By Treva Walsh, Collection Project Manager
In the wake of the far-right attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, it has become impossible to deny the importance of antifascist journalism flourishing among today’s young Jewish activists. Often working in decentralized networks, these journalists create false online identities in order to infiltrate antisemitic, racist, xenophobic, queer-phobic and misogynist groups on social media platforms like Telegram, Signal, Facebook, and Parler. They document and expose the perpetrators in order to hold them accountable for heinous actions such as the recent tying of a Confederate flag to the Museum’s front door.
Today’s Jewish antifascist journalists are the inheritors of a long tradition of American Jews who risked their lives to monitor and expose the violent intentions of white supremacists in the United States.
One of these anti-Nazi spies was Florence Mendheim (1899 – 1984), who was the daughter of German Jewish immigrants and a librarian at the New York Public Library. Starting in 1933, Mendheim created the false identity Gertrude Mueller in order to infiltrate the pro-Nazi German American Bund – then called Friends of the New Germany. This organization was explicitly affiliated with and supported by the German Nazi party. Vehemently antisemitic and anti-Black, the German American Bund was growing precipitously as German American immigrants sought to assimilate into whiteness in a political environment wracked by the economic insecurity of the Great Depression.
For years, Mendheim conducted espionage on New York City’s American Nazi community and related organizations, meticulously collecting their antisemitic and racist propaganda. She was part of a scantly documented community of courageous young Jews who reported clandestinely to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
To learn more about Florence Mendheim, be sure to watch the Museum’s program The New York Librarian Who Spied on American Nazis, a discussion about the history of Jewish opposition to American Nazism in the 1930s.
The collections of Florence Mendheim are held at the Leo Baeck Institute and the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The objects in the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection were gifts of Channa and Shragai Cohen and the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
Explore the slideshow below to see Florence Mendheim’s membership card from the Friends of the New Germany, as well as coded correspondence with Rabbi Cohen and fellow undercover operatives.