Collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gift of Yehuda Nir in memory of his father, Samuel Grunfeld
Collectors are motivated by a wide range of interests and passions. Art collectors presumably love the art (in addition to, in some cases, the investment potential) of the pieces they purchase, while baseball card collectors often cherish their memories of certain teams and players (financial considerations may come into play here, too). Some collecting, on the other hand, has a decided “ick” value, particularly the market for artwork, autographs, clothing, hair samples, and other items from Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and other infamous serial killers. Perhaps a handwritten letter from the 2015 Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof, will increase in price over time, but few investment counselors would recommend such a purchase for one’s portfolio.
Perhaps another rationale for building a collection is the idea that other people will learn from it. Gerald Platt, a New York City real estate developer, started buying antique walking sticks after visiting a store in the Hungarian city of Budapest and finding one whose grip was molded to look like the stereotype of a Jewish head—long nose, slanted forehead, big lips and ears, with a yarmulke and payos. The store owner referred to these images as caricatures, but according to Platt the seller “knew they were antisemitic.” They represented a casual, rather than a frontal, attack on Jews, criticizing their supposed looks rather than their beliefs, “but there is a message in these walking sticks, and I wanted to take them out of circulation. I was concerned that someone else would buy them and admire them. I want people to look at the horrors of antisemitism.”
Eventually, Platt hopes to donate the walking sticks and other objects with antisemitic images he has collected (he has several ashtrays, for instance) to a museum, but for now they are kept in his home. “I don’t show these to everybody,” he said. “I only show them to people who recognize the ill intent of these sticks.”
The trade in such objects, which are commonly referred to as “antisemitica,” is both widespread and profitable, taking place at auction houses, shops that sell Judaica, online sellers and, as Platt discovered in Budapest, antique shops. New York’s Swann Galleries, an auction house that specializes in prints, posters, and photographs, frequently has posters in its sales that have antisemitic imagery. “Personally, I don’t like to handle it,” said Swann’s marketing officer, Alexandra Nelson, who added that “Swann is Jewish-owned.” LiveAuctioneers, an online platform through which dealers and other auction houses sell objects of all sorts, has a “strict policy regarding what can’t be sold on the site,” according to a spokesperson, which includes “anything coming from hate groups or that glorifies atrocities.” Still, antisemitic images on posters and books appear on the site, and LiveAuctioneers has little ability to police the items up for sale.
Jonathan Greenstein, owner of an auction house of antique and artisan Judaica in Cedarhurst, New York, who handles objects such as ashtrays and walking sticks with Jewish stereotypes painted or carved in them, noted that neo-Nazis and skinheads are not his audience of consignors or buyers. “They are Jewish people who see antisemitica as part of their history.” Why would anyone want to spend money on objects that insult who you are? “Collecting is a very complicated issue,” said Meron Eren, founder and chief executive officer of Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem, which has “antisemitica in every one of our auctions.”
One large-scale collector of objects with antisemitic imagery is Simon Cohen, a retired London doctor. He has been collecting antisemitica since the late 1990s, much of it from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and has amassed approximately 2,000 items at the cost of “a few hundred thousand dollars,” although he really doesn’t know how much he has spent. There are children’s books and board games, poster and postcard images of Jews as rats, spiders, and goats, images of hook-nosed Jews hugging piles of gold coins or with blood on their hands, denunciations of Jews in French, German, and even U.S. publications. “I have a matchbook whose cover shows a European hotel and on it are printed the words ‘Selective Clientele,’ meaning no Jews allowed.” He has bought these individual items through European auction houses and Jewish dealers of Judaica. Until recently, when he donated the bulk of his collection to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, he kept this stuff all around his house, on tabletops and counters, visible for any and all to see. When I first spoke with him over the telephone about his collection several years ago, I could hear his wife yelling “Get rid of it! Get rid of it!” in the background.
Cohen acknowledges that his children wanted nothing to do with his collection. Still, he believed that “it was important to get these things into a museum that could educate people about the dreadful racist effect of antisemitism and what it leads to.”
One of the largest and best-known collections of antisemitica was created by entrepreneur and translator Arthur Langerman. The collection, which became the property of the Arthur Langerman Foundation, consists of over 10,000 mostly flat pieces (illustrated books, leaflets, newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, postcards, posters, and paintings), and was assembled over a period of 60 years. In 2017, Langerman donated the materials to the Technical University in Berlin, Germany, a public research institution which turned over an entire building to house the Arthur Langerman Foundation collection, which displays these objects and makes them available to Holocaust researchers.
Like Simon Cohen, Langerman had kept his vast collection in his home until he found a venue to which he could donate it. However, unlike Cohen, he did not place items around his house. Instead, he hid it in flat files in what he called some “special rooms.” He stated that “I wouldn’t put an antisemitic painting on the wall. It’s too disgusting,” adding that he “didn’t like to show my collection to my family. I kept it secret.” Keeping 10,000 of anything secret from one’s spouse would seem impossible, but as Langerman explained, “my ex-wife was busy as an architect and didn’t spend enough time at home to see what I was collecting.”
Langerman referred to his collecting as a “kind of cure for my trauma,” that trauma being the Holocaust. He was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1942. When he was only 1 1/2, his parents were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, while he was taken in by a Jewish orphanage in the city of Etterbeek. His father died in early 1945 in a satellite of the Flossenbürg concentration camp, and as many as 18 other close relatives were murdered by the Nazis. His mother survived the camps and retrieved him from the orphanage. “My mother never spoke about her experiences in the concentration camps,” he recalled, “and I didn’t know much of anything about what had happened during this period.”
It was the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the planned Final Solution, who was captured in Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity, “that opened my eyes,” Langerman remembered. “I started asking more questions: What happened? How could this have happened?”
Langerman liked to collect things—stamps, books, Murano glass, principally—but shifted his focus to antisemitic images and objects, until “collecting these things became an obsession.” By his 70s, the what-to-do-with-it question started to loom large. Luckily, he said, “I met a young guy who worked in a Jewish institution in Berlin that was linked with a university”—the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technische Universität Berlin. “I told him, if you link my name to a building or museum, I will give you my entire collection.”
The process of building his collection and, especially, donating it to a nonprofit institution has made him a zealot on behalf of its educational value. “The best way to fight antisemitism is to show this material,” Langerman said. “They need to know that the Holocaust was not an invention.”
The Center for Research on Antisemitism was founded in the 1980s to study the Holocaust and antisemitism. Uffa Jensen, deputy director of the center, claims that its collection offers opportunities to study “antisemitism in its various forms and functions,” adding that “the primary audience for such an endeavor is not Jewish, but non-Jewish, because Jews have seen this material all too often and don’t need to be educated about its meaning and use.”
The philosopher Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Eichmann for The New Yorker and coined the expression “the banality of evil” to describe how murder and wickedness could become an ordinary aspect of daily life, in her words a mindless “inability … to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Through his study of Langerman’s and other antisemitica collections, Jensen came to a similar conclusion. “A major insight one can get from studying the collection is that anti-Jewish items were part of everyday life of non-Jews long before Nazism and in many European countries,” he told me. “I do not want to belittle the nature of all the objects, but I would like to point out that we have a much bigger historical problem at hand. People simply put some of these items in their living room or send them to their friends by mail.”
The term “antisemitica” is a broad term, applied to a wide host of objects, and most of it denigrates Jews in a visual way or in words. However, it also is used to describe photographs that are reportorial or documenting cruelty. The latter category of antisemitica is particularly popular with Jewish museums. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, for example, displays photographs of a vandalized synagogue in that city and a poster of a former Jewish mayor that was defaced with a swastika. The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia includes in its antisemitica collection a chair that was thrown at a gunman who entered and took hostages at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in 2022.
It is antisemitica’s everydayness that may be its most troubling aspect, particularly for the Jewish institutions that house collections of it. “There is an ongoing conversation that is taking place” concerning how and even whether or not to display it among members of the Council of American Jewish Museums, said Josh Perelman, chief curator at the Weitzman Museum. “For us, antisemitism is part of the Jewish experience in America,” so displaying objects that show Jews in a derogatory light is part of the museum’s mission. Judy Margles, director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, on the other hand, doesn’t “ever want to exhibit it. We don’t want to inspire copycats. We don’t want to help create a cult around these objects, because creeps tend to fetishize them.”
She goes further, frequently recommending to people who contact the museum offering to donate objects in this category that they should destroy them. “I don’t want to inflict these images on my visitors, because they are so distressing.”
New York City’s Jewish Museum has a collection of antisemitica that ranges broadly from figurines from the 18th through the early 20th centuries to a collection of anti-Dreyfusard material which includes some 400 posters and newspapers. Some of those latter pieces were included in the museum’s 1987 exhibition “The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth & Justice,” although the institution otherwise takes what its director, Claudia Gould, called a careful approach in displaying antisemitica. “These materials are shown as a means of evidence, to illustrate through the tangible effects of material culture the existence of antisemitism throughout time,” she said.
Such caution inflects every museum’s display of antisemitic materials. “We often feel that an image is more offensive than a text, quite apart from the actual content of either one,” Jensen said. “Working with hatred and stereotypes is indeed a very delicate issue in general. If you teach people about them, you are always also triggering these stereotypes in those who listen to you. The goal is, of course, to teach people how to deconstruct antisemitism, but we can certainly fail to achieve this goal.”
He noted that at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, which is Europe’s largest museum of its kind, has similar worries, choosing not to use items from its own antisemitica collection in its exhibitions. The fears are justified, since cruel imagery may retraumatize those who already have suffered, while those with existing antisemitic tendencies may find derogatory images of Jews exciting. Visitors to Jewish museums are apt to be a self-selecting group that know of discrimination past and present and are unlikely to be turned on by drawings of greedy Jewish bankers. For that reason, Jewish museums may not be the most suitable sites for displays of antisemitica. Jensen stated that “I am working to educate non-Jewish audiences who can and do, in fact, harbor antisemitic sentiments and ideas. I believe that we are in dire need to educate the general public about antisemitism in Europe and in the U.S.”
There is a lot in human history that some people may want to “cancel,” other people may draw the wrong lessons from, and still others may see as relics of their own family histories, such as images of the enslavement and subsequent ill-treatment of African Americans, the history of Native Americans, the subjugation of women, and the negative caricatures and stereotyping of ethnic and religious minorities. In many parts of the American South, a call to remove Confederate flags and statues has grown in intensity, countered by others who view these emblems as part of their cultural heritage rather than an endorsement of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Just as Jews are the most prominent collectors of antisemitica, the most notable buyers of racist artifacts and caricatures of African Americans from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are modern-day African American collectors.
Meron Eren of the Kedem Auction House stated that it is wrong to destroy historical material simply because we don’t like the history, which is perhaps a self-serving statement from an auctioneer. Yet it is hard to argue that everything deserves to be saved, let alone displayed in museums. Does taking antisemitica off the market, and only making it available to researchers, lessen the appeal of antisemitism, and improve the standing of Jews—or does it imbue disgusting objects with the power of the forbidden? Or, to take the opposite stance, as Simon Cohen asked, “does exhibiting it do any good? That’s a debatable question.”
Daniel Grant is a former faculty member of Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and the author of The Business of Being an Artist, among other works.