There is zero evidence that Florence Mendheim was the inspiration for Batgirl. But the real-life Jewish woman from the Bronx and the fictional daughter of Gotham City’s Commissioner Gordon were both librarians who led secret double lives fighting bad guys.
In Mendheim’s case, the villains were German-American Nazi sympathizers, who met in taverns and beer gardens throughout New York City in the mid-1930s. The daughter of a German-Jewish family that still had close contact with relatives back in Berlin, Mendheim would end her day’s work at the New York Public Library branch in Washington Heights and go spy on meetings of the Friends of New Germany, later the German-American Bund.
Pretending to be a Nazi-sympathizer herself and working under various aliases, she’d gather names, take notes and collect pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic material for the American Jewish Congress.
Boxes of that material now sit at the New York branch of The Leo Baeck Institute, the research library and archive focused on the history of German-speaking Jews.
“I don’t know whether she was recruited or volunteered, but it was clear from what was happening in Germany and to her relatives – and just being Jewish – she really was dedicated to stopping the Nazi threat in this country,” said Michael Simonson, head of Public Outreach and archivist at the Leo Baeck Institute.
On Tuesday, Simonson will join a virtual panel about Mendheim , co-presented by the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Leo Baeck Institute and the Brooklyn Public Library. His fellow panelists will include Marshall Curry, director of “A Night at the Garden,” a short film about a 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, and Daniel Greene, president and librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago and curator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit.
Although planned well before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the panel will focus on another era in which private citizens and interest groups were ahead of law enforcement in grasping the threat from right-wing domestic extremists.