With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

A Look Back at the Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the 1930s

There is a rarely seen, grainy black and white film clip of Adolph Hitler walking from his position at the head of a Nazi parade to a group of people at the new exhibit Anti-Semitism 1919 – 1939 at the New-York Historical Society. In it, Der Fuehrer looks very short, his hair is a bit disheveled and his step is not bold at all, but a bit faulty. How did this little creep nearly destroy the world?

Part of that answer is within the exhibit, with 50 artifacts on loan from the Museum of World War II in Boston. The exhibit of the era between the two great wars is an attempt to show how Hitler and his Gestapo thugs suppressed and then eliminated six million Jews from Germany and nearby countries and why the German public went along with it. It was ghastly back then and just as horrible to view now. The theme of the exhibit is that from 1933 to 1941 Nazis built up a case against the Jews to a point where all of the German people hated them and then the Hitler government exterminated them.

The most interesting aspect of the exhibit, that opened last month and will continue through July 31 at the New-York Historical Society (Central Park West and W. 77th Street), is the way that it explains the anti-Semitism in Germany decades prior to the Nazi takeover. Hitler and his henchmen had willing and longtime help from the German people as they went about their persecution of the Jews.

Germany was an economic mess after World War I. The financial chaos worsened when the Allied powers insisted that the German nation pay ridiculously high financial reparations as punishment for its role in the war. As the Nazis rose to political prominence, they gained power from the people by continually blaming the economic crisis on the Jews (charged with making millions while the German people suffered) and the Russian Bolsheviks (who got blamed for just about everything). The Nazi oppression of the Jews worked because many Germans hated them anyway and had for generations. As an example, the exhibit has a 1909 sign that forbids Jews to dine at a particular restaurant. That is nearly thirty years before the Nazi takeover. Hitler just stoked the fire that was already there.

The exhibit chronicles all of the despicable things done to the Jews and how they were eliminated from the lifeblood of their own country. There are newspapers and printed edicts that forbid Jews to at first use park benches and then banned them from the parks altogether.

As you walk into the exhibit, you see a number of newsreels and photos on a video screen. There are numerous Nazi parades, outdoor ceremonies and photos of Hitler. You see a man paint the word “Jew” on a store front window. A Jew is seen holding a huge sign that says “I will never complain to the police again.” Another scene shows Hitler at a mass outdoor rally, howling away at the top of his lungs.

In the exhibit, Hitler is quoted as stating at a 1939 Nazi rally, “Europe will not have peace until the Jewish question is disposed of.” Later in the exhibit, there are copies of the Nuremberg Laws, that significantly limited Jewish life in Germany. They were not allowed to vote, eat in restaurants, walk down sidewalks or purchase property. Jews were not allowed to marry non-Jews. They were not permitted to attend any of the large political rallies.

There is a broadside that reads: “No Jew can be a member of the German nation.” Newspapers referred to them as “Jewish beasts” in print. One large paper, Der Sturmer, printed the slogan “The Jews are our misfortune” at the bottom of each of its pages. Numerous papers made fun of the Jews in cartoons. The SS newspaper routinely blamed them for inflation and other economic crisis. The German people never criticized this. In fact, anti-Jew art shows and exhibits were attended by huge German crowds.

There was a book published called Never Trust a Jew, a children’s book. In The Jew as Destroyer of the Race, published in 1934, Aryan women were told not to associate with Jews. In it was the line “Here is the Jew, as anyone can see, the biggest scoundrel in the entire country.” In the anti-Jew book Poisonous Mushroom it was written that “the Jew is a swindler.” One anti-Jewish art show that toured Berlin and Vienna attracted 5,000 visitors per day.

Hatred of the Jews was everywhere. There were hideous anti-Jew ashtrays sold throughout the country. Joseph Goebbels published numerous anti-Jew books. All Jews were required to provide family lineage charts that went back three generations to prove who they were. They had to carry papers with them. Later, each had to wear a star on his coat to show that he/she was a Jew. The Jews were eventually sent to concentration camps where millions were murdered.

The New York Historical Society sees exhibitions such as this as part of their role in presenting history.

“Anti-Semitism is among the most harrowing topics of 20th century history,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President of the New-York Historical Society. “While it is painful to see artifacts from a culture of hatred, understanding how such a horrifying moment in history developed is fundamental to helping us better grasp current events. The moral questions raised by the rise of Nazism in Germany transcend geographical and temporary boundaries, and it is the responsibility of institutions like ours to educate and inspire contemporary audiences to reflect on the roles and responsibilities of individuals, organizations and nations when confronted with injustice. ”

It is a good exhibit, but it has several problems. First, it is housed in a tiny, very dark rectangular room and you have to really search for the exhibit room (it is on the second floor at the top of the staircase) as you walk through the building. The exhibit needs more artifacts and they must be available somewhere. All of those anti-Jewish posters from the walls of German cities? Where are they? Second, all of the pieces, and even the video screens, are too small. The exhibit cries out for a half dozen or so large artifacts, or at least blown up photographs, to catch the eye of a visitor to the hall. In every single one of the exhibits I have reviewed there, the NYHS has done just that with large pieces and they made the exhibits successful. The exhibit curator underplays the acts of persecution the Nazis. That story is told in small hard to read descriptive cards under the artifacts or broadsides. Coincidentally, a day after I saw the exhibit I watched the film The Pianist on television again and the persecution of the Jews is shown in all of its heavy-handed horror in just a few, small, but elegant, scenes. The Historical Society needs to do more in the way the movie did.

Despite these drawbacks, you do learn much from the exhibit. The historical society not only paints a grim portrait of the Nazis, but includes many aspects of their persecution that are not generally known to the public.

The exhibit is open through July 31.