Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Over Here and Over There: WWII and NYC




 I recently made it uptown to see the New-YorkHistorical Society’s wonderful WWII & NYC exhibition. It was a little like going to visit your kids in college, as many of our own artifacts are on loan to the exhibition. I was proud to see the stories and personal artifacts of librarian-turned-spy Florence Mendheim, army doctor Dr. Philip Freiman who served POWS in Italy, and Army Corps Staff Sergeant Ralph Feuerstein proudly displayed, along with various other materials from our archives.

The exhibit itself is very well done. It shows how when World War II broke out in 1939, New York was a heavily immigrant city, whose people had real stakes in the war and held a wide range of opinions about whether to intervene in the worldwide conflict. It explores how the Pearl Harbor attack brought the county into the war and how New York became an important port which saw troops and refugees and contributed greatly to the war effort. 

While in other less subtle hands, the exhibit could have been painted in just one patriotic color, The New-York Historical Society is not afraid to delve into difficult topics such as the racism that still prevailed when African Americans and Japanese Americans were trying to serve their country. 

As someone who works at a museum that tells many stories about World War II, it takes a lot to surprise me, but I had never heard that museums themselves helped with the war effort, including the New-York Historical Society which opened its doors to the Red Cross, the MoMA, which hosted a poster art competition in support of the war, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had curators from the armory division help design new helmets for the troops based on classic designs. Art from the time period by Jacob Lawrence, Isamu Noguchi, and other talented artists, round out this not-to-be-missed exhibition. 

Image: Florence Mendheim, New York City, 1921  Gift of Channa and Shragai Cohen.

Mendheim was a Jewish spy reporting to Rabbi J.X. Cohen of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and subsequently, the FBI. Ms. Mendheim was an American Jew of German-Jewish descent, who grew up on the Upper West Side.  Dedicated to fighting Nazism, she risked being exposed, by going undercover and reporting on the activities and plans of the Friends of the New Germany.

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