The NYPL Librarian Who Spied on the Nazis

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Portrait of Florence Mendheim, from the Leo Baeck Institution

Florence Mendheim was a Jewish librarian for the New York Public Library, and in 1933 she went undercover to spy on Nazi-associated groups in the United States. Her collection, featuring a large amount of antisemitic propaganda, is held by the Leo Baeck Institute, and is an invaluable window into the spread of fascist propaganda in America leading up to World War II.

Florence, the daughter of German Jewish immigrants, was born in Illinois in 1899, but raised in New York where she spent the rest of her life. It’s unknown why exactly she decided to surveil these Nazi groups, but some of the material collected is quite rare, and it wouldn’t have been saved without Florence’s undercover work.

Sometime around 1933, she began surveilling the Nazi-associated group “Friends of the New Germany.” She reported her activities to Rabbi Jacob Xenab Cohen, who was connected with both the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and the American Jewish Congress, but the full extent of this project is not entirely clear. In the course of this undertaking, Florence used at least three pseudonyms: KQX (for correspondence with the Rabbi), Gertrude Mueller (for the Nazis), and Anna Hitler (in order to contact potential family members of Adolf Hitler living in the United States).

The saved collection of propaganda shows a variety of rhetoric, from outright and blatant antisemitism and racism to dog-whistles with coded implications, such as the vilification of “communism” and showing nationalist pride to Germany.

Florence also saved material and ephemera from organizations in the 1930s, Jewish and non-Jewish, who sought to fight Nazi influence in America, as well as from Civil Rights, Equality, and Tolerance Movements of the 1930s and 40s.

The Leo Baeck Institute also preserved her more personal materials, which are a fascinating look into Jewish life and American life in this era. Some of the collection even documents her life as a librarian, with staff newsletters, mailings, periodicals, and more from the New York Public Library. There’s also an amazing assortment of ephemera and periodicals from different religions, including atheism, mysticism, and the occult. These might have been saved because they were of personal interest to Florence, or she might have thought they were specifically targeting Jewish audiences.

One could spend hours combing through this priceless and fascinating collection of antisemitic propaganda, finding themselves equally shocked at how openly hateful some of it is and shocked by how subtle some of the other materials are, showing how pervasive and dangerous the spread of fascist ideology truly is. Florence Mendheim’s story is an important and evergreen one. Long before the full understanding of the Nazi’s plan for European Jews was well-known in America, she recognized the signs of what was coming, and felt it was her duty to fight back. She also knew the value in preserving these materials to help future generations recognize, understand, and fight, too.

  •  Gemma Solomons, Digital Marketing Manager

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