anti-Semitism 1919-1939,” an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. But more than history is on display in this narrow gallery — the exhibit serves as a reminder about what happens when authorities tap into reservoirs of hatred, bigotry and fear.
“When we decided to do this exhibit anti-Semitism was once again on the rise in Europe; but it was not yet so apparent that anti-Semitism was again on the rise in the US. It is important to see how hate can be transmitted, and how present and dangerous it is today,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society.
For those who see a link between the objects on display and continued increase in anti-Semitism here in the US and abroad means the exhibit is fulfilling its mission, Mirrer said.
Whether it’s been an increase in anti-Semitic vitriol and threats directed toward Jewish journalists in the US covering GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, anti-Semitic graffiti found on university campuses, or the violence and vandalism targeting Jewish communities in Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise.
It was a quiet morning in the gallery when this reporter visited, but a look at the guestbook perched on a stand outside showed how the exhibit has resonated with visitors.
“Difficult and upsetting to view — and to think it’s not over yet! The chosen people have been chosen to suffer,” wrote “B, NYC” in the guestbook perched on a stand outside the exhibit.
Another visitor from California wrote, “The echoes of history ring clear today — new instruments, same mentality.”
“It makes me sad that history is repeating itself,” remarked one woman from Puerto Rico.
On view through July 31, the exhibit traces the gradual and methodical indoctrination of German citizens into active hatred of Jews through words, images and artifacts on loan from The Museum of WWII Boston.
Mirrer said the rise of Nazism in Germany must be understood across borders to fight anti-Semitism today. Together with Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit educational initiative that teaches the Holocaust, the historical society developed course work related to the exhibit. More than 200,000 New York City public school students will also see the show.
“I grew up with a lot of kids whose parents and grandparents had been in camps. At the swimming pool you would see people who had numbers burned into their forearms,” Mirrer said of her childhood in New York City. “It’s important students understand how easy it is to normalize things that should be seen as outrageous. We have an obligation here to show young people the consequences of what happens when this behavior goes unchecked.”
Included in the exhibit are examples of anti-Semitic books and signs, announcements of mass meetings that excluded Jews, the original outline of a 1939 speech Adolf Hitler delivered to the Reichstag about the “Jewish Question,” and a printing of the Nuremberg Laws that denied Jews basic rights and laid the foundation for the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism existed long before Hitler rose to power and the exhibit makes a point of examining how the 1919 Treaty of Versailles exacerbated existing prejudices. Politicians and citizens alike blamed “the Jews” for Germany’s demilitarization, reparations payments to the Allied Powers and its economic downfall.
Demonstrating this is Hitler’s 1920 annotated copy of the Treaty of Versailles. It shows just how early he mapped out his plan to eradicate Jews from Germany and Europe.
Just a few cases away, a pair of caricatures “Einst und Jetzt,” or “Then and Now” illustrates the fear many Germans had that Jews came into the country as impoverished and displaced immigrants only to live off the hard work of the Aryans.
One drawing shows a ragged, downtrodden man with a bag slung over his shoulder. The other shows a lounging, plump man happily smoking a pipe.
Under another case two colored panels from a book “Never Trust a Fox on the Green Heath and Never Trust a Jew by His Oath” show how German children were indoctrinated with the ideas of racial purity. Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Stürmer, published the book, which was authored by the then 21-year-old Elvira Bauer.
For Mirrer, this last item was one of the most disturbing.
“That a culture felt it necessary to indoctrinate children,” she said, “to see living proof of a very deliberate inculcation of anti-Semitism in the young is so telling.”